The walls of India’s cities are everything from bulletin boards to lounges for the local youth. In recent years, however, the humble wall has taken on an entirely new role — that of a canvas. Street art as a concept is not wholly new in India, but it has been given renewed importance with the rebirth of the street art movement.
The Eye of the Beholder
“There was a need to make art available to all. The best way to do it was to put it on the streets.”
— Arjun Bahl, cofounder and festival director of St+art India Foundation.
St+Art — pronounced ‘start’ — is one of the groups that have brought the street art movement to the forefront of public discussion. They’ve organised street art festivals in many of India’s major cities in an effort to make art more democratic. In fact, during a recent display in Mumbai, artists transformed the historic Sassoon Docks into a gallery in its own right, covering both the interiors and exteriors of shipping containers with art inspired by the people and culture of the docks — and the city of Mumbai as a whole.
These festivals highlight a fundamental aspect of street art — interaction. Every mural or installation is created in full view of the public, and passersby are encouraged to talk to the artist and to take photographs with the finished piece. And it’s open to all. As Mumbai-based artist Sameer Kulavoor puts it, “A guy in a Mercedes and a bhelpuri hawker will both see it.”
The whole creative process is fueled by the idea that communication through art is a two-way street, and that the audience gives as much meaning to the artwork as the creator. Street artists understand this on a fundamental level, and many of them have turned their focus towards a more noble cause.
Worth a Thousand Words
“Art is an effort to create, beside the real world, a more humane world.” ~ Andre Maurois
Many people are familiar with Banksy, the anonymous British street artist who uses his skill to criticise society. Today, his work has inspired many players in the Indian street art scene to do the same.
All over India we see artists turning walls into mirrors of society, making full use of sharp and witty visual messages. Fort Kochi has seen the work of Guess Who, an artist who melds pop culture with Indian cultural quirks to produce visuals as witty and amusing as his moniker. One of his better known pieces is a depiction of Heath Ledger’s Joker dressed as a Chakyar Koothu, a folk monologue performer. Then there’s Delhi-based DAKU, whose work has been noticed around Bangalore in the form of paper snails stuck at the city’s busiest junctions — a commentary on Bangalore’s chronic traffic problem.
Of course, not all heroes wear masks. Massive, eye-catching pieces have popped up all over Indian cities with the sole purpose of bringing attention to societal problems. The ‘Blow Horn Please’ mural near Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat is one example. Created by art duo Poch and Rock, the piece features an elephant on roller skates and the iconic phrase that’s usually seen on the back of most trucks. Another example is Badal Nanjundaswamy, who has been addressing Bangalore’s pothole issue through several of his pieces — some of which he has turned into the gaping mouth of Yama, while in others, he has gone so far as to install a life-size green crocodile.
But it isn’t always angst that drives these artists. In 2014, conservationist and tiger expert Valmik Thapar had the bright idea to cover the Sawai Madhopur station — which is only a short distance from Ranthambore National Park — with paintings of tigers. And, just like that, a new movement was born — India’s railway stations began to depict the culture of their regions. The station near Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary was given new plumage, while the metro station on Bangalore’s Mahatma Gandhi Road got a vibrant new facade. This simple idea doesn’t just help promote the microculture of each location, it gives passengers something beautiful to look at before and after their travels.
Soothing a Country’s Soul
“Art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics.” — Victor Pinchuk
Besides its potential for social messaging, the street art movement has made its mark on India in other ways too. The vibrant colours of these pieces add beauty to otherwise drab buildings — and at a massive scale. Anyone driving on the highway in Mumbai can spot the bright yellow MTNL building that has been transformed into a mural to honor Dadasaheb Phalke, a bright spot amidst the dreariness of rush hour traffic. Everything from high rises to crumbling buildings can and have become a city’s canvas.
The movement has another, largely unforseen effect in some areas. In many of these painted railway stations, the amount of spitting and littering has reduced drastically, as people are reluctant to damage the artwork. Furthermore, in areas where people are starved of beauty, the brilliant colours of street art can do wonders to brighten people’s moods.
The street art movement is about more than just creating beautiful pictures. It’s defined by a youthful spirit, one that’s constantly looking to make a change. It takes the negative context out of the word ‘graffiti’, instead equating it with the ideas of freedom, self-expression, and even culture. Festivals like the Kochi Biennale and the ones organised by St+Art simply underscore these motives. Today, it’s not just about art, it’s about a culture of unorthodox self-expression — made clear by the inclusion of other offbeat events like beatboxing competitions, breakdancing, and DJ sessions. Organisers of St+Art festivals believe street art is a gateway to helping us become more and more comfortable with alternative forms of expression, which can only be a step in the right direction for artists across the country.
As these festivals gain popularity, we can see street art slowly become part of mainstream culture. But, until then, the movement will work to change the face of the country, one masterpiece at a time.