A conversation with the creative minds behind India’s largest street art festival.
Colourful and chaotic, fragrant and fast-paced, spiritual and social. Just a few of the ways to sum up life and culture in India, a country that can’t help but leave a mark on those who have experienced first hand the sensory overload of its streets.
But despite its rich heritage and frenetic urban expanses, I reckon that contemporary art (in the form of what we now call ‘street art’) is not something that many of its 1.25 billion citizens would raise as a part of city life. Well, at least in comparison to those living in the European equivalents such as Barcelona, London or Berlin.
So when I was invited to check out the making of ‘India’s largest mural’ (check out the full video here) a 120×150 foot mural of Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema, I was surprised as well as impressed to find that it was the showpiece from St+art Mumbai 2014 – a street art festival, now thrown annually, with India’s most populous cities as the constantly changing backdrop.
I had the chance to chat with the St+art India team who are aiming to bring another dimension to the country’s already loud and proud public spaces in the biggest edition so far of this ambitious festival, St+art Delhi 2015.
Giulia Ambrogi, Festival Curator, and I batted back and forth on this project as well as the state of the street art scene in the country. Here’s what I found out…
UKB: What is the St+art India project?
Giulia Ambrogi, St+art India: The St+art India Foundation was born two and a half years ago thanks to a project called “Khirkee Extension” which was practically the first street art project in India, held in Delhi in the neighbourhood of Khirki.
A few artists and some small walls, but it got great feedback from the people in the neighbourhood. There was great energy around it, proof of the need to act in the urban fabric in a new and unconventional way.
Mattia Lullini’s mural for the Khirkee Extension Street Art Project
Arjun Bahl, Hanif Kureshi, Akshat Nauryal, Thanish Thomas, and myself (Giulia Ambrogi) the co-founders of St+art India Foundation, met on this occasion for the first time and decided to create something much wider.
From scratch, the aim was to establish a platform to promote urban and street art on the Indian landscape by providing a collaborative ground for artists from all over the world. The goal of the project is for art to reach a wider audience while having a positive impact on the community.
UKB: So why set up a street art project in India?
GA: Why not?!
All kidding aside, India is a country in which street life is among some of the most bustling in the world. Everything happens in the streets. Vendors of all types of goods, food, tailors, barbers, cobblers and unfortunately the homeless…a vibrant life in which it’s necessary to give a contribution, to open new perspectives, to involve people and redefine their spaces.
A typical lively street scene from the last time I set foot in Mumbai
Culture, especially contemporary art culture, is something always perceived as inaccessible. In India even more because of the lack of public museums and institutions. Over here art is mostly spread by galleries. This makes it closed and sterile when instead should be open to everyone, being so important as a tool for a social and cultural growth.
“…It has been truly challenging because of the characteristics of the city itself. More traffic, more chaos, and difficulties commuting…”
UKB: What lessons did you learn from the inaugural event in Delhi in 2014? What was successful and not so successful, and how did you use that to build the 2015 edition back in the Delhi?
GA: It has been truly challenging because of the characteristics of the city itself. More traffic, more chaos, and difficulties commuting.
When you have several sites simultaneously open in 4 different areas in the city, 25 artists to manage in one month, 2 indoor exhibitions, 7 workshops, a graffiti jam, a b-boying workshop and contest, and 3 talks and the city doesn’t help you…everything becomes even more difficult!
Mainly we learnt: “Go bigger, go slower”!
Rukkit‘s work in progress at Gol Market sub station in New Delhi (© Pranav Mehta)
This is the reason why we decided to stretch the Delhi 2015 project over two months, February and March, working with two or three artists each week. We also decided to act in the city in a more organic way focusing on specific areas at specific times.
UKB: How popular or appreciated is street art in India? What’s the legality of ‘graffiti’ at the moment and is it prevalent?
GA: It’s kind of unbelievable how fast is growing the street art community in India after St+art Delhi 2014. Just over a year and a half ago.
Artists as Harshvardhan Kadam or Amitabh Kumar are starting their own projects in their hometowns of Pune and Bangalore, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (the first Contemporary Art Biennale in India) opened the door to street art interventions, and the Goethe Institute in Chennai organized a street art festival a few weeks ago.
It’s blooming, exploding, because people especially youngsters are enthusiastic and the ground is ready.
“…there is a wide variety of styles and techniques which are hard to explain with labels and in most of cases, deeply rooted in Indian culture…”
On our website we have and application online to be part of the crew or to submit as an artist and it’s mind blowing the amount of emails we receive daily. We have now more than 25 volunteers who are collaborating with us every day full time and many more who join us when free from their jobs.
Without them this project wouldn’t be possible and it’s just awesome to be supported by young citizens and street art lovers who want to make the difference. This participation is important for the Foundation as education and activism are crucial goals.
Amitabh Kumar in Fort Kochi for Kochi-Muziris Bienniale
Concerning the graffiti scenario in India, there are more and more graffiti writers who are illegally painting in many Indian cities.
There is a law against illegal expression on walls which is pretty old and born for a different reason, but at the same time the phenomenon is not yet so vast to be recorded as “dangerous” or outrageous and be widely prosecuted.
UKB: Is there an underground art, street art or graffiti community in India? How would you compare it to say those in London, Berlin or Paris and what styles are popular?
GA: As I said, there is. It’s growing, but at the moment it’s not as big as those European cities because it’s at the first stages. It’s still small but there’s a fertile circuit in which many of the oldest members belong to the same art college, Baroda University, which is now one of the hubs for the upcoming street art generation.
