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Art Special 2024: The new vocabulary of street art in India

Protest poetry, Augmented Reality and typography make the invisible visible in the modern realm of public art

Pandit Birju Maharaj’s AR-embedded mural at the Lodhi Art District in Delhi.
Pandit Birju Maharaj’s AR-embedded mural at the Lodhi Art District in Delhi.

At the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School in Rajasthan, the walls of a class I room are alive with three-dimensional alphabets. They appear like optical illusions, combining Roman and Devanagiri scripts in rectangular blocks. English alphabets are on one side, and their pronunciations in Devanagari on the other. These visuals make learning engaging and fun—students can trace the alphabets with their hands.

“They are meant to be like learning blocks,” says street artist Siddharth “Khatra” Gohil, 30, who created the typography mural in November. Gohil, who has trained as a graphic designer, plays with typography in his signature bold style.

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Reclaiming public spaces anew
Gohil is among the handful of Indian muralists giving a new language to street art in India. Today, the form is no longer confined to murals and graffiti splashed across flyover pillars or on roadside walls. Artists are exploring new vocabularies, reviving age-old wall art, putting out fearless messages in a bid to reclaim public spaces of all kinds—ranging from schools and government buildings to art districts.

Take for instance Sadhna Prasad, whose vibrant murals of fellow Mumbai citizens are unmissable. One of her recent artworks is on a large wall of the club house at the Mumbai Port Trust. It portrays the everyday life of the neighbourhood, depicting fisherman, children playing cricket and cats stretching leisurely. Indigenous artists have joined the street art club, with the likes of Putli Devi, Malo Devi and Parvati Devi of Jharkhand championing the exquisite tribal art form of Hazaribagh. They have translated the centuries-old wall art form on to paper and canvas with acrylic paints for urban homes.

Going phygital

At a time when technology is seeping into all forms of art, street art has not been left behind. In fact, Augmented Reality (AR), QR codes and filters have entered the space to create an immersive experience.

In Delhi’s Lodhi art district, one can see a massive photo-realistic mural of Pandit Birju Maharaj. It was made by muralist Ruchin Soni a year ago in collaboration with public arts organisation St+art India, and is embedded with AR. Use a phone to scan a code for an animation of Maharaj dancing accompanied to music. “It’s a phygital experience,” says Arjun Bahl, co-founder of St+rt India.

Perhaps one of the first murals with AR was done for the feminist comic series, Priya’s Shakti, in 2014. The central character is the female superhero Priya, a sexual assault survivor, who fights evil with her companion, a flying tiger named Sahas. Her character is inspired by the mythological depiction of Durga.

Ram Devineni, the creator of the series, conceptualised murals—of a woman sitting on a tiger—in places like Dharavi in Mumbai and Connaught Place in Delhi. He collaborated with street artists, and those artworks were elevated with AR through the app Blippar. All one needed to do was download the app on a phone or tablet, and place it over the mural to make it appear three-dimensional with dialogue bubbles. “The idea was to give the experience of a pop-up comic book,” he says. Currently, the New York-based Devineni is working around the theme of climate change for the comic series.

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The typographic mural by Siddharth ‘Khatra’ Gohil at Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School in Rajasthan.
The typographic mural by Siddharth ‘Khatra’ Gohil at Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School in Rajasthan. (Photo by Sohil Belim and St+rt India)

Making of art districts

In March last year, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) along with St+Art India organised a two-day street art festival in the Lodhi art district. The highlight was a shadow installation by urban artist Daku, an anonymous artist who has been active since 2008 and plays with text, light and shadows for his cynical satires on consumerism and politics.

This first-of-its-kind festival highlighted the importance of public art in urban spaces. Bahl points out that several neighbourhoods across India have been reimagined as art districts through large-scale murals. There’s Ukkadam art district in Coimbatore and Kannagi art district in Chennai. Delhi’s Lodhi art district has the highest number of public art with over 65 murals by more than 25 urban artists.

These artworks instil a sense of identity and belonging by representing the city’s inhabitants and communities. One such example is a recent work titled Instante by Mexican artist Paola Delfin at Lodhi. It has black and white portraits of people she encountered in the city; from flower sellers and slum dwellers to a street child tenderly holding a puppy.

An art district also becomes a tool for soft diplomacy, says Bahl. The makeover of the leafy-green Lodhi neighbourhood into an art district began in 2015 , when St+rt India collaborated with Alliance Française. In was followed by a visit by the first lady of France, Brigitte Macron, in 2018. Last year, more murals were added as part of the G20 Summit in September.

A fearless feminist take

Street art is not a solo endeavour, and visual artist Shilo Shiv Suleman knows this. She started the public art activism movement, Fearless Collective in 2012. “Our motivation is to work with communities—often those that are marginalised—and get them to be able to articulate their story,” says Suleman.

In 2020, the Collective worked with the women of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi amidst the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. They created a mural of women in hijabs with dialogue bubbles that said, “Ishq inqalab (love rising)” and “Mohabbat Zindabad (long live love).”

Last year, the Fearless Collective was in COP28 in Dubai in solidarity with Palestine. They created a mural dedicated to the children of Gaza, and Suleman read out a protest poem by Palestinian poet Hiba Abu Nada. She believes their public art shares synergies with the feminist movement, because both aim to reclaim public spaces.

Also read | What's driving the vibrant contemporary art ecosystem in the Middle East

Fearless Collective’s mural of children in Gaza at COP28 in Dubai.
Fearless Collective’s mural of children in Gaza at COP28 in Dubai.

At the India Art Fair, Gohil’s 3D typography will be printed on the official tote bag; and Prasad will lead a workshop, Reimagine The Natural Order, based on her new interactive digital mural titled, I’ll Be Back, that depicts a planet where nature rules. Harnessing imagination with digital tools to create interactive public art is the way forward—one where the viewer is also an active participant.

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