A confusing canvas: What does the public really think about 'public art'?

After a long interview with Hanif Kureishi, co-convener of the Lodhi Art District, it was time to see the latest instance of their mission that rides on the wings of the Swacch Bharat mission and the matching vision of the CSR branch of Asian Paint.

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Lodhi colony is lovely for a stroll even in the intense late afternoon summer heat. That is one of the reasons why the St+art Foundation chose Lodhi colony after they had worked in Shahpur Jat in 2014 and painted walls scattered across Delhi in 2015.

The non-profit organisation founded by Arjun Behel, Giulia Ambrogi, Akshat Nauriyal, Thanish Thomas and Hanif Kureishi aims at promoting art to be out there for the consumption of anyone and everyone. “The colony, with its roads at straight angles, characteristic walls and central location, provided the perfect canvas for a different kind of expression,” says Kureishi.

Kureishi emphasised that their decision to create a public art district was motivated by the desire to make an impact. Presenting their art within a loosely bounded area made sure that people can seek it out easily. The aim is to create art for all, which does not make people say “I don’t understand art”.

The trick is to try and find the balance by creating murals that are neither over-conceptionalised, nor degrade standards.

To try and gauge the impact on “the public”, I walk up to the kulcha wallah manning a stall in front of the wall decorated by the miniature painter Mahendra Pawar. He seems to feel unqualified to answer my questions but suggests talking to the guy in the Bata shop, who had seen it being put up.

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The Bata guy is very enthusiastic and turns the question back on me “What is the one thing that is special about this wall?”

Seeing my hesitation, he offers the answer himself.

“It’s because it’s art … it’s not the skill it’s the art that makes it special … because if you look at it carefully, all the flowers are open, none of them are closed.”

Then I wander off into one of the cross lanes to find a guy taking pictures of another, standing on a children’s bike in front of Harsh Raman’s work. They live on the other side of Khanna market and are interested in art photography. They drive from one mural to the other in a car in pursuit of their interest.

On the other side of the street sits a boy of eight or nine, watching them. I sit down next to him and ask if the bicycle belongs to him. He nods with a slight distrust. When the guys leave, having thrust 20 rupees in his hand, he tells me that he had got his bicycle pimped up like a motorcycle, with the paint used on the walls, by the artist. He even named his bike Dhoom and put a Haryana licence plate on the crowbar.

As I walk on, a girl of about the same age says hi and offers me a kaccha aam she has just picked from a tree. She disappears under one of the arches in the middle of an undecorated wall to ask permission from her mother to show me around the art district. She loves the paintings, all of them.

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As I wait for her, I look at the next wall where hundreds of faces erupt from a mushroom cloud. A man walks out of the building opposite and asks me in English, “Are you admiring the art work? People come from far away to look at it and take pictures but I enjoy it the most. The window of my room opens to this sight.”

Janvi catches up with me. She and her family live in a jhuggi in the middle passage of one of the government buildings opposite the calligraffiti mural by Niels Shoe Meulman. She tells me that they had also been made to paint in school around the theme of the Swacch Bharat mission, which made the art district happen by sorting out a clash between two different government bodies, the NDMC and the CPWD, says Hanif.

On the way we are also joined by Janvi’s Nepali friend, Prerna, and, as we walk down the streets, our odd trio gets many a stare and a few rude remarks. “Are you hoping to get some money off her?”

“What are you doing with her, chilly chink? Oye chamara, are you her guide?”

I try to call them out but the girls shrug their shoulders and I don’t know what more I could do.

“We are showing her the paintings,” they say proudly and turn to me with a scowl. “Badtamiz log hai.”

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“There is also a Gandhiji down there, and we’ll show you the murgi too!” They show me Gandhiji and exclaim about Swacch Bharat. When I ask them if they think these paintings make their Bharat Swacch, first they shake their head and then start to vigorously nod.

We move along but it is getting late, so my companions bid me farewell after they point me to the direction of the Gond art-inspired wall by the artist Rakesh Kumar. I am left alone to appreciate the elephant, with winding branches streaming out of its tusks, step into a throttle. It feels as if the full might of the forest were charging at our wasteful urban ways.

Not everyone is so positive about public art in India. One of the representative voices is Aastha Chauhan, a Delhi-based artist, interested in socially engaged art and collaborative practices, who convened the first street art festival in Khirki in 2012. She believes that the top-down approach, and the overemphasis of international artists does not make these projects truly public.

She believes that not working closely with the communities and ignoring the homegrown dynamics of the spheres where the murals are put up amounts to the colonisation of public space by the artist.

In Shahpur Jat, where murals were put up in 2014, the situation is very different.

Most people answer with “Yeh pata nahin kya lagaya hai” to the question what the paintings are supposed to be.

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Residents are nonchalant about the presence of the now aged artworks and also about people coming to look at them. A group of old men playing cards tell me to take pictures, because everyone else does. The youngsters hanging around explain to me that the black lines on the wall trace a worm of the conch shell that pandits blow in the temple.

An older lady exclaims, “Why would I be looking up the wall? It’s so high, I would strain my neck and then, who would be cooking dinner for my family?”

A man in an electrical shop talks of how those who are in that line of business will be concerned with the paintings. His business is fixing electrical items and thus does not know about and cares not for art. His job is to provide for his family because the government does not provide for him.

However, even in Shapur Jat, there are people, apart from the boutique visitors, who appreciate the beauty of public art. Even if the painting of Anpu’s giant cat has now been inadvertently privatised by a couple of floors erected above the houses in front, there is a certain noticeable pride among the people in the vicinity.

The local tobacconist exclaims when asked about the project.

“It was truly international!”


Published Date: May 01, 2016 12:01 pm | Updated Date: May 01, 2016 12:01 pm


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