Of late, many art practitioners have been feeling the need to engage with people who are beyond the white cube.

The optimists will tell you that something is better than nothing but the unforgiving few continue to lament the absence of public art in this country. So where do we stand? Despite several years of debate, the government has done little to address the issue; whatever has happened is largely due to private initiatives.

Of late, many art practitioners feel the need to engage with people who are beyond the white cube. “How many people go to the galleries? The same set of 500-600 people go for different kinds of cultural events. What about the others? We want to reach out to people irrespective of class, age, group,” says Aruna Adiceam, Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in India, which organised the Fete de la Photo 2014, a huge photo-festival in public spaces in Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Goa, Kolkata and Thiruvananthapuram. In Delhi, different activities like astrophotography, mobile photo-booth, exhibitions will take up public spaces in and around Connaught Place. “I think photography needs to be outdoors. Art is for everybody,” adds Aruna.

A statement that Rajeev Sethi, the brain behind “Jaya He” at the T2 terminal of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, would agree with. The Delhi-based curator and scenographer created a massive piece of public art that brings together artists, craftsmen, designers, architects in a merger of traditional and modern India. A three-kilometre art wall split into six themes displays thousands of artefacts and art works by the likes of Vivan Sundaram, Nilima Sheikh, Jogen Chowdhury, Riyas Komu, Manu Parekh, G.R. Iranna and Chittrovanu Majumdar.

“Art can’t be confined to godowns. It has to be shared with people. It’s not easy for a common man to just walk into an art gallery. So, yes we have more and more examples of public art, but there is a danger of it all being mediocre. How to select an art work and choosing a site are important issues. Different mechanisms have to be put into place,” says Sethi.  

Art has been taken to the streets literally in Delhi with the first edition of St.ART Delhi. Besides talks, workshops and discussions, an important element is the painting of around 80 walls in the city. One is the life-size mural of Mahatma Gandhi on the Delhi Police headquarters, a joint effort by Indian artist Anpu Varkey and German street artist Hendrik Beikrich. “It took six years for us to feel confident enough to put together a festival like this. People have become more responsive and tolerant of not just the street art but also the street artist. While there was some resistance to our Mahatma Gandhi work, Delhi Police really stood by us,” says Hanif Kureshi, the Delhi-based typographer behind the festival.

Public art could be a propagator for issues affecting the public as demonstrated at the just-concluded India Art Fair where Kolkata-based photographer Leena Kejriwal launched her public art campaign “M.I.S.S.I.N.G”. The eight-foot female figures will soon be taken to various public spaces in different cities to sensitise the public to the problem of disappearing girls. 

For sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan, it is imperative that people are able to engage with the piece installed in a public space. His guru, the iconic sculptor Ramkinkar Baij, had given the country its most significant public art work: the two monumental figures of Yaksha and Yakshini, who flank the entrance of the Reserve Bank of India in New Delhi.

Even though Radhakrishnan recently created two huge public art works in Goa and Kerala — both were commissioned by the State — he isn’t particularly thrilled with the scene. “The sun-dial at a round-about park in Delhi or the steel mushrooms near AIIMS are not particularly great examples of public art. There was a lot of hope before and after the Commonwealth Games but nothing happened. In the name of public art, we still have statues of political figures and a few murals done long ago.” A few noteworthy additions in the last couple of years are Subodh Gupta’s “Line ofControl”, a giant steel installation at South Court Mall in Saket and Anjolie Ela Menon’s mural in an already arty Terminal 3 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport.

While the ambitious “48 degree Celsius: public.art.ecology”, the country’s first public art festival, was supposed to push the case of public art, not much happened. Pooja Sood, who curated the festival, was also part of an advisory panel constituted by the Delhi Urban Arts Commission to advise public bodies on commissioning public art pieces. “But nothing came of it. These bodies have no problems spending on art but they need guidance on how to go about it,”says Sood, who heads Khoj, an alternative space for art in the city. 

In a country where corporate support to art is minimal, the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art’s (FICA) public art grant is crucial. All seven projects that it has supported so far had strong societal dimensions. “We want to encourage projects that explore ideas of working with communities, building societies and developing a healthy dialogue with the public on how they imagine shared spaces. Our aim is to engage with projects that have a strong social angle and allow interaction and engagement with the public,” says Roshini Vadehra, head of fundraising at FICA. 

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