There is a great variety of styles and techniques which are hard to explain with labels and in most cases is deeply rooted in the Indian culture whether in the concepts and actions in the city such as Daku, or in the styles and stories as in the case of Harshvardhan Kadam , Amitabh Kumar and Harsh Raman.
This aspect is particularly interesting, making the difference among the too often homogenised and globalised expressions and languages.
An example of Harshvardhan Kadam’s work from Mumbai in 2014
UKB: There’s a lot of involvement from local communities in this project. How important was it to make this more than an exhibition and include the locals? How have people been encouraged to get involved and how have they benefited from the project?
GA: We try every time to gel with the community in which we work. It’s essential not to invade places but to create new spaces to give to the people of the neighbourhood.
Most of the time it is a natural involvement that starts from the permissions process, in which we explain the project, and continues with the direct interaction between us, the community and the artists.
“…above all it’s key to work with a view to changing something in the common awareness of what public spaces are, and can be. It’s not just a matter of beautifying the cities or being a cool festival…”
It’s a real time practice, a work in progress in which the dialogue with the people of the area is always stimulating. For the artists it’s a way to understand, even in few days, a different reality and include some of its elements in their work.
We want to trigger a sense of belonging to the artwork itself, it’s the best way to preserve the piece . Above all it’s key to work with a view to changing something in the common awareness of what public spaces are, and can be. It’s not just a matter of beautifying the cities or being a cool festival.
Other times we organise specific workshops with the communities, as we did in Dharavi (the biggest slum in Asia) with groups of kids, as we are doing right now with Olek.
We are involved in three different communities that we wanted to give a voice to and participate in the realisation of all the crochet pieces which Olek has designed and will create for her installation.
Olek leading a group of residents in preparation for the unveiling of her most ambitious crochet project
A group of refugees, one from a village on the outskirts of Delhi and another from the crochet community of India, are collaborating together to make the project happen. This is also a way to bring a piece of work and a tradition which belongs to the women and which is made in the indoor hidden spaces, into a public space. Empowering those women in the collaborative creation of something unique.
We can enhance those communities and make their territories important in the geography of the cities, switching on lights on neglected areas to create new cultural centres and areas of interest.
UKB: How did you select the local and international artists to be involved? What was it about these artists that you felt would fit with the Delhi landscape?
GA: India is still a virgin territory for street art hence we are working on bringing a new “visual education”. The selection starts by considering the style of the artist and his or her capability to merge with the different surroundings, to be influenced by the context and dialogue with it.
Figurativism and use of bright colours are some of the criteria that we consider but mostly the site specific approach which in some artists is pretty marked. Each artist is giving a particular and unique touch to the landscape of the city, we are excited for each one of them!
DalEast’s birds at the Lodhi Colony in Delhi have attracted the now expected level of awe and acclaim from observers
UKB: How did you come to pick the locations for this year’s edition?
GA: The current edition of the festival is in deep collaboration with the government in order to interact more with the fabric of the city and with all the elements that represent and mark the city itself. Iconic buildings, flyover pillars, underpasses and government buildings are the main locations we are working on.
Plus, as always, the focus is on some neglected areas such as homeless shelters, with the objective of enhancing their visual appeal and also help give more visibility to the people who live in those areas.
UKB: What would you say will be the highlights of the Delhi edition of the festival? Any particular project you are most proud of or looking forward to most?
GA: Each one has its own specificity and importance, just to give you some insights:
Axel Void’s piece in Azadpur, the biggest fruit and vegetable market in Asia, on the Delhi Cold Storage. This area is one of the poorest and bustling in the city, an incredible variety of people cross this place every day and the building lies on a packed main road through Delhi.
Axel Void’s impressive mural at Azadpur for St+Art Delhi 2015
The building itself is humongous. This piece, a classical, extraordinary still life, reminiscent of old masters as Caravaggio or Goya, in this context it’s a visual and cultural revolution.
Okuda in Khan Market: This is one of the fanciest markets in town, and painted on a government building. A sort of untouchable, apparently unchanging, high class spot completely transformed by his explosive piece.
Okuda matching the colours of India with this large scale piece at the city’s Khan Market
Lady Aiko and DalEast in Lodhi Colony: They started the transformation of an entire neighbourhood in what it will be an open air gallery.
Lady Aiko (above) and Dal East brought their inimitable styles to Lodhi Colony
Olek at the family night shelter in the Sarai Kale Khan area of New Delhi: 184 night shelters give protection and a place to sleep to many homeless but they seem invisible to the most. She will make it visible by wrapping it in her crochet work, turning the light onto a social issue, which is easier not to look at.
UKB: What’s the long term aim of St+art India, or is it more short term much like these ephemeral artworks?
GA: There is absolutely a long term aim. The idea is to go to different cities in India, also to go beyond the walls by doing temporary and permanent installations, to expand our organization by collaborating with urban designers, architects, the traditional hand typographer painters. Check this out – www.handpaintedtype.com.
Basically to re-think spaces and re-design our cities by creating new networks with various experts who are active in different fields but working on the same ground.
UKB: Are there plans to take the festival elsewhere in India in 2016?
GA: Definitely. Stay tuned…!
The St+art Delhi 2015 festival runs until the end of the month, and you can keep up to date on all the artwork as it goes up by giving them the thumbs up on Facebook, and following them on Instagram.
There’s something quite exciting about seeing public art like this in India, and I’ll be interested to see further reaction as the festival draws to an exciting end, with Olek’s work due to appear in the coming days.
Finally, I’d like to thank the whole St+art India team for considering my questions, and answering so fully at a time when they are sure to be insanely busy!
Best of luck guys!