The walls can talk
A new breed of artists is emerging from the shadows to claim the walls of the city as their political canvas
Shazia Nigar Delhi
In 2012 when ACP Vasant Dhoble began hauling partying youngsters to police stations across Mumbai on moralistic grounds, Daku, a graffiti artist, struck back. He stencilled the word ‘Fuck’ in Devanagari at selected areas in Delhi and Mumbai. While some people were perplexed with this subversion, others celebrated this act of artistic rebellion in the face of growing moral policing. This act of rebellion was also a political stance against shrinking liberal spaces. Another piece by Daku that generated curiosity was the stencil of an LPG cylinder shaped like a rocket. LPG prices had just been hiked. Daku says, “The LPG price hike was bothering the common people. I wanted to get that point across.”
Street art is not new to India. Till date, walls across rural India are used as a means of advertising. From the local quack who claims to be an expert on sexual dysfunction to Ambuja Cement, they reach out to their consumers through paintings on the walls of houses and schools that line the roads. This is changing in urban India. The urban youth, armed with spray paint and under the security of a face mask, is reclaiming wall after wall in the dead of night. Yantr, another graffiti scribbler, has used street art to talk about child labour and the decay in electoral politics. Shilo Shiv Suleman, an artist from Bangaluru working on the issue of women’s empowerment, has painted walls in Varanasi, San Francisco and Bangaluru protesting against violence against women. Her wall paintings carry messages such as “My home, my body, my right” or “Be Fearless”. In India and abroad, contemporary street art has emerged as one way of engaging with relevant social and political developments.
While in popular perception street art is mostly categorised as graffiti, several artists are adamant about distancing themselves from the label. Yantr, a travelling artist who has adorned walls in Shillong, Delhi and Mumbai, explains the difference between the two. “A graffiti artist will mostly tag walls with their names, rather than create something conceptual. Walls are painted mostly at night without the owners’ permission. A street artist will mostly take the owners’ permission to paint their walls and will finish the piece in detail, taking 2-3 days. I mostly take permission before painting a wall. My works are mostly with a message, neither than just a painting on the wall.”
‘The world sympathises with artists; that is what I have experienced’
Graffiti initially emerged in the ghettos of New York as a way for sparring gangs to mark out their territories. It was seen as vandalism, with legal consequences if caught — a trend that seems to continue in India. Wall art in India is illegal, unless permission is taken from the wall owner. Daku leaves his mark behind on public property — on the sides of flyovers, stop signs and large walls facing busy roads — and by doing so he is committing an illegal act. Marking or painting on property without the owners’ permission is considered defacement and vandalism. While Delhi has the Delhi Prevention of Defacement of Property Act, 2007, most other states have their own version of this act. Daku recalls how, during his initial days as an undercover graffiti artist, he and four of his team members were hauled up by the police and taken to the police station. A fine of `50,000 was demanded from each of them but the matter was later settled cordially.
Apart from being accused of vandalism and being harassed by cops, graffiti artists also face other difficulties. Spray cans required for wall art were expensive and difficult to procure until artists started buying them online. Daku recalls using car paint during his initial days when spray cans weren’t easily available.
Rishi Chakravarthy, whose alias is Bong, had a slightly different experience with cops in Baroda, Gujarat. He says, “One time we were working at night on the streets of Baroda when a police van stopped by. When we explained what we were doing, they actually told us to carry on but told us to get permission!” Bong partners with Zero, aka Prakash Parmar, for most of his pieces. Painting primarily in Ahmedabad and Baroda, they have gained significant popularity in the city. Far from accusing them of vandalism, locals from areas they are working in have often come forward with help. Once, when they ran out of spraypaint, the locals bought them some and even offered to put up halogen lights so that they could work with ease at night. Yantr says, “The world sympathises with artists; that is what I have experienced.”
Despite these difficulties, artists have been spraying the walls with political commentary. Yantr has marked the sides of a flyover in Delhi with the stencil of a parliament infested with rodents. He explained the work thus, “The rats depict the corrupt politicians who have taken over the parliament. The so-called leaders, the ruckus they create inside, throwing furniture at each other, fighting and watching porn. Not more than a rodent infestation.”
Anpu Varkey, a street artist based out of Delhi, claims that being a woman in a predominantly male field has not been a deterrent for her. She says, “People treat me as an individual. I love heights, am comfortable with ladders and I am excited about working on a large canvas.” When asked about the response to her work, she says, “The idea behind my work is to create a dialogue.” She talks about an exciting response she got while working on a large mural of a cat with a knitting ball in Shahpur Jat. “A bunch of kids who were passing by meowed at the cat and that I thought was a wonderful experience,” says Varkey. But what surprised her the most was her collaboration with a German artist, Hendrik Bierich, for a large mural of Mahatma Gandhi on the Delhi Police headquarters in Barakhamba, Connaught Place, in Delhi. It was a memorable experience for her as they were welcomed with a novelty that, according to her, was unimaginable for a graffiti artist. “The Lieutenant Governor inaugurated it and for the five days that we took to execute the project we were constantly being watched from below.”
Through street art, a generation of Indians has found a channel to express rebellion, resistance and dissent. From taking a stand against moral policing to passing political commentary on the state of affairs of the parliament, street artists are speaking up. While mainstream media is being co-opted to cater to the demands of a neo-liberal regime, walls are emerging as spaces that foster dialogue amongst the common man.