A corner of the bridge, a dilapidated wall next to that hipster café, railway and metro stations, deserted government buildings—these unremarkable bits of city architectures are being turned into jaw-dropping works of art at a rapid pace. Cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kochi, Bengaluru, Goa, Coimbatore and Hyderabad are hosting events and festivals where both Indian and international artists are picking up the easel and painting public places in bright hues. What could have been labelled as an act of vandalism in the past has turned into colourful cultural landmarks. Art as an accessible form of expression is found in different forms on the streets every day, contributing to a pan-India city beautification narrative. The pioneers of this ‘public art renaissance’ are individual street artists, nonprofits and art groups who have been working with government bodies and corporates to alter the face of our insipid urban spaces.
In 2014, an organisation called St+art India Foundation put together what was dubbed as the first street art festival of India in Delhi. Its members—Hanif Kureshi, Akshat Nauriyal, Arjun Bahl, Thanish Thomas and Giulia Ambrogi—have now gone ahead to host several such festivals to make art accessible to the public and aid emerging artists. “St+art was born out of a collective exhaustion from gallery spaces in general and the realisation of the immense potential in making art public,” says Nauriyal, adding, “We all got in touch around the time of the ‘Extension Khirkee’ street art festival and our first project came about in Shahpur Jat.” From festivals in cities such as Kolkata, Chandigarh and Coimbatore to creating designated art districts in Mahim (Mumbai), Maqtha (Hyderabad) and Lodhi Colony (Delhi), the St+art team has been pivotal in reimagining public spaces.
The St+art introduced an iconic mural in the capital—a giant image of Gandhi, painted on the the Delhi Police Headquarters building. It was created by German street artist ECB (aka Hendrik Beikirch) and local artist Anpu Varkey. They went on to change the face of Azadpur Mandi in the city with American artist Axel Void painting a kitchen knife, fruit and vegetables illuminated by a white candle and the word Zindagi; Lodhi Colony with a gigantic Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi by artist Lady Aiko; and Connaught Place walls with a collage of voters’ hands and a gargantuan middle finger by artist Daku.
Now the organisation has turned into one of the biggest street art groups that often collaborates with international artists. In 2018, St+art brought Emmanuel Jarus from Canada to compose a work in Mumbai and French artist Chifumi to Kolkata, while this year they’ve collaborated with Fintan Magee of Australia in Panjim and Miles Toland of the US in Mumbai.
Another organisation that has been working in the capital is Delhi Street Art (DSA). Its founder Yogesh Saini after living 20 years in the US started the outfit in a bid to adjust to his life in Delhi. “We started in 2011 and since then there’s been no looking back. From the Hanuman Mandir flyover to Lodhi Gardens to Metro stations, we have been beautifying areas all over the city. We are less about individual artists and more about collective work,” says Saini, who is currently in the process of painting spaces in Prayagraj (Allahabad). DSA has been instrumental in painting murals across Lucknow as well.
Historically, street art always existed in the form of graffiti on walls. While there is no distinction between the two, graffiti has been always associated with vandalism. What was earlier a tool of the oppressed to communicate their stories and mark territories has evolved into art today. India is no stranger to graffiti culture. But the movement taking over our streets now is not just to reclaim public spaces and spread social messages but also to beautify cities. Mumbai, for example, has been using street art to rejig underdeveloped areas of Dharavi (Asia’s biggest slum) and other economically backward sections. Similar to Delhi’s Lodhi Colony, Mahim (east) has emerged as Mumbai’s art district. One of the other active groups to develop street art in Mumbai is Chal Rang De. Founded by Dedeepya Reddy, the NGO has been working in areas such as Khar, Asalpha Village and Sakinaka with Bollywood caricatures and colouring walls. Sumitro Sircar of Chal Rang De says, “We’ve revamped Asalpha village into an outdoor art gallery. ‘Mogambo Na Khush Hua’ was an arty tribute to the officials of Sakinaka Police Station. The Mumbai Police approached us to help break the stereotypes that the police are associated with and we created a mural out of it. Then at the 2018 Mumbai Metro Festival, we painted a 4,000 sq ft wall with 3,000 participants. The wall art is at the DN Nagar Metro Station, Andheri West.”
One of the reasons that street art has had such an impact is the rise of the internet. While elusive English artist Banksy has been making marks globally with his witty art, India is not far behind. Daku, Dizy (real name Kajal Singh), Yantr, Guesswho are among a few known internationally. “India is keeping in line with the world. In fact, the good thing about the street art culture in India is that unlike other countries we have skipped the vandalism part and moved on straight to good art,” explains Saini.
It’s important to note that defacing a public wall or space is still illegal under the West Bengal Act, which began in Kolkata to ban political graffiti. But it is rare these days that street art is created without permission. Permissions are taken from local residents, municipalities and government authorities, before begging work in any area. A lot of the works are in fact commissioned by government and corporate bodies making the process easier for the artists. “In India, it’s always been a combination of both street art and government-commissioned murals. We always ensure that we get permission from the requisite bodies. We have worked with then Chief Minister Sheila Dixit and the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi to create these murals,” says DSA’s Saini. But like any form of expression, street art comes with its fair share of challenges. Sircar says that local residents often object to saffron and green colours, and they have had to repaint areas because of such objections. Saini recounts one of the projects had to be abandoned half-way when authorities suddenly interjected and asked for additional paperwork. The permission was finally revoked and later DSA members found the artwork repainted.
