If you were to pass Max Mueller Bhavan on Kasturba Gandhi Marg in central Delhi, you would come across small verses on the billboard right outside the building. “Here endure, now amplify, for we must build new worlds out of small rehearsals,” it states. This is part of the billboard art project conceptualised by interdisciplinary artist Amitesh Grover and supported by the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan (MMB). Since 18 October, the board has been showcasing a new piece every Monday—lyrical prompts at times, poignant reflections at others.
This is the third edition of a project that started in 2019 as part of the show Five Million Incidents, curated by the Raqs Media Collective in collaboration with MMB. Initially titled Velocity Pieces, it saw one board of verse going up every day for 100 days.
“The board unveils a new activity to be performed, to find out what our relationship with the world might be under the special conditions of an instruction. These instructions are inspired by the precarious conditions we live in, and by those who experience precarity in profound ways,” stated the project note.
Some of the prompts, such as those related to society or politics, would involve multiple people; others, which encouraged each person to look within, did not require an audience. “Every piece of useful fiction intends to produce a spontaneous choreography for the everyday, an alternative momentum, a velocity to rehearse a different temper for our times,” stated the note.
Over time, regulars began to look forward to the compositions. So much so that MMB suggested extending the billboard project. “I realised that people were connecting the board poems with what was happening around us. It had become a way for people to begin a dialogue, and often photographs of the text would go up on social media, with threads of comments on what the board poem meant to them,” says Grover.
There were some abstract verses: “Find a meteoric line or one too long, one that twists or tricks. But find your line of beauty.” Others were openly political: “We are a country of spectators. We let others enact our lives. Choose your actor.” Many wrote to him, thanking him for being honest, while others advised him to be careful.
The project’s second iteration began just ahead of the nationwide lockdown last year. Grover kept up the pace through the months that followed, turning it into a digital project.
He would write the text, the board would go and a photograph would be sent to him to upload on his social media accounts. It seemed to touch a chord, the images providing some sort of a link to a lost world. Grover kept the digital project going until the second wave of covid-19 this year. “Then it became too catastrophic for me to write and for MMB to organise. Once we emerged from that phase, wounded in our own ways, they asked me if I would like to reflect on this time through the project,” he explains.
The billboard has now taken on the life of a memorial as he sees people forgetting the grief and loss of the past few months. “No one seems to remember the accountability that we all had been raging about in April. I would now want this billboard to be a remembrance, and wanting to interrupt the city so that it does not forget,” he adds. The third edition will continue till December 2022.
From the beginning, Grover had wanted the verses to be like a music composer’s scorecard. One of his favourites is about trying to fit yourself along the length and breadth of a favourite window; or shutting your eyes and imagining the colour you see right after as the colour of your own sky.
For Grover, it remains ironic that compositions so poetic and personal are going up on a medium as public as a billboard. The challenge remains to write contemplative pieces anyone can identify with and practise.
“These mostly start with a verb. I have a collection of 200 verbs, I pick one and begin to construct a board poem. These are a blend of theatricality and everyday rituals, which come from observing the really small things we do in everyday life. I think of everyone as an actor in its philosophical sense—political social actors,” he says. The verse sometimes looks to the future, sometimes the past. He works with rhymes and meters to give the text a form and shape. In 2019, much of the writing was in response to the unrest and protests related to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. “The idea of the citizen, how do we inhabit what we inhabit and our relationship to the public became part of things that I was writing. The lockdown became another kind of reality, when writers and activists got imprisoned as well,” he explains.
A labour-intensive project of this kind, he acknowledges, would not have been possible without MMB’s programming team. “It requires a team to maintain the installation, to change the text on a 21ft-high billboard on a regular basis, and to defend its artist’s freedom unconditionally,” says Grover.
He is now considering starting an Instagram account for the project. He has a collection of 130 board verses, and will be adding 70-80 by the end of next year. “In a way, it will be the longest running public art project in the country. I have now started producing photo prints and people request for their favourite board poems,” he says. The project is also being converted into an artist book, which will not be just a document and an archive of the verses but have reflections on the history of public art and its relevance.