Street art

Museum without Walls

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Public art is shaping up in Delhi. Unlike gallery art, this encourages people’s participation in conception

Meet 10-year-old Sonu’s new friend. It is not a person or a pet, but a 12 feet by 8 feet bamboo canopy with tiny baskets dangling from its roof. Sonu’s eyes light up when he talks of the time when he helped plant vegetables in those baskets with his friends. Little had artist Prayas Abhinav known when he created this piece of art at the heart of Chandni Chowk—as part of 48° C, a public art festival that took place in the city at the end of 2008—that it would engage the neighbourhood’s children to this extent. Even today, proud ownership is reflected on their little faces as they watch the vegetables flourish.

Several such public art projects have begun to dot the landscape of Delhi. And if the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC), which has the mandate to preserve and develop the aesthetic quality of the city’s structures, has its way, 41 new works will join them before the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

Experts believe the city’s blend of history with modernism and its multi-layered urbanism make it an ideal gallery for public art practitioners. “This city is one of the world’s most dynamic and complex urban settings in contemporary times,” says Pooja Sood, curator and director of Khoj International Artist’s Association, an organisation facilitating dialogue in the field of visual arts since 1997.

Public art, itself, has undergone dramatic change in the city, with the interaction between the creator, the creation and the local community coming to define its present notion. This is a departure from the period coinciding with the nation-building phase post Independence, when artists would be commissioned to create biographical tributes to historical figures in the form of statues.

Artist Navjot Altaf, in fact, thinks statues don’t qualify as public art anymore. They’re prefabricated by artists without engaging the local people in the process, she reasons. “The dialogue of contribution, participation and working towards communication is what defines public art,” Altaf believes.

Take Abhinav’s work in Chandni Chowk, for instance. This evolved out of his interaction with street children in Chandni Chowk. “I designed the canopy to allow children to climb on it and do their own thing. That way, I discovered the dynamics that simmer beneath street realities,” he says. Initially, the residents of Chandni Chowk reacted to the structure as an ‘alien thing’ that had invaded their territory. But once Abhinav got a chaiwallah to sit under the canopy while the children planted vegetables, everyone instinctively gathered around. This led to multifarious interactions between the art and the community.

Many believe that the current evolving notion of public art in Delhi is inspired from the West. In the 1960s, governments abroad would commission artists to execute exhibits in a public space with the intention of bringing about a transformation in mindset.

Though traditional forms of public art in India still exist—effigies created for Ram Lila or Durga puja pandals—many artists believe the Western definition is better suited to the changing face of modern India.

After all, it is the mandate of the times that public art reflect the existing values of society. “And that current value is democracy. Today, public areas are seen as neutral spaces accessed by all. Hence, public art should address issues concerning everyone,” says KT Ravindran, DUAC chairman. 

Artists approve of this shift, as it involves interaction with the public even at the stage of conception. Once a project is commissioned, an artist has to submit a plan, publish details and invite feedback before beginning the actual creation. “This makes perfect sense, since if someone installs something in my neighbourhood and I don’t like it, then it is an imposition on my senses,” says Sood.

This change has given artists a chance to experiment with newer media and materials as well. Contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram has increasingly started operating in three and four dimensions. For his body of work called ‘The Great Indian Bazaar’, he shot second-hand goods and displayed them on city sidewalks. In ‘Living It Out in Delhi’, exhibited in 2006, he took photographs of 500 waste pickers and then invited some of them to the exhibition to sell their wares.

Then, artist Sreejata Roy, together with Ankur Society for Alternatives in Education, worked with slum children in Dakshinpuri to create a mural in their local park.

People may like it, hate it or find it intrusive, but one thing is for sure: everyone interacts with public art at a subconscious level at least. Take the controversial case of Vibhor Sogani’s stainless steel Sprouts, conceptualised for the clover leaf AIIMS flyover in 2007. Right from the common man to Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, everyone had something to say about it.

While this contemporary definition of public art is receiving a thumbs-up from many, artists like Altaf believe that traditional forms like street theatre and nukkad natak can also be given a modern tweak to bring about a transformation in mindsets. And that is where, most artists believe, Sahmat (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) has been doing a great job since 1989, having also given a modern context to street theatre in their drive against communalism.

“Safdar Hashmi’s Janna Natya Manch is a great example of radical street theatre, which has made people aware of contemporary socio-economic and political issues through effective, satirical and direct approaches,” explains Altaf.  In 2001, the trust initiated the project ‘Art on the Move’, as part of which artists presented politically-charged work questioning the academic and artistic freedom available to them. “Kashmiri artist Vir Munshi created an upturned boat with flowers sprouting from the base to show how people from the Valley still remain positive in the midst of so much unrest,” says Ram Rahman, freelance photographer and member of Sahmat.

As part of another project, autorickshaw drivers were invited to create slogans about communal harmony. Hundreds of drivers painted their autos with slogans like ‘Main sampradayik dangon ke paksh mein nahin hoon, main aapsi bhai chaare ke paksh mein hoon’ (I am not in favour of communal riots; I am in favour of brotherhood). “We have taken something that exists and given it a different edge—not dry and dead, but interactive and humorous,” says Ram.

Whichever concept (traditional or Western) artists pursue these days, they all agree that public art is here to stay in Delhi. ‘The art of change’, as it has begun to be called by many, has become a starting point for stirring dialogue and inspiring transformation.

Motorist alert: that roundabout on your way to work may have djinns rising out of it tomorrow.