How city walls are becoming the artist's canvas

As awareness and acceptance of street art grows, it is likely more cities, including smaller ones, will benefit from such a venture.

How city walls are becoming the artist's canvas
Clinics advertising cures for everything from back pain to erectile dysfunction. Posters of movies which are about to release and of politicians fighting an election. Declarations of teenage love. And, of course, generous doses of paan spittle. A welcome addition to these on the walls of urban India are a wide variety of murals, thanks to a bunch of initiatives promoting street art.

St+art India (pronounced ‘start’) is the largest of these efforts. First held in Delhi in 2014, the street art festival has so far had nine editions in all in five cities — three in Delhi, two each in Mumbai and Hyderabad, and one each in Bengaluru and Goa. Arjun Bahl, cofounder and festival director of St+art India Foundation, says the idea behind starting the festival was to make art more democratic. “There was a need to make art available to all. The best way to do it was to put it on the streets.”

Wall art in Delhi
“Colours of the Soul” by Senkoe, a Mexican street artist, in Delhi, 2016, as part of St+art India.


Colourful Palette
The latest editions of the festival in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Goa just concluded. In November and December, the festival had turned Mumbai’s Sassoon Dock into something of a gallery which was open to the public, free of cost, between Thursday and Sunday. From photographs of the fisherfolk of the area on the walls outside to installations inspired by the sights, smells and history of Sassoon Dock, the festival made many curious enough to visit. Bahl says there were around 2,000 visitors every day.

Wall art in Goa
A cut-out painted by Dipak Sarast, as part of a project conceptualised by Hanif Kureshi, for St+art India in Goa, 2017.


The festival, backed by Asian Paints, kicked off in October with an 81-ft mural of Mahatma Gandhi outside Churchgate station by Eduardo Kobra, a Brazilian street artist known for his portraits. Among the other prominent foreign artists at the festival was Australia’s Guido van Helten, who painted a mural of three Koli women he met at Sassoon Dock. He then went to Mahim, where he spent three weeks interacting with the locals, including from adjacent Dharavi. He then depicted two kids b-boying, a popular activity among adolescent boys in the area, on a residential building at Mahim.
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“There is a tendency among artists to fly in and fly out. I arrive with no idea of what I am going to do. I learn about the place and the people. That’s pretty challenging,” says van Helten. He says street art is a loose, umbrella term which also includes graffiti. Unlike graffiti, he says, “mural art is done with permissions.” He has also done a mural in Panjim, Goa’s capital, also for St+art India.

Accessible Art
Sameer Kulavoor, a Mumbai-based artist who has been involved with St+art India in Mumbai and Bengaluru, says street art gives the creator access to the widest possible audience. “A guy in a Mercedes and a bhelpuri hawker will both see it.” He adds that unlike painting in a studio, the process of creation of street art would involve talking to passersby. In 2016, Kulavoor transformed the walls of the Kempegowda Majestic metro station in Bengaluru. Called ‘Magnetic Majestic’, the work is a visually arresting ode to the Majestic market, with a magnetic pulling people and objects to it.

Kulavoor's mural
Sameer Kulavoor’s mural outside Artisans’, a gallery and handicrafts store in Mumbai.


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For the Sassoon Dock project, Kulavoor made ‘Parfum Sassoon’, a mural and a larger-than-life installation of two perfume boxes, denoting the fragrances of Bombay duck and mackerel, two common fish of the city. Kulavoor has also done murals for a co-working space in Chennai and and a gallery and handicrafts store in Mumbai.

​Ranjit Dahiya
Ranjit Dahiya has painted murals of Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, and Madhubala, mostly in Mumbai, but also in Delhi, Chennai, Paris and Greensboro (US).


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Among the most popular and prominent murals of Mumbai are of legends of Hindi cinema. Under the Bollywood Art Project, Ranjit Dahiya has since 2012 painted images of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Amrish Puri and Madhubala. It started as an effort to mark 100 years of Hindi cinema in 2013. As part ofSt+art India’s first Mumbai festival in Mumbai, Dahiya painted a mural of Dadasaheb Phalke, who made India’s first feature-length feature film in 1913, at Bandra in 2014. “People have just started doing it (murals). It will take some time to make our cities beautiful. Murals add colour and even a message to a plain building,” says Dahiya, who has also painted murals of Nadira in Delhi and Vyjayanthimala in Chennai, the latter as part of Conquer the Concrete, a street art festival in 2015. The festival was organised by the Goethe-Institut and Chennai City Connect, an urban management initiative.

Wall art
<p>‘Magnetic Majestic’ by Kulavoor on the walls of the Kempegowda Majestic metro station in Bengaluru, done as part of the St+art India festival in 2016<br></p>


Yogesh Saini, who founded Delhi Street Art, a collective, in 2013, calls street art “perishable, accessible art.” He says street art has a shelf life - from a few hours to a few days to a few years. “It can’t be preserved and it’s not meant to be.” Delhi Street Art has travelled to around 15 cities, including Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Bhopal, and smaller cities like Rishikesh and Gorakhpur. “The idea was to find a creative outlet and in the process add some aesthetics and beauty to our cities and our open environments, which don’t necessarily have any public expressions.” Delhi Street Art has worked at government schools, night shelters and even Mandoli and Tihar prisons, where some inmates also participated.

As awareness and acceptance of street art grows, it is likely more cities, including smaller ones, will benefit. St+art India’s Bahl says the foundation is looking at cities in the south like Coimbatore and Madurai. Guess Who, an anonymous graffiti artist like Banksy, was much talkedabout on social media a few years ago when people started sharing pictures of the artist’s satirical works in Fort Kochi: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels dressed as Hindu saints, Heath Ledger’s Joker as a Chakyar Koothu (a monologue performance) artist, and Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso in mundu and chappals.

Wall art by anonymous artist
Anonymous graffiti artist Guess Who caught people’s attention with his satirical works in Fort Kochi


In the next couple of months, St+art India will organise festivals in Chandigarh and Kolkata, which has another street art festival, led by painter Jogen Chowdhury. The Kolkata Street Art Festival, begun in mid-2017, aims to have around 500 murals in the city in five years.

Wall art
Eduardo Kobra’s mural of Gandhi outside the Churchgate station in Mumbai, a project that was part of St+art India 2017.


Indian cities have a long way to go before they can boast of a vibrant street art culture like Bogota, Sao Paulo, Melbourne and Los Angeles, but a start has definitely been made.
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