A new breed of Indian artists is aiming to erode social barriers by painting on them
Earlier this month I was walking through the Mission neighbourhood of San Francisco, peering at the many graffitis sprayed over its shaded alleys. The art dwelled on plenty of subjects, but one theme in particular came back and again: the inexorable takeover of the immigrant, alternative district by high-earning Silicon Valley staff. "Stop the corporatocracy," said one painting. "Welcome to San Francisco: cleaner, whiter, brighter," read another. "Evict Google," said a third piece.
Throughout the developed world, graffiti has long been used by those who get the short end of the stick to hit out at the higher echelons of society through metaphor and satire. Lately it has started to take roots in developing countries, often to underline the hypocrisy of the powers that be (notably in Brazil). But in few other places could street art make a greater splash than India.
That's partly because Indian graffiti has different roots. In contrast to its Western cousin, it did not originate as the idiom of gangs and protesters but as a new, freer medium for studio-trained painters. "Street art here is not seen as negative," says Harsh Raman, a Delhi-based artist. Its immediacy and broader appeal allows it to tackle issues, such as infanticide, corruption or the country's rape culture, that are often considered taboo by other media.
But graffiti’s potential goes beyond this. In fact, many Indians are drawn to street art primarily because it is the form of art they can most easily access. “Traditional galleries have so many limitations,” says Suresh K. Nair, a Kerala-based artist who teaches at Banaras University. “Only a few selected people are sent invitations and buying the art. And then the work of art is displayed in their private space.”
"The good art that you see in galleries only gets to 10 percent of the population," echoes Raman. "What we want to do is to give it exposure to the other 90 percent."
No other institution has done a better job at this than St+art, a two-year old foundation whose raison d’être is to make art “truly democratic and for everyone”. Its first aim, explains Pierre Guyot, the architect of St+art's shows, is to allow fledging local artists to exchange ideas with peers celebrated internationally and provide them with material support to go about their business. That includes supplying graffers with paint and elevators as well as helping them navigate the administrative minefield of securing permits.
The organisation’s second goal is to revive public spaces left for dead by the haphazard expansion of India's metropolises. “As new districts and transport links are created, a vacuum appears in some areas. The government is collaborating with St+art, other foundations and colleges to bring energy to these empty spaces so that they don’t look so blank or threatening,” says Anika Gupta, who teaches art and design in Mumbai.
“It helps frame intellectual debates about urbanism, conditioning the future direction of India’s development,” adds Guyot, who’s also an urban planner.
On both counts St+art is up to a good, well, start. During a month-long show in February, it converted the Delhi suburb of Okhla, more famous for its industrial port and huge landfill, into a walk-through exhibition that used 100 containers as canvas. Twenty-five artists – about half from overseas – used more than 20,000 litres of paint to create a 2,900-square-metre open-air gallery.
An ongoing project sees it transform Delhi's previously dreary Lodi Colony into what it dubs "India's first public art district". After painting two walls there in 2015, it now wants to do 20. It is also expanding its success to other cities: its first Bangalore show, started this month, will be followed by an event in Hyderabad in November.
Not everybody thinks scaling up that fast is a good idea. "Suddenly it is like we have found a magic formula. We just go and secure public walls, get international artists, they paint murals and that's it. It’s become a big show," says a person close to the organisation. "And it’s a good show. But no one is really thinking about how we are nurturing a new generation of younger artists. We don't really have the graffiti writers from the city."
For young Indian graffers, going it alone can be tough: aside from copping with harsh climatic conditions – torrid, rainy seasons aren’t wall paint's best friends – budding artists have to win the ascent of local authorities that are often seriously corrupt. Gupta recalls the example of a French graffiti artist who managed to paint on Mumbai’s water pipes by paying with his own art. "He became friend with all the policemen by drawing cards for their kids. That's how he got them on board to doing what he does."
St+art relieves artists from some of these burdens. It has recently put its work under the umbrella of Swachh Bharat, a campaign championed by prime minister Narendra Modi that aims to make India a cleaner place, notably through the building of 10 million toilets in rural areas. That has allowed the foundation to gain a greater hearing within ministries, reducing local authorities’ demands for seeing sketches before granting permits. St+art also seeks to safeguard its independence by relying on sponsors like cultural institutes and a paint supplier rather than multinationals and banks.
But some fear the organisation's tighter links with the government – and its greater public profile in general – may limit its capacity to transgress and surprise. "There is a lot of filtering going on," says Anpu Varkey, a Delhi-based street artist who recently featured on the cover of France’s Beaux Arts Magazine. "For there to be good art, there needs to be shit art too."
She laments the emphasis put on aesthetics rather than meaning. "Beautifying buildings is great but things should have a greater resonance. In themselves pretty things are just pretty things. So it doesn't matter if you bring someone from Mexico or if it's a painter from the village down the road."
Despite such reservations, Varkey remains a firm believer in street art's potential. A few months back, when she was commissioned to paint a railway station in Delhi, she pitched the picture of a giant cloud of jasmine – a white flower that most Indians associate with nostalgia. It didn't work out. "I got told that it was not colourful enough," Varkey recalls. So she moved to the idea of painting storks, migratory birds that come to India in winter. "Most people I know in Delhi are migrants, and it was a very subtle way to talk about migration." One railway exec loved the idea. He now wants the birds to feature on train carriages as well.
Raman also thinks street art is at its best when it tries to break the mechanical, frantic rhythm of urban life through the evocation of positive feelings. "Indian metropolitan cities are full of visual noise. There are big hoardings that are basically selling people emotions, and connecting these emotions to products. What I want to remind people is those intangible things in life that make us human, like peace of mind, compassion and gratitude."
But his art confronts more tangible subjects as well. Walls of Women, one of his most ambitious projects, consists in training Indian women to talk about what it means to be a modern woman today. In addition to highlighting gender issues, it also encourages women to paint in the streets of Delhi – a city where safety has become a prime concern. Varkey also reckons street art can contribute to eroding gender barriers.
"If you're a woman in the street people don't come and talk to you. But when I'm in my paint clothes I'm a worker. I can make things happen. That's beyond gender: people stop by and start chatting with you."
For all its potential, it's not clear that the lower strata of society always understand the codes and references used by street art – especially given the well-educated, fine-art background of many artists. It doesn't help that a bottle of paint costs more than the daily wage of many Indians, meaning few graffers come from the country’s shanty towns. "Street art can bring complex issues to light. The thing is, there isn't a way for the lower communities to understand something like this," says Gupta.
Nair doesn’t think all street artists are academically trained. But he recognises the knowledge barrier. “Educated artists are addressing various issues in the society. Uneducated artists are just copying photographs or images.”
Yet that's perhaps beside the point, Guyot argues. Street art shows and projects are part of a wider array of initiatives, like the pedestrianisation of Delhi's Connaught square, that aim to erode social barriers by mixing the poor and the better-off in a single space. Guyot says youngsters now come to Lodi Colony to have a stroll; couples pose in front of art pieces to have their wedding pictures taken.
Varkey also talks of the unifying power of street art – especially when it is in the making. "I can never be sure people understand what I'm doing because even I don't always know. But you have no idea every time I've painted on the street, the number of people who come by for a chat or bring me fruit. Deep inside them a lot of people would also like to paint.”
“And you know who I get it the most from?" she pauses for emphasis. "Police officers. Secretly, when you're on the ladder, they look at you... Everyone wants to be an artist, because it’s like being a magician."