VISITORS AND passersby to the capital’s Lodhi Colony these days are spellbound by the riot of colours adorning the walls. Turning the dull and faded spaces into lively works of art are some beautiful murals by national and international artists. Take, for instance, Amitabh Kumar’s Dead Dahlias at Block 10, Meharchand Market, Lodhi Colony. The root of the image is a story. In the Mahabharata, when the Pandavas lost the game of dice, they were exiled to Khandavaprastha, the city of ruins. Lord Krishna, who accompanied them, helped them turn it into Indraprastha, the city of gods. But this city, made of magic, is now crumbling apart. “Through this mural, I would like the viewer to see its crumbling pieces,” says 31-year-old Kumar, who is based in Bengaluru. He finished the mural in 10 days in January as part of an ongoing street art festival organised by non-profit organisation St+art India with paints manufacturer Asian Paints.
A similar sight greets you at Lajpat Nagar. On a wall near MCD Dhalao, Captain Gaur Marg, is a mural showing two children, a boy and a girl, sitting near a cart. Uruguay-based artists Colectivo Licuado (Florencia Duran and Camilo Nuñez) and Nicolas Sanchez (who goes by the name AlfAlfa) spent a few weeks in Delhi before painting this mural for St+art India. It is inspired by several elements, characteristics and people they found interesting in the city. In fact, if you look closely, you can spot a small tribute, too, on the painted cart. It’s for the tea vendor who has a stall right next to the wall. With the help of a local sign painter, the artists have written “Yeh gaadi Chhote Lal ki hai (This cart belongs to Chhote Lal)”.
Move over to DLF Emporio mall in Vasant Kunj and you can see artist Lucas Munoz’s artwork Delhi Lung installed there. Made with bamboo sticks, 18 ventilators and muslin cloth, the device will suck the air of the city for a month and blow it through the white muslin cloth. The aim is to make the residents more aware of air pollution. “I thought this was one of the most relevant issues,” says Munoz, who made the installation for the latest edition of Publica, a public arts festival organised by Floodlight Foundation, a non-profit artist mentoring agency.
Public spaces have been artists’ canvas for a while now. However, the concept remains constrained in India and not without incidents of vandalism. So what makes these projects tick for the artists? For Kumar, it helps him connect with the environment. “Working in a gallery is a little unsatisfying because my art doesn’t come back to the world. On the contrary, when I am working in public spaces, the biggest joy is that my artworks become a part of the environment. When we work in a public space, we immerse ourselves in the site, its history, context, geography, the community around it, etc. So what we draw becomes a part of the complex environment. Working in public spaces helps me creatively, lets me become a part of the world again.”
For others like artist Vibhor Sogani, public art is what differentiates a play from a movie, so to speak. “All artists long for reactions. The kind of cross-section of reactions that you get in a public space can never happen in a controlled environment like a museum or a gallery,” says Sogani, the creator of Sprouts, a 40-ft-high stainless steel installation spread over six acres near the AIIMS flyover in Delhi. “That’s the most beautiful part of being in the public space.”
Sprouts, installed in 2008, survived the initial scepticism to see a lot of interest, especially from students of design and architecture, says Sogani.
And, of course, there is the massive reach factor as well. “Initiatives like these give us a lot of exposure and help us reach a wider audience. More people can interact with art and understand the artist’s thought process,” says 33-year-old New Delhi-based artist Anant Mishra, who has put up an installation on loss of freedom, titled Are we human yet? for Publica. Helping these artists unleash their creativity are the increasing number of public art events in the country like St+art India’s street art fest and Publica.
With the objective of transforming dull cityscapes into vibrant spaces of art, St+art India brought on board over 22 artists from India and abroad for its festival, which began in December 2015 and will conclude this month. The first part of the festival, which has the support of the ministry of urban development, saw artists painting on walls in areas like Lodhi Colony, Lajpat Nagar, Defence Colony, etc. For the second part of the festival, which began this month, the artists were asked to paint shipping containers at Inland Container Depot, Tughlakabad, Okhla, for a walk-through exhibition for visitors all this month. Once the festival is over, the containers will remain painted and will be used for their initial purpose of transporting goods.
The idea behind the ongoing month-long Publica, too, is to remove artworks from their traditional setting of museums and galleries and put them in view of broader audiences. For its second edition, Publica invited Indian and international artists—including Gigi Scaria, Anant Mishra, Rajesh Ram, Lucas Munoz, Krishna Murari, among others—to produce works under the curatorial theme ‘Touch’. These artworks have now been spread over many venues in the capital like Indira Gandhi International Airport, Nehru Park, DLF Emporio mall, India Habitat Centre, etc. “From cultural centres and bustling street markets to parks and teeming shopping malls, we have chosen many high-footfall venues,” says Surbhi Modi, founder and chief curator, Publica.
Besides helping the artists reach a wider audience, these initiatives are very important, especially for a country like India, where the common man doesn’t get to experience art much. “There are not too many museums in India and even lesser galleries. Also, people often can’t afford to pay the money to visit a gallery or museum. Initiatives like ours aim to bring art to public spaces for these people. Compared to other countries, India is 20-30 years behind when it comes to street art, but we are slowly catching up,” says Arjun Bahl, festival director and co-founder, St+art India.
“Initiatives like these are important, as only a certain category of people go to galleries and museums in India,” says renowned artist Gigi Scaria, who has made Who directs who?, a 17-ft-high installation, which reimagines a city as a grandfather clock, for Publica this year. “It is, therefore, important to have art at public places, so that there is more awareness about art and artists among common people… to understand how a work of art can also carry messages. To look at a piece of art and understand its meaning is important.”
And things are only going to get bigger and better from here. “We want to get hold of airports, housing complexes, etc, so we can reach out to more people,” says Modi. There is an important gap in the cultural landscape market that needs to be filled.”