A child blows soap bubbles at another girl, who tries to eat them; a masked scientist wearing safety glasses conducts an experiment, possibly a cure for covid; a raging bull charges at you from a backdrop of ancient temples. There is also Salvador Dali, who stares back at you from an intersection of a street. These are not scenes from some dystopian film, but snatches of public art that can be seen on the streets of Bhubaneswar in Odisha these days.
The mammoth project to embellish public spaces started just before the International Men’s Hockey World Cup in Odisha in January this year. Nearly 600 artists arrived in the city to create thousands of murals. Within months, roughly 8 lakh sq. ft of Bhubaneswar’s area, including portions of the national highway, transformed into a beautiful canvas. Today, the works on display range from narrative to figurative, abstract to landscape, and folk to contemporary art. One can also see a smattering of sculptures, depicting the sights and sounds of the city.
The project has been conceptualised by STAMP (Street Art and Mural Project), a sixyear-old Bhubaneswar-based organisation that specialises in beautifying and maintaining the walls and public areas of the city by way of paintings, sculptures and installation art. Under the aegis of the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC), STAMP has quietly but surely given the city of Bhubaneswar—and its residents—art that can be consumed on the go, while venturing on the streets of the city or while waiting at the traffic signal. Balwant Singh, vice chairman, Bhubaneswar Development Authority, is confident that no other city in India has devoted such a sizable area to public art, or managed this sort of visual spectacle.
The project has not ended with the culmination of the Hockey World Cup. Today, the murals are inspected regularly by the BMC. Cameras have been installed at many locations to monitor the safety of the artworks, and there are frequent visits by experts to check for any wear and tear. Awareness programmes are organised, especially with the residents in various locations, to sensitise them towards public art.
Internationally, cities such as Miami, Philadelphia, Paris, Berlin, Melbourne, among others, have turned to public art to sensitise the public about a variety of issues. In India, too, this trend is gaining traction. Just three months ago, Senyensen Collective, comprising sister-brother duo Atia Sen, Tan Sen, and their friend Yen, worked on murals highlighting Coimbatore’s dwindling wetlands in collaboration with St+art India Foundation, Coimbatore City Municipal Corporation (CCMC), and Asian Paints.
Today, in Bhubaneswar, everywhere you look, there is some or the other mural that vies for your attention. It’s not unusual, then, to hear people bring up artworks in their daily conversations to suggest landmarks and meeting points. “The murals in the city are urban markers,” explains Aadish Nargunde, associate and general manager, Bhubaneswar Urban Knowledge Centre (BUKC), the curatorial and technical arm of the development authority that works on beautification projects in the city.
This is not the first time that STAMP has conducted street art drives in the city. The previous two editions took place in 2017 and 2018. This year, there was a clear mandate for the 30 selected sites to “engage in relevant storytelling, and to have context in curation.” At the Fire Station Junction, for instance, a warm colour palette of yellow, red, orange greets you, each mural telling us the story of brave firemen. The images are compelling, created with precision, care and thought. Likewise, at another intersection, on a road that leads to the historic Khandagiri and Udayagiri Caves, we see life-size paintings of monks at an under-bridge along with sculptures carved in local stone, depicting these archaeological sites. In front of the newly-renovated Kalinga Stadium, the main venue for the hockey matches, there are paintings of all the 16 captains, thus prompting “people to engage in conversation around the game,” Nargunde explains.
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Roughly ₹5 crore was spent on this public art project. Citizen groups were invited to suggest the art they wanted to see on the city’s numerous walls. “It is important for art to reach the masses, for them to get sensitised, and engage with a city’s new creative layer,” says Panchanan Samal, secretary, Odisha Lalit Kala Akademi. “Art is the representation of the times we live in and provides and immediate context of what’s happening around us.” The Akademi too contributed to this project by hosting art camps for students from art schools and colleges, and international artists from countries like the US, Italy, France, Egypt and Korea to install 51 pieces of sculptures in stone, terracotta and scrap metal. In one of the localities that we visit, there is a fascinating installation made from the discarded terracotta material.