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Art al fresco in Delhi’s Lodhi colony

The walls along Lodhi Colony’s streets have become canvasses for artists from India and abroad.   | Photo Credit: Anuj Arora

Reds and pinks, muted browns and greys, and suddenly a blinding expanse of yellow, all peek out from behind lush trees in New Delhi’s Lodhi Colony. This is the newest destination for Instagram influencers. The blank walls along the streets have become canvasses for artists from India and across the world, who have begun turning this government colony into India’s first public art district.

It is a warm Saturday morning that is rapidly moving towards scorch, but there are many visitors. Some stop and stare, wrestling with awe at the sheer scale of the art while also trying to figure out what the artist has intended to convey. Most take photographs, which they will soon upload on social media, and there are two pre-wedding shoots taking place on either ends of the same artwork. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. There was an actual bikini-shoot. The residents were definitely not pleased,” my guide, Manan Khurana, says with a chuckle.

Lodhi Colony was an easy choice for the folks at St+art India, the NGO behind the colony’s glam-up. The area is pedestrian friendly, with lots of open spaces and wide roads, and its unique architecture made it one of the top options for St+art’s mission to bring art out of stuffy museums and into the public sphere. The fact that it was not a gated community was a plus, says Guilia Ambrogi, curator of the Lodhi Art Festival. “We always look for nice walls in the city,” Ambrogi jokes over the phone. “Everywhere we go, we keep an eye out for potential.”

A view from above.

A view from above.   | Photo Credit: Anuj Arora

What started out as a three-wall experiment in 2015 gave shape to the idea: the people behind St+art India realised that Lodhi Colony had everything an art district would need. The art expanded to 25 works by the following year. “2016 was when the art district took shape,” says filmmaker and new-media artist Akshat Nauriyal, co-founder of St+art India. “This year’s festival, in which we added another 20–25 paintings, was a celebration of all the work we’ve done in the last four years,” he adds.

Going global

The 2019 edition of the festival, which began in January, includes pieces from Indian artists such as Sajid Wajid, Sameer Kulavoor and Hanif Kureshi, and international artists from The Netherlands’ Daan Botlek, Singaporean artists Yok and Sheryo, and Japan’s Yoh Nagao, among others.

The paintings are sometimes abstract, sometimes commentary, and often a tribute to the city and the experiences it has offered the artists. But they all have a single aim — to bring art to the people. “Part of what St+art India does is bring art outside the ‘official’ spaces. And there is also the problem of not having enough galleries,” says Ambrogi. “We have so many artists but not enough space for them all. Open-air art like this is one way to showcase their works,” she says.

Art al fresco in Delhi’s Lodhi colony

That bright yellow wall in Block 16, one of the first artworks we visit, is Yok and Sheryo’s take on their experiences in India. Named ‘Letters to Lodhi’, it is inspired by the vivid designs on matchboxes in India. The wall opposite, painted by another Singaporean artist, Sam Lo, is a soothing blend of white, blue and orange, filled with images of birds and CCTVs in an apparent comment on how we’re now watched everywhere we go.

Further down the road is one of the more popular works — an augmented reality piece by German artist Bond that comes to life when viewed through an app. There’s also pop artist Nagao’s mural, full of bright colours in complete contrast to the beige, brown and sepia tones of Aaron Glasson’s ‘The Sacrosanct Whole’.

At the opposite end of the colony is the eye-catching ‘Trans Lives Matter’ by the Aravani Art Project, dedicated to the LGBTQI community. It’s also right opposite a school; a couple of mothers waiting to pick up their children gaze at the mural endlessly.

Neverending story

Block 14 has a piece on climate change, parts of which have been painted with carbon ink created out of Delhi’s smog. Block 17’s mural by Sameer Kulavoor is a commentary on how everyone sees life through their phones, which, ironically, is precisely what I do when I see the piece. Khurana just laughs.

The festival, supported by Asian Paints, is over, but there are still two pieces in progress. “It should be called ‘End’, because the festival never ends,” Nauriyal chortles. There are still a number of blank walls and St+art is considering whether to add more murals to the district. “We also need some breathing space and to make sure we don’t bombard the area by occupying everything. So we’ll see,” says Nauriyal. Meanwhile, some of the older works from 2016 are being refurbished slowly.

“Art in public spaces opens up dialogue between people to think about the city and public spaces. It also makes art more inclusive and accessible,” says Roobina Karode, Director and Chief Curator, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

“Art in India is still an elitist, fanciful thing and even with the Biennale and its artists, there is never really a connection with the viewer and the artist and the art,” says Delhi-based architect and artist Gautam Bhatia. “Creating public art is very important, especially in India. We are a public culture, we’re on the road half the time, so there’s a dire need to make life better in the city and art is a very good way of making that possible.”

Art as experience

“Any attempt at bringing art into the public sphere is always good, make murals on whatever walls are available or drawings on the road,” says Bhatia. It serves two purposes — an environmental purpose and an art purpose. Art as experience is much better than art as just an object to be stared at. How the art lets you engage with that public space is more important.”

Art al fresco in Delhi’s Lodhi colony

St+art India is also planning to offer curated tours, once the unforgiving summer lets up. “We’re planning to have a small circle tour with some of the pieces, and a longer one that includes all the pieces,” says Khurana. The district was officially inaugurated earlier in March, and plans are afoot to have signboards. “This might be included in the Incredible India campaign as well,” adds Nauriyal.

With so many pieces to engage with, an ask for a ‘favourite’ is met with groans. The colourful community wall ‘Saath Saath’ painted with the help of the locals through a series of workshops turns out to be Nauriyal’s favourite. Street artist H11235’s mural of a goldfish intertwined with plastic is Khurana’s.

As for me, I find myself unable to take my eyes off a geometrically abstract piece by London-based Corin Kennington and Harry Fieber. The plain-yet-colourful piece has neither the subtle commentary of its neighbours, nor the flashy cheekiness of pieces on the other side of the district. But it is calming to the senses, and of course, serves as a fantastic background for my Instagram picture.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2021 5:07:17 AM |

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