The township offers so perfect a setting for urban art that you stumble upon one even in a forest!

Can an upturned car be art? Well, it depends on how you look at it. In the rebelliously innovative world of urban art, it fits in perfectly. Ticks all the necessary boxes: It’s confrontational. It’s challenging. And, most importantly, it’s unexpected.

The pleasure of creation

While India has always had a tradition of street artists and pavement painters, aggressively edgy urban art started making an appearance only fairly recently. A rebellious subculture in grungy-hip cities such as Berlin, Amsterdam and San Francisco, it is a genre of art tradtionally created by young masked artists armed with spray paint, working through the night. It’s illegal, and therefore necessarily ephemeral. Created just for the pleasure of creation. Which makes it fiercely anti-Capitalist.

Ironically, legendary street artists such as Banksy sell for tens of thousands of pounds today. As a result, while staying anonymous, popular urban artists now promote themselves on Facebook, MySpace and eBay. This genre has never been more hip, popular and commercially successful.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which ran from December 2012 to March 2013, triggered a street art movement in Fort Kochi, mainly around the exhibition venues. At the famously bohemian Kashi Art Café, there’s an intriguing piece of biker-inspired work delicately cut into the moss, between a no-parking sign and peeling paint. Beside it, someone has spray painted a thoughtful-looking woman on the wall, using the naturally darker parts of the weathered space to make it look as if half her face is in a shadow. Both stand out not just because they’re skilfully rendered, but also because cleverly use the cityscape as a canvas, turning challenges into powerful advantages.

You stumble upon gems like this in unexpected places. A noisy junction in Delhi has a Gaudi-inspired owl. A posh residential area in Chennai bears the ‘Stay Calm, Make Love’ graffiti on a corner wall. A quiet road in Puducherry flaunts a bright, cheery and totally unexpected contemporary mural on a grubby, once-white wall — the style is jigsaw-meets-mosaic, with touches of the traditional kolam.

While Auroville does have such surprises, the big question here is not what triggered it, but why there isn’t more. After all, the experimental township, founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa (also known as The Mother) is seen as a Petri dish for art. Drawing artists, potters and painters from all over the country, its charter famously says “Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole.” The perfect setting for a wave of urban art, you would think (Though, perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it forest art, given the fact that the township is resolutely bohemian, with eco-friendly, solar-powered, innovatively designed building set between the trees).

However, while there is plenty of creativity in Auroville’s galleries, tripping across it in the forest is rare. That said, when you do find art, it’s delightful: Clearly created by people who do it because they love the process. After all, work like this will never get the huge audiences that graffiti and street paintings garner in busy urban spaces.

Besides, in the forest, it lasts as long as it lasts. It’s open to the wind, rain and mud. Most of all, the mud. It gets into every nook, cranny and crevice. It batters the works. This is not a benign environment. At the Wellpaper Café, deep in the forest, there’s a log of wood with a haunting stencil of a little boy. It’s half eaten by termites, but even ravaged, it’s striking.

In the middle of nowhere

Which brings us back to that upturned car. It’s in the middle of nowhere. And yet it survives. Beside the car, there’s a note on a tree saying, “Please paint something beautiful.” And people have obliged.

Even as the township’s newsletters worry about creating an ‘idiom’, a distinct Auroville style, when they discuss art, it’s inexplicably comforting to know that out in the forest a bunch of people with spray cans are taking the trouble to upturn an old car, plant it into the dry red mud, and re-fashion it into a symbol that conjures up John Lennon, group hugs and daisy chains.

And that they do it simply because they can.