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Why Indian street art is not necessarily anti-establishment

Two women walk past a wall painted as part of the women-only street art festival in Marol Art Village, Mumbai.   | Photo Credit: Supreet Sapkal

Circa 2010. The Mumbai police’s poster boy of moral policing, ACP Vasant Dhoble, was cracking down on bars and pubs in Mumbai. His move was met with widespread protest and outrage on social media, but the protests also spilled over to a medium that was then slowly coming into vogue — graffiti. Artist Daku caused something of a sensation by painting the F-word across nine buildings in the city as an act of defiance.

His original intention was to paint ‘F*** Dhobale. Let’s Dance.’ This was eventually shortened for brevity but the message’s intent was unmistakable. The bold act caught the imagination of people across the country and went viral on social media. While people in India were familiar with the concept of graffiti, the art form had rarely been used in its original sense here. This was possibly the moment that crystallised an art movement that was gradually evolving in and around India’s urban centres.

In less than a decade since, street art has become something of a rage in the country. There has been an explosion in the number of graffiti artists, many of whom have gained a following that rivals that of their established Western counterparts. Graffiti has not only come of age but has also become a thriving profession, with  artists like Daku and Zine becoming cult legends on the online forums and subreddits of the art world. They are frequently commissioned by large corporate houses to create extravagant murals at top dollar prices.

Protest and angst

However, graffiti has a longer, and more politically contentious, history in countries like the U.S., where it originated. At the turn of the century, graffiti took root in predominantly black neighbourhoods as an expression of protest and angst against racism. Graffiti was therefore primarily an anti-establishment act that was regarded as vandalism. This positioned graffiti as “anti-art” — in stark contrast to the high art of museums and art galleries. Graffiti’s transition from an underground, anti-establishment movement to a mainstream art form has therefore not been without its share of paradoxes.

A boy walks past a ragpicker-inspired wall painting in Dharavi.

A boy walks past a ragpicker-inspired wall painting in Dharavi.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

After Mumbai, the Shahpur Jat mural project in New Delhi was a watershed moment in the mass cultural awakening to graffiti. It was initiated by a group of artists who formed the stArt Collective and chose to focus on Shahpur Jat, a fast gentrifying locality in South Delhi. They obtained permission from residents to paint on the walls of their houses, with the aim to create a vibrant and beautiful neighbourhood. Despite its massive popularity and the role it played in popularising graffiti art across the country, it was undertaken in an upscale area as a form of gentrification in stark contrast to the black neighbourhoods in the U.S. where graffiti originated.

Unique and iconic as the effort was, the Shahpur Jat project can, at best, be described as the imposition of a certain aesthetic on what was historically a rural neighbourhood. Owners of high-end boutiques and designer shops, who were fast acquiring real estate in South Delhi before prices went up, often complained about the ‘low class’ and unmaintained nature of the surroundings. The aesthetics of the space was an impediment to their business. The mural art effort then essentially helped create a hipster atmosphere for businesses to thrive.

Rebellious start

By origin, however, graffiti and certain forms of street art are typically acts of vandalism, that is, made without permission and on government or public property. They are, very importantly, assertions of identity or calls for attention to issues. Graffiti thus presents a perspective where defacement becomes art and asks us an important question about what our own cultural values as a society are informed by.

In India, street art and graffiti take on a very different cultural meaning. We are already accustomed to defacement, to seeing walls splattered with paan stains and peeling stickers of political parties pasted over fading signs that say ‘Stick No Bills’. Roadside walls frequently serve as public urinals. This careless use of public space carries a quasi-legal status because of the sheer impracticality of enforcing vandalism laws in such a socio-political context. Consequently, the element of shock or discomfort that is so essential to graffiti is lost here.

A soldier walks past a wall with graffiti in Srinagar.

A soldier walks past a wall with graffiti in Srinagar.   | Photo Credit: AP

Graffiti is an anti-establishment expression in countries like the U.S. precisely because public walls are considered pristine, and cannot be used for posters or signage. That is why graffiti there is considered the antithesis of art. While it may be visually similar to works of art, the intent is the exact opposite of what is typically understood as art. While art is an exploration of aesthetics and purpose, anti-art is a subversion of both aesthetics and purpose as they are traditionally understood. Graffiti is uniquely positioned to hold a mirror to classical or dominant ideas of aesthetic and decorum.

Thus, what has gained popularity in India as ‘street art’ should not be misconstrued as graffiti, even though some of the artists do engage with social issues in their work. Bengaluru-based visual artist Shilo Shiv Suleiman, for instance, paints murals and street art that promote women’s issues. These works are informed by her own aesthetics, but she also collaborates with communities to remain sensitive to their concerns. More importantly, she works with the essential discomfort factor.