But how does one finance such big projects? Since most of these groups are nonprofits, their funds come from corporate sponsors such as Asian Paints, government bodies such as the Delhi Police Headquarters and municipal corporations in Bengaluru and Mumbai, and cultural institutions such as India Art Fair, Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institute. Individual artists, however, work on their own and use street art simply as an outlet for creativity. One such artist is Bengaluru-based Baadal Nanjundaswamy, who has a day job of a freelance visual artist and moonlights as an art reformer. What sets him apart is his creativity that takes up the cudgels for the people against errant civic authorities.
A couple of years ago, a green anaconda slithering out of a pothole in the middle of the busy Narayana Shastri Road-Siddappa Square Junction in Mysuru, and a giant crocodile cooling its heels in a 12-foot-long pothole on Sulthanpalya Main Road, North Bengaluru, managed to draw attention of the people and the civic authorities. And the Mysuru City Corporation repaired the pothole in no time.
“It is a deep sense of accomplishment, especially when I see how quickly the potholes or other civic issues get noticed and fixed. And it is wonderful to inspire people on how things can also be done; how art or an idea in real time can address issues and it proves that art can bring changes,” says Nanjundaswamy.
An alumnus of Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts, Mysore, and a gold medallist in Bachelor of Fine Arts (Painting) in 2004, he took to the innovative project of 3D street paintings or quirky installations to draw attention to civic issues six years ago. The one that put a spotlight on Nanjundaswamy was the crocodile painting in Bengaluru in 2015. Talking about his journey as a street artist, he says, “I have always communicated my views and responded to the society’s arguments through art. About six years ago, while riding back home late at night after work, I met with a minor accident due to dysfunctional road dividers. It made me think of ideas to get the attention of authorities for a quick-fix solution to civic issues.”
Nanjundaswamy’s most memorable work remains his first one, the crocodile painting in RT Nagar, Bengaluru, and the recent one is the dengue mosquito around a pothole on First Main, Paramahamsa Road in Yadavagiri in the city. There have been several notable works in between too. Like when he painted a dead tree at BOSCH campus at Koramangala into a piece of art or turned a pothole-filled road in Sultanpalya area into a 3D image of football on the day of World Cup Final or the lung installation as a part of World Tobacco Day.
Chennai too has been hit by the street art uprising. Social activists and NGOs have started using wall art to spread awareness in the streets; graffiti largely remain about the expression of the self. Vijay of All for One, a street art group, reveals that the current trend in Tamil Nadu is infusing regionalism in this art form. “Tamil graffiti has really picked up now,” says Vijay and Prasanth, another graffiti artist, agrees. He says, “We have been using Tamil graffiti for the past one year; it brings originality to our work.”
Vijay shares that people assume that anyone with spray can does graffiti, while in reality, there are different sub-cultures in it—stencils, bombing, throw-ups etc. “Lots of people see graffiti as vandalism. I want to create awareness for graffiti as an art form. We should have graffiti battles or festivals to encourage this culture. Currently, there are only around 10 graffiti artists in Chennai. As for me, I take time to think and like to produce clean work. I believe quality is more important than quantity. ” Vijay says he was lucky to learn from artist ShivaOne. “For graffiti, it is important to get that basic style right and then we could explore who we are. I am currently conducting free workshops over the weekends to educate youngsters about the art.”
Vijay does art activism, when he “feels connected with the cause. I showcase only what I live for.” Prasanth on the other hand insists that he doesn’t believe in using graffiti for spreading social messages. He explains, “I have no goal, no aim, we are here just to chill. I love to get up in the morning, get high (creative high) and paint.”
Sachin Samson in Kochi believes that street art always existed in his hometown but with Kochi Biennale, the works started coming to the fore. He created a mural of an old man from the area on the walls of Fort Kochi. “The interesting part is that people actually recognised this man. I wanted to create a connection between the artwork and the people of the area and I thought street murals are the best medium to showcase that emotion to a large audience. Inspired by everyday life, the mural of a local fisherman is my representation of the common man. This piece started out as a simple sketch in my notebook and is just an ode to the locals. It’s part of a series called ‘Humans on walls’ and I plan to add more of these in addition to the ones already present—one at Auroville and two at Fort Kochi,” says Samson. His influences range from renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt to the current crop such as Banksy, David Choe, James Jean and João Ruas.
In Thiruvananthapuram, Utha Maraj has worked with a government initiative called Arteria to give a new face to street art. “Following that, many shops asked me to do artworks. Now, you can see street artworks everywhere.” Inspired by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra, Maraj highlights how street artists are often subjected to stereotypes. “Many think street artists are drug addicts or lowlifes. But that is not true. We spread our ideas, messages, creativity, and love through art.”
But not all artists are inspired by social messages. Kajal Singh creates her work on the lines of hip-hop—big blocky letters in neon colours. “For Indians, since they haven’t seen graffiti, most of the time it’s very interesting and fascinating. But at night, it’s little risky in India sometimes if you’re going somewhere where there is nobody. One of my favourite spaces is Bandra in Mumbai. Here, everybody is now very open to graffiti,” says the artists who divides her time between Berlin and Delhi.
Most artists agree that the street art discourse in our country still has to evolve. It has to reach the art market, establish itself as a genre and interest buyers. But one thing is clear that the revolution will not be televised, but painted!
With inputs from
Meenu Gopalakrishnan, Sara Rachel Santhosh and Shillpi A Singh