The Emerging Wallflowers of Street Art in India

By Bhavani – Jul 05, 2014

Unlike countries where street art is infamous, public walls in India get commissioned face-lifts by artists working with Government authorities.

Around 5 years ago, the walls in our cities were covered only with random posters, paan stains, and trails of urine. But that’s changed. Today, you will see art squashed between posters, stains and hawkers; fighting for their space in the sunshine. This modern art form, if I can call it that, stands on the razor’s edge — to one side it is vandalism and to the other it’s about art, conversation, and dialogue.

But India it’s different. And here both sides co-exist — rather harmoniously! Some artists work with government organisations. For example, the Delhi Police have a huge wall of graffiti at one of the offices. City Municipalities are reaching out to artists to beautify the roads and pass on social messages. At the same time, artists who wish to bomb or hit a space, or leave behind a personal opinion tend to work undercover. Why? Defacing a public wall or space is still illegal under the West Bengal Act, which began in Kolkata to ban political graffiti. If you get caught defacing a public wall, you need to pay a fine of Rs. 1,000 or serve six months in jail or both.

Like all other laws, this one also exists but is rarely implemented as a consequence to which artists in India don’t get into much trouble. Locals complained when they saw ‘Mooz’, a graffiti artist in Mumbai, painting a bridge and so the police came by. They checked if he had any drugs on him, then reported back to their senior saying, “Some baccha (kid) is just painting, not doing anything.” And that was the end of the story. Dhanya from the Wall Project said a famous artwork got painted over or white-washed at Chapel Road, Bandra. A builder was scared that street art would increase the land rates during redevelopment. Lesser profit for him! So he got his watchman to buy a cheap tin of white paint and cover up the artwork. Another painting in that area got painted over as the shop-owner felt it was interfering with his business. Why? People kept visiting and taking photographs and asking him to close the window, open the window or maybe even move out of the frame!

Graffiti artists in India are far from the traditional stereotype of the hipster graffiti, with many of them not conforming to the popular stereotype of a delinquent with spiked hair and tattooed body. Many of them have alternate careers in graphic design, film making or are serious artists with studios to boot and exhibitions — this Jekyll and Hyde co-existence is key to survival from a bohemian lifestyle as the money in such artistic expression still remains insufficient.

There are a range of styles you can see from bombing to large-scale murals or even a piece with deeper significance. And each artist has his or her speciality in subject or style. Ranjit Dahiya, founder of the Bollywood Art Project, came to Mumbai many years ago. He was and still is a Bollywood fanatic. You could stand outside the actors’ homes for countless hours hoping for a chance meeting but there was no sign that Mumbai was the hub of Hindi cinema. He wished that every visitor would the city experience the Bollywood-ness all around and thus started the Bollywood Art Project with large scale murals of popular stars in their defining roles!

Pic - BAP

Pic – Bollywood Art Project

Pic - Bollywood Art Project

Pic – Bollywood Art Project

On the other hand, Delhi based street muralist Anpu is dedicated to stencils, while still open to all kinds of designs. She has murals of a large cat, a gigantic Mahatma Gandhi and even a human eating a car to her credit.

Anpu Varkey's Traffic Eater

Anpu Varkey’s Traffic Eater

A dragonfish.  Pic - Swanoop John

A dragonfish
Pic – Swanoop John

Cat with woollen yarn  Pic - Pranav Mahajan

Cat with woollen yarn
Pic – Pranav Mahajan

Neither Anpu nor Ranjit are trying to get a social or political message across. They simply want the man on the street to see art, get inspired and be drawn into a conversation. When Anpu was working on a large mural in Pune, an auto-rickshaw driver came up to her and said, “I never looked at that wall before but now you’ve given me a reason to look at it. Can I buy you some tea?”

But there are other artists like Yantr and Tyler who believe in always having an embedded message. Yantr says, “You walk by a street and see this mural on the wall — it affects you. Whether you like it or not, understand it or not, or even if you care or don’t, you see it. You have a myriad of people from every walk of life being exposed to your work, your idea, your voice. It is such a powerful tool to induce conversations.” Yantr is the artist behind the piece on the Aspen Wall at Kochi (where this camaraderie between local municipality and artists is not as smooth).

Pic - Bhavani Ramesh

Pic – Bhavani

Pic - Bhavani Ramesh

Pic – Bhavani

Tyler, an artist who works in Mumbai, drew a girl holding a knife behind her back to represent the hypocrisy of society and our greed. Daku, a Delhi based artist, who painted the devanagiri ‘ph’ and ‘k’ (a popular swear word when said together) across Mumbai to vent frustration when ACP Dhoble busted the party scene with his regular raids! Times are changing for street art in India. Artists are coming together, forming communities and organizing festivals that are changing the face and pace of growth of street art in India. The Wall Project in Mumbai saw 400 artists and regular folks from all over the world coming together to paint an entire stretch of boundary wall along Tulsi Pipe Road — all with the permission of the local Municipality. During a street art festival at Shahpur Jat, New Delhi, what begun with seven walls ended at more than 40 walls of artwork. Residents were making requests for their walls to also be covered with artwork. Even, prominent brands want to use graffiti artists to promote their wares— Zake worked with Nike Air and a clothing brand covered the parking lot of Phoenix Mall with graffiti during a promotion.

Pic - Bhavani Ramesh

Pic – Bhavani

Pic - Bhavani Ramesh

Pic – Bhavani

What is even better is the involvement of the local people to add that little bit to the city. When movie posters were stuck over some of the street art on Tulsipipe Road it was the locals who got together and got the distribution companies and actors to apologize. When a man was urinating on an artwork, it was a local who stopped his car and chased him down. It is a long journey and still needs a lot of encouragement, appreciation and respect as an art form. But there is growing passion, talent and space — all the ingredients for a very bright future!

(This post was originally published on thealternative.in on Jun 20, 2014 and was republished here with the author’s consent. Visit the original post here.)

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