From other ’hoods

Street art is supposed to make the viewer uncomfortable and by highlighting women’s issues, including menstrual health, which are seldom spoken about in most communities, her artwork serves as an uncomfortable reminder of issues ignored in the mainstream.

The problem with well-to-do artists choosing marginalised neighbourhoods as their canvas is echoed by the up-and-coming graffiti crews of Dharavi, where the art form is gaining increasing popularity along with hip-hop and b-boying. K-9, an artist manager from the area, is vocal about his dislike for artists from other ’hoods painting in Dharavi. “Crews from our area work in our area. Why should these fancy artists, who never cared about Dharavi and looked down upon us in the past, now come here and show off their skills,” he asks.

Graffiti artists Daku, Rush and Treblo pose in Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi.

Graffiti artists Daku, Rush and Treblo pose in Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

But when a can of spray paint costs upwards of ₹2,000, is it not inevitable that only a certain group of artists have access to graffiti? “It’s very difficult to raise funds and find sponsorship,” he admits, “but the kids save money to buy equipment and sometimes we do artwork for photoshoots and videos. Then the money comes from there.”

Graffiti here has also risen, ironically, at a time when the original community of street artists and sign painters are barely able to make a living from their craft. Political and cinema-related work, which was their mainstay, has been completely taken over by vinyl and flex banners. An art movement that’s helmed by middle-class artists with an emphasis on aesthetics over messaging rarely has space for marginalised artist communities.

Instead, the rising popularity of the art form has meant more artwork commissions now than ever before. Broti Bhattacharya, Mumbai-based design strategist and mural artist, expects it will grow more. “For now, there is a lot of demand for painters who can execute murals on large buildings. Of course, we hire contractors or vendors who in turn pay the painters, but with the rise in demand, they will be in a position to demand better pay.”

Think positive

Expectedly, an overtly political view of graffiti is not popular here. During my research, I was repeatedly rebuffed by artists for “looking at problems” instead of “trying to see the great work that is happening.” And they are not wrong; there is plenty of amazing work happening in the non-political space of street art. And artists are not keen to split hairs about how one identifies them.

Anpu Varkey, famous for her cat murals, says she identifies as a graffiti artist as well as a mural artist and street artist. “Public art is what I would call it. Making works within the public realm.” When asked whether an act of defiance or rebellion isn’t essential for public art to be called graffiti, she argues: “These contexts arise from a Western framework. In India, these differentiations are not so identifiable — most kids who can afford a spray can come from privileged backgrounds.”

Artist Anpu Varkey stands in front of one of her works.

Artist Anpu Varkey stands in front of one of her works.   | Photo Credit: K. Bhagya Prakash

Finally, it is this that determines how this art is perceived by the artists and how it has evolved here. The act of painting a wall is not political but aesthetic. Even artist Daku, who models himself on Banksy, only paints on derelict walls or in abandoned spaces. “Metro stations and railways are signs of progress; I don’t want negativity associated with my work,” he says.

It is about taking something that’s lying around ‘worthlessly’ and making art out of it. Says Varkey, “On the streets you are just a painter who reshapes a wall. It is more important to understand who you are making the artwork for. Effectively engaging with your audience is what you would be thinking about, not the terminology.”

But as Varkey herself points out, this separation of art from its politics is not a luxury everyone has. In Kashmir, the very act of public art is a form of protest. With the Internet and social media suspended practically every other day and enforced disappearances a norm, a wall on the bund or embankment side of the Jhelum river has become a canvas for several graffiti artists.

Since the 1970s, graffiti as a form of political expression has been popular in Kashmir, and unlike the rest of the country where graffiti is ignored, here it is routinely whitewashed over by the authorities who crack down heavily on all forms of dissent. Yet, some graffiti works have captured the mass imagination, like the portrait of JKLF founder Maqbool Bhat, which went viral and also served as album art for several underground rappers.

In recent years, a crop of anonymous artists has sprung up, including a 20-year-old woman who has been painting for the past four years, starting with her own version of the portrait of Maqbool Bhat. The artist, who refused our request for an interview, protests against Kashmir being the most heavily militarised zone in the world through her artwork, which is inspired by Iranian resistance artists like Marjane Satrapi and Sherin Nishat. “I will live the life of a prisoner,” she said in a recent interview with Kashmirwalla. “I will resist brutality via my art.”

The writer is an illustrator who reads and sketches comic books.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2021 11:57:35 PM |

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