Weeks before it was to welcome the students back to classrooms, the MMA Upper Primary School in Alappuzha, Kerala, invited a group of artists to the campus. The teachers had a curious request. “Please do some paintings on the walls of our school,” they told the artists. In the following week, eight artists worked during the day creating murals that would click instantly with the young students.
Back to school on November 1 for the first time after Covid-19 hit the country in March last year, the students had something to cheer about the transformation of the bare walls of their school. Many of them crowded the corridors during intervals on the first day observing the colours and objects newly etched on the white paint. “The school authorities wanted to spruce up the campus to welcome their wards. We painted the walls, the computer lab and a smart classroom,” says artist Helna Merin Joseph, who led the public art initiative.
“We thought we needed to do something special for the children who had been learning virtually while confined to their homes for over one and half years,” says Gigi Varghese, principal of the school founded more than half a century ago. “The children were like birds inside cages during the pandemic. The art was a way to connect them to the school and their subjects,” adds Varghese, who joined the school as a social studies teacher two decades ago. “It was like telling them, ‘Welcome back’.”
Public art like the paintings on the school walls in Alappuzha has helped a paralysed society ease the tension and pressure on the people. Street art practitioners across the country have been busy creating public art to calm the nerves of citizens hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Many murals have come up in cities and towns hardest hit during the health emergency.
Soon after the lockdown and travel restrictions were eased in many states, pandemic street art practitioners have criss-crossed the country forging connections with communities through art. Several public places like gyms and gaming centres invited mural makers to spruce up their properties locked down during the pandemic for welcoming pat-rons back. The pandemic also offered opportunities to individual artists to serve the society by participating in public art. Many artist collectives have come up around the country, especially through initiatives led by art students, to join in the efforts aimed at reducing the impact of the pandemic on society.
For artists, who were themselves hit hard by the health emergency in the face of loss of work and gallery closures, public art offered a set of different possibilities to extend their canvas and engage with the community.
Art as conversation
“Street art provides the much-needed engagement with the people,” says Yogesh Saini, founder of Delhi Street Art, which was launched in 2013 to promote art and creativity in public spaces. When the organisation’s artists and volunteers recently painted portraits of all the members of India’s Tokyo Paralympics team in northwest Delhi’s Keshav Puram, local residents came out to chat and encourage them. “There is a continuous engagement happening with the local community during and after the artworks are made,” adds Saini, a Delhi-based artist and designer.
“We painted the portraits of all the Indian Paralympians who went to Tokyo this year,” says Deepak Saini, a street art practitioner, who was part of the artists’ group that created the artworks on the Delhi Metro pillars in Keshav Puram. “We were making the surroundings look beautiful and the people who live in the area encouraged us,” adds the artist, who graduated from Delhi College of Art eight years ago. “All of them appreciated our work.”
Early this year, Delhi Street Art members were invited by local organisations in cities like Bengaluru and Jaipur to make murals. In Bengaluru’s Siddapura, among the public art works created in February this year were murals themed on gaming on multiple walls of a gaming house.
In Kanota village on the outskirts of Jaipur, street art practitioners worked in a housing colony, painting artworks in its recreational area. In Mapusa, Goa, the murals were painted on the walls of a local gym. Public art also came up during the pandemic in Halol, Gujarat.
“Public art is a conversation with the people,” explains Vadodara-based artist Harisha Chennangod, known for his Hanging Bud painting on Hyderabad University dalit student Rohith Vemula’s controversial suicide at the GIPCL Circle, a busy shopping district in the city five years ago. “The pandemic affected people in many separate ways. The people have already been under pressure because of communal and social divisions. The pandemic added to it,” says Chennangod, adding: “It is important to address the concerns of the people and art and provide a vital healing touch.”
Engaging with community
In Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, a group of street art practitioners currently painting a mural in a housing colony in Ukkadam, also conducted an art workshop of the local children.
“The housing units in Ukkadam area of Coimbatore are meant for rehabilitating poor families. We have been working here for a fortnight painting murals on the outside walls,” says Jinil Manikandan, a final-year MFA (Art History) student at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan in West Bengal. “We also conducted a painting class for children. About 50 children attended the training,” he says.
Manikandan and his fellow street art practitioners ensure that the murals they paint on the walls link art with the society struggling to come out of a debilitating pandemic.
The initial phase of the public art work is dedicated to seeking suggestions from local residents. The murals contain symbols and objects that signify life and surroundings of the people.
“Public art becomes part of the visual memory of the people. For many who have been confined to their homes, public art becomes an important aid to connect with society,” says Manikandan. “When you can’t go out and see the world, the world comes to you,” he says, referring to the visuals represented in the many murals in Ukkadam.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer