Indian Ink, a drawing ink made of lightfast pigment and shellac, is not an Indian brand. It is manufactured by an illustrious Dutch company, Royal Talens, with a more-than-100-years-old sort of antiquity. But on a fair winter afternoon in mid-January, this half-a-litre bottle of jet-black liquid briefly bows to its namesake and can easily be mistaken as India’s gift to graphic arts. It squats on a pavement surrounded by a clutter of paint splattered rags, brushes, spray paint cans, buckets and mugs in Delhi's spiffy Lodhi colony. Soon the rich, black fluid will gild the expansive walls of a CPWD residential structure with a poem by noted graffiti writer and visual artist Niels Shoe Meulman from Amsterdam. The intricate letters of Meulman's poem would span across the breadth of the wall like anarchy and waywardness against a riot of vivid pinks, yellows and blues which bloom out as plants, painted with the politically loaded paintbrush called ‘Jhadu’.
Meulman, specialist of an art form called ‘Calligraffiti’, stresses the literal site specificity of the colourful plants rather philosophically, “The plants make the broom and now the broom makes the plants.” When Muelman is hauled up on an aerial lift to the highest point of the wall to write his poem with Ink, he explains the doctrine behind his works, “Graffiti are the weeds of art, the unwanted plants that will grow anywhere. Even if you don't want it, it will grow.” Just then you realise that even the genteel, soothing neighbourhood of Lodhi Colony—immaculately clean and green, inhabited by its restful governmental denizens—could not help but receive a healthy dose of ‘art provocation’, as St+art India Foundation in collaboration with the Ministry of Urban Development takes nimble steps towards converting the wide, elegant lanes between Meher Chand Market and Khanna market into a Public Art District, one housing wall at a time.
What makes an arts district? A cultural enclave of sorts that brims with irresistible creative energy—a midtown area that mixes accessible art with idiosyncratic cafes, restaurants and dive bars, chic design studios with trendy book stores, ever bustling performance halls with influential museums and art galleries, art-centric events with a whirligig of intellectually stimulating talks all through the year, co-existing with friendly walkways which allow outdoor art to proliferate. Think of grandees like Paris’ legendary Montparnasse in the 1880s or New York's Soho in the 1960s. Current star-stoppers include the colourful Shoreditch at London's East End or the cosmopolitan Mitte in Berlin, the hip Chelsea art district in New York or the impressive Taksim square in Istanbul. The sub-precinct of Kala Ghoda in south Bombay's Fort area, with its impressive architectural heritage, blue-chip art galleries and its marquee Kala Ghoda Arts Fest, bears the closest semblance to an international art district in India.
Hanif Qureshi, co-founder and artistic director of St+Art Foundation, would not go so far as to claim that the Lodhi Art District seeks to emulate any of these international examples and highlights its distinctiveness. “Most of these art districts are not well organised, as these districts did not grow in collaboration with the government. Gentrification was, therefore, inevitable. There is no such threat possible in the Lodhi Arts District project.” Qureshi explains that street art cannot always be possessed of a gritty, underground character or be seen in hippie neighbourhoods with non-conformist vibes. Street art can add depth and perspective to “symmetrical” spaces as well. In the well planned Lodhi Colony, built by the British colonial establishment in the 1940s to house government employees, the neatly aligned residential buildings are equidistant from each other and are monotonously similar in scale and colour. The drab pink walls are sometimes sullied with posters, with paint chipping off in small, sporadic sums. The pedestrian friendly neighbourhood is devoid of gates and the large, empty walls of the housing colonies are blanks canvases waiting to be exalted by compelling artistic expressions.
Having electrified the visual landscape of urban villages in Delhi with quirky murals and installations over the last three years, the St+Art Foundation, in its fourth international street art festival, is foregrounding the concept of a Public Art District and what it can do to the economic fortunes of a city. Creation of a ‘Global’ city and boosting ‘Art Tourism’ are the purported goals of the current edition of St+Art Festival, which leads to the inevitable question: is the Indian government ready to recognise the significance of the arts in the economic and political urban policy? In this context, it is pertinent to recall Maharashtra's Tourism and Culture Ministry's much reviled decision in 2014 to rename the heritage precinct of Kala Ghoda in south Bombay as 'Mumbai Square'—in a thoughtless imitation of New York's Times Square. Thankfully, the misguided plan to transform the hallowed cultural hub into a frenzy of neon and noise never took off.
Giulia Ambrogi, the festival curator and co-founder, is convinced of the transformative power of public arts. “Private art galleries are not integrated in the vision of a city. But art is really linked to tourism. It is definitely something you have to visualise in a specific way.” She cites the example of the Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program as a major inspiration behind the work being done at Lodhi Colony. In order to deal with the rampant menace of graffiti back in 1984, the city of Philadelphia devised a public arts project to encourage local artists, students and event prison inmates to paint murals across buildings on a scale so staggering that the program has now yielded over 3,600 murals. Thanks to this community-driven mural programme, today ‘the city of Brotherly Love' is also world-renowned as the ‘City of Murals’, receiving thousands of visitors every year just to view the city’s stunning murals, including a 600-feet tall mural titled History of Immigration showcasing the varied ethnic settlers of Philadelphia. “We know what Public Art Districts generate. It wasn’t just to do something cool. In order to put Delhi on the worldwide cultural map, we have to activate more contemporary areas of interest and not just focus on historically beautiful places like Humanyun’s Tomb,” says Ambrogi.
Till the end of February, some 22 building exteriors will be splashed with bold colours and dramatic motifs ranging from a padma mudra with a Cambodian twist to a re-imagination of the lotus in Japanese characters, from a blazing orange-red lava tree to a blood red tangle of dead dahlias, a multi-hued meteorite topped with a solitary astronaut to a palatial corridor oozing impressionistic fervour, a colossal Rani Laxmi Bai resplendent on a horse to a funky Kathakali boombox. The wall opposite Meher Chand Market, in front of Elma's Bakery, is now a geometric dance of retro diamonds in pink and black titled Original Aboriginal, inspired by the artistic traditions of Kamilaroi, an indigenous Australian community, while the pavement opposite Golden Bakery in Khanna Market, now boasts an 80-feet-wide, 25-feet-high Gond art mural depicting an elephant whose tusks spread out as branches of an ever-growing tree beaded with twittering birds. “I love how people now come here to pose and take pictures in front of the artwork. I have never seen anything like this in the last 45 years since I set up shop here," says Ashok Juneja, owner of a footwear store next to Golden Bakery. Even 48-year-old Ramu, who owns an ironing service kiosk next to the giant polychromatic meteorite painted by Swiss duo Nevercrew, now feels different coming to work every morning. “Initially, I wondered why they were spoiling the walls. But when I saw the final art work, I felt a great sense of patriotic pride.”
Art in the context of city planning includes a diverse set of cultural activities. The presence of important cultural assets like art museums, galleries, parks, performance venues and even monuments serve as economic anchors which propel the growth of art districts in surrounding areas. Lodhi Colony neatly abuts important cultural institutions like the India Habitat Centre, India International Centre and the India Islamic Cultural Centre which are interspersed with striking sight-seeing markers like the Lodhi Gardens and Safdarjung’s Tomb, along with food and entertainment hot spots Khan Market and Meher Chand Market with its boutique stores and fine dining restaurants. The raw materials for a dapper little art district are all there. But how far can it really grow as a bustling, cohesive whole?
AGK Menon, urban planner, conservation consultant and convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Delhi, does not sound very hopeful about Lodhi Colony evolving into a full-fledged arts district and offers technical reasons for believing so. “When you talk about an art district, it all depends upon land use. Delhi has defined land use and does not easily allow mixed land use. It is very difficult to imagine Lodhi Colony, which is meant for the clerical and administrative staff of the government, transform itself into anything more than what it is. Street art can add a bit of colour and life, though.” He certainly does not believe in governmental intervention in the creative industry, relying more on the organic growth of an interesting neighbourhood into a lively cultural nerve centre. He would like to consider the urban village of Lado Sarai, with its concentration of new, edgy art galleries, as a more suitable candidate for an arts district.
But governmental interventions do enhance arts consumption on a wider scale. Like the way the Chinese government capitalised on a thriving underground arts village which emerged in the 1990s over an abandoned military factory complex built by the East Germans in 1950s Beijing. Better known as District 798, and formally as Dashanzi Arts District, the once experimental arts enclave become a designated ‘creative industries area’ in 2006. It has been actively used by the Chinese government to highlight China's aesthetic economy and thus re-brand the country's international image. It is a good example of arts-led urban change. Today District 798 is a tourist cliché, a much sought after destination to luxuriate in Chinese contemporary art.
Historian and documentary filmmaker Sohail Hashmi has nifty bits of trivia to recount about Lodhi Colony, like how the names of Meher Chand market and Khanna market, which primarily mushroomed to give employment to post-Partition refugees, are derived from one and the same person, Mehr Chand Khanna, who was the Union Minister for Rehabilitation from 1954 to 1962. He stresses the importance of appropriate ‘street furniture’ for any Public Art District to flourish. He bemoans the absence of street lights after sundown and places to sit to appreciate any kind of street art. “Besides, what sense of community will exist in a place where people have transferable jobs? We have a living city in Shahjahanabad which can equal any city in the world in terms of architectural heritage. Nothing is being done to preserve that zone. And you want to develop New Delhi into an art zone? ”
But when you see consummate street artists descend from countries as far as Iran, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, Germany and France to paint walls devoted to secure the capital’s officialdom, and attest to the city’s openness to creative expression in a public space, you might feel you have gained a deeper perspective on Delhi. Just the kind of revelation you might be struck with when you lay eyes on the painting of the Spanish master muralist Gonzalo Borondo whose three-dimensional artwork of a deep, dark corridor with giant columns stands majestic and eerie right opposite the Palika Maternity Hospital at Lodhi Colony. From the centre of the wall, a branch of a tree with dense foliage thrusts outward. Borondo, whose work is suffused with the romantic aesthetic of Spanish artist Francisco Goya, scratches his head for a moment when he is asked to explain his work at Lodhi, “It might just be the hospital corridor like the one out there, where people are constantly going up and down...Or it could be a big vagina, from where a new life is born.”