Streets as their canvas

Shruti Hussain
Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Giulia Ambrogi, one of the co-founders of  St+art India, explains how the NGO got together with artists and residents of Lodhi Colony, making it India’s first Public Art District

Lodhi Colony in New Delhi is a residential colony of Central government officers and staff which was built in the 1940s. It was nondescript at its best; but it’s one striking feature — large walls with scant openings and a large central archway, probably for the horses then, caught the attention of St+art India Foundation, an NGO that believes in making art more democratic. 

The area is now an open art gallery with splendid artworks and murals on the walls by Indian and international artists invited by the St+art team. The area was declared India’s first public art district by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) on March 1 at a special event held in New Delhi.
Images of India
Through art on the walls, the artists have interpreted themes close to their heart, images of India and social messages in different styles. To illustrate a few, Singaporean artists Yip Yew Chong made an interactive piece using elements from the surrounding markets while Yok and Sheryo made characters inspired from Indian streets. Mumbai-based Priyesh Trivedi painted the motif of  ‘Adarsh Balak’ as a satirical take on educational posters, Nepalese artist H11235 used photorealism to highlight river pollution, while Sam Lo painted beautiful sparrows with the theme of actions and their effects. 

A group of transgender women with Aravani Art project painted a striking mural with portraits of trans women while Mumbai artist Sajid Wajid’s wall was an ode to femininity. St+art India painted a wall with the colony members, including children, and called the community wall Saath-Saath. The recently concluded Lodhi art festival saw artists create 25 new murals, adding to the initial 15 made in 2015, along with performances, art installations, curated tours and panel discussions.

‘I have a will, I have a say’
Art in the days of yore was practised fervently by Indians and patronised by royalty but gradual migration and urbanisation has made it elitist. Giulia Ambrogi, one of the five co-founders of St+art India and an art curator from Italy says, “In the cities, people come from many different places, so all the traditions are getting lost. Urban lives are going at such a pace that it is completely different from the rural environment and the dynamics are changing drastically. The alienation in the big cities is what started the graffiti art movement around the world where people started re-appropriating public spaces and saying, ‘I have a will, I have a say’. So, the graffiti evolved into street art, not realising that these walls are actually speakers or a large canvas to justify one’s presence.”

Art, as soft power
Graffiti, traditionally, was looked down upon as vandalism caused by those on the margins of society, especially in South America and the United States. But Ambrogi points out that India has not seen such a contemporary, illegal movement, apart from a few artists in Mumbai. So, she believes that the founders of St+art actually started the public art movement in the country, giving it a social and cultural dimension. While there have been specific movements in other countries, they are not as organic as the way it has developed here in India. The NGO has done projects across Indian cities like Mumbai, Goa, Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Kolkata and Hyderabad and slowly the government and other bodies have identified great value in the work they were doing for the betterment of the city. 

So now they have Smart City Corporations asking them to paint metro stations and other public buildings. Ambrogi states an important aspect, “A city is not smart only if it has good transportation or WiFi or better accessibility. Culture is intangible but many a times it is tangible because people can look at the results of art in a much direct manner rather than having WiFi everywhere.” The feeling that the foundation is getting is that due to such efforts, there is a new discovery of how art and culture are important in society across different demographics. She further explains that youngsters are seeking different spaces that are not malls. So with public support and government helping such movements, art and culture is on its way to being recognised as a soft power. 

Indirect empowerment 
What is taking place at Lodhi Colony is also something very socially and politically engaging. It’s not just that the walls are striking in the aesthetic sense. The fact that the colony is pedestrian friendly, which New Delhi is not, with greenery, less traffic and variety of urban fabric, is conducive to creating a vibrant public space. “Our intent is to create spaces in the city which act as gathering spaces and which are charged with art and not with things that are private in nature like shops,” says Ambrogi. 

The residents of Lodhi Colony, apart from being thankful to the artists, also have a great sense of pride and awareness about their public space thus generating a completely different maintenance of the space. Ambrogi explains that there is much less littering, these places feel more secure and safe because people now open their eyes and that this public space is not the ‘wild wild west’ that belonged to no one. 

“There is an indirect empowerment that comes with it because when they see young artists and our young crew of all genders working in the streets, doing something for free, for everyone, it is really a good example,” says the art curator making her case for the need of egalitarianism of art in public spaces.

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