Delhi is a perpetual canvas for many artists to engage with

A city is like a stage where a multitude of acts are played out every minute, every second and every fraction of that second. There are layers and layers that envelop it and an inquisitive artist likes to peel off these layers in his/ her quest to examine, explore and engage with it. While city as a subject remains a preoccupation for many from the community, some choose to be consistently in dialogue with it. City and its various elements have always made it to their canvases but changing times have ushered in newer ways to deal with such concerns. The mammoth public art festival ’48 degrees Celsius Public.Art.Ecology’ held in the Capital in 2008 also played its part. Here we focus on four city-based artists who have been dealing with the city and various urbane issues related to it in a unique manner.

Ravi Agarwal

It was his engagement with the city as a photographer that convinced him to take on environmental issues head-on, and that’s how started his NGO Toxics Links. His videos, installations and photographs, all these years, have been a subtle and poignant reflection of how the city’s inhabitants have used it and abused it. One of his recent solos ‘Flux’ , a body of work comprising images, videos and installations held at Gallery Espace in New Delhi, drove his point home. According to the artist, a viewer may draw inferences but for him to start with the location has to be direct. The transforming city of Delhi and its drastically altering landscape has fuelled projects like ‘Yamuna-Elbe’, a seminal public art and outreach project mounted at the Yamuna riverscape in Delhi and Elbe in Hamburg, Germany. The public projects and discussions were aimed at drawing the attention of the the city’s residents and the authorities to wake up to these rivers and reclaim them.

His latest muse are the defunct industrial spaces in the city, like the Rajghat Power Station at ITO or the Birla mills. "While the former has been lying closed due to environmental concerns, the latter has been transformed into a mall. G.D. Birla started it in 1960 and there is a room that which was used by him. It ran till 1996 and was closed down when industrial mills were being closed down. I have been working on the subject for sometime, ... the spaces that are changing ... flyovers, metro stations...," says Ravi.

Wala - Paribartana Mohanty, Akansha Rastogi and Sujit Mullick

Having won a FICA public art grant, the Wala collective is committed to putting up a series of performances across the city. So, they engage with the city using sites and symbols like a garbage dump in Seemapuri, the National Gallery of Modern Art and Delhi Metro. The protagonist is known as ‘Kachra Seth’, who takes the story forward. In the ‘Kachra Seth Observatory’, an actor dressed up as a king — imagery drawn from a miniature painting — holding a lotus and a mirror, went around the garbage dump in Seemapuri seeing the reflection in the mirror. "So, the onlookers went around along with him seeing what he was seeing. It was during the time when Delhi was plagued by endemics during the floods, …dengue and all. …Kachra Seth then went to an MCD toilet and was laden with costume jewellery… and suddenly people starting snatching away that those jewellery from him. …So, in a way, he became like a metaphor for desire for the people. …" says Akansha Rastogi. After a recent, performative guided tour of the Delhi Metro, Wala Collective is now working on their next piece, which is planned at a heritage site and an apartment simultaneously.

Vibha Galhotra

It’s important for Vibha to raise existential issues for they inform not only others but even her own identity. Having shifted from Chandigarh, she was in her initial years, all the more sensitive to the chaos and different landscape of Delhi. Her earlier solo, ‘Between me and Delhi’ held at Anant Art Gallery in 2004, was more personal in the sense it dealt with the issue of migration.

The city continues to resonate in her art. ‘Neo-monster’ is one such work, a public art project that raises questions about urbanisation and consumerism. A larger-than-life earth mover made out of an inflated balloon is a travelling work that has been to not just different parts of the city like malls and illegal colonies but also different parts of the world. Displayed at different sites in Delhi, the giant art work fascinated the public enough to get them to click photographs, ask questions. At the site, the artist also gives away flyers to the viewers. "At least a few will be read and trigger a thought," she had told us earlier. Currently in Latvia, Vibha wants to take ‘Neo-monster’ to Istanbul and China "where a spate of new constructions is coming up." She’s now working on another city-specific project, ‘Absence presence’, where she will do installations dealing specifically with the disappearance of house sparrows from Delhi.

Atul Bhalla

The search for his own identity takes Atul Bhalla to the city and its many aspects. "It comes from questions like, ‘Where am I?", ‘What am I?’ I feel inspired by certain aspects of Delhi," he says.

For ‘Dilli doorast’ in 2006 curated by him, Atul had three artists of different religions live in old Delhi for a month. The show was finally put up at Chitli Qabar, the place where the artists had lived. The Yamuna has also been central to his art practice. For an eco-art residency for Khoj, Atul did a Yamuna walk that lasted five days from Palla, where it enters the city to Okhla Barrage. Atul feels that the city and its planners have forgotten the river somehow. "But it is very much alive. I pray every year for it to flood so that people notice it; ...after Independence no single building has come up which faces the river...," he says. For 48°C , he again engaged with Yamuna and came up with an interactive performance piece ‘aapne Jamuna ko kabhi chhua hai?’. The artist had put up hoardings at Metro stations asking the question. In his latest project, a photography exhibition at Shrine Empire Gallery in December, he is dealing with myths of a city.