Harshini Vakkalanka takes stock of the recent upsurge of artistic activity in public spaces in Bangalore

The Rangoli Arts centre was recently opened as one of the first dedicated public space for art in the city. The space, extending from the Anil Kumble Circle till the Cauvery Emporium junction on M.G. Road, will host three galleries: Vismaya, Chaya and Belaku, apart from auditorium spaces and later a restaurant and a planned special-activities centre all under the roof of Namma Metro.

At the opening, the walls of the centre were adorned with more than 300 paintings by children. “The space is meant to be a bridge between common man and the cultural community,” says Surekha, city-based artist and curator of the Rangoli Arts Centre. “The architecture is meant for openness in attitude. The over stretch has very few enclosures and most of its integral spaces are visible. It unconditionally invites people walking on the street to take a closer look and step in. This adds a deeper and longer meaning to the notion of public space since the M.G. Road Boulevard has its own history and nostalgia for Bangaloreans.”

This comes amidst a recent spate of arts activities including theatre, music and painting in public spaces, like the One Billion Rising campaign in Cubbon Park to end violence against women and the periodical Theatre Jam by the Maraa Collective that seeks draw attention to art and media in public space.

Early last year, there was the Urban-Avant Garde project by the Max Mueller Bhavan in collaboration with Jaaga for the Malleswaram Accessibility Project (also “Malleshwaram Moves”), which most famously saw the graffiti around and along the walls of the bus depot and on buses and other incongruous corners in the neighbourhood by German graffiti artists like Hendrik Beikirch in collaboration with local artists including Appupen.The project also included experimental dance performances, workshops, lectures, street exhibitions, video screenings and music. “Since it is the first such project in Bangalore and among the first in India in general I think it is extremely relevant,” says Hendrik. “Everything needs kind of a starting point and I feel this would the one for Bangalore, giving people the possibility to see and experience the joy of arts without going to a gallery or museum. I think that is an important.”

“The Map project opened up the space that was already there,” says Archana Prasad, co-founder and director, Jaaga. “It has brought people who are trying to actively do something with the government and public spaces together. There are hardly any real public spaces in Bangalore where people can congregate except for parks, bus-stops and train stations. Urban planning has not made space for public gatherings. Even Freedom Park is highly managed. There are gates, entry times, big fences, specific hours, gender and age restrictions.”

Archana is careful to draw the distinction between public art and graffiti, which she says has not really taken off in India (unless you count political graffiti). “The notion of graffiti connects to something subversive or illegal. Graffiti expresses personal voices of people whose voices are not usually heard. It started in New York and spread to Europe and then South East Asia. Whereas Urban Avant-Garde, while inspired by graffiti and using graffiti art, was about art in public space. It had connections to projects which we were doing in neighbourhood, with cultural and social awareness. And we worked with the government, with artists and interested parties.”

“It is something totally new for the majority of the people and it is important to inform them about this art movement. So in the best case it is something that is not imposed on the community but evolves within it. In Europe it took years to evolve to an accepted art form,” adds Hendrik.

Art historian and designer Annapurna Garimella, however has a contrary view. Annapurna, who has also written about public sculpture in Bangalore, believes that there is no concept of public art in the city “in the American or European sense. There are other kinds of public art like street theatre or projects like Urban Avant-Garde sponsored by organizations like the Max Mueller Bhavan based on European models but public art or sculpture to engender public debate is not there.”

“Do people really want this? The government is not sponsoring this and in the instances where for example, the corporation has painted murals in the underpasses, such artwork doesn’t fall into a stable category. Also what does accessibility mean? The notion of public art is tied to the notion of democracy.”

Many artists including Archana and Ekta of the Maara Collective explain that though the words “public” and “art” may be loaded, public spaces can be agreed upon as fundamental spaces that are occupied, accessed or used by people across gender, age, class or caste.

The Rangoli Arts Centre may be a step forward, but other spaces like the Cubbon Park bandstand where the Shabnam Virmani rendition of Kabir’s poetry took place, need saving.

“Public spaces are under-used, have huge potential and are highly endangered,” says Ekta. “What happens when they shrink is that rich will find places where they can meet other rich, genders will meet in places they consider safe, people will stop mixing with the other. There will be no communication between the working and the middle class.”

Ekta believes that art which is displayed or performed in public spaces becomes a response to what is happening in the city. “Unlike the news, such art cannot be read and forgotten. It makes people think, feel and go beyond facts. It helps them share their responses and access and engage with their issues.”