St+Arting a revolution?: India's bold new muralists

Should slums be beautified? Amidst the squalor of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, are colourful, joyful, captivating, haunting murals.  Portraits of locals -kids, women, and men- dot areas of the neighbourhood.  Stenciled on the walls by a variety of artists, most not Indian, these little portraits beautify an area known for its physical ugliness.

 St+Art is one of the groups organizing a bunch (a school? A gaggle? A herd?) of murals across a variety of Indian cities.  They’ve flown in artists from around the world to spend time in India and paint murals in areas in need of some sort of revival. 

 Started by Arjun Bahl, Akshat Nauriyal, Giulia Ambrogi, Hanfi Kureshi, and Thanish Thomas, St+art finds neighbourhoods that are just off the beaten path, ignored in some way.  They then hire artists either locally or internationally to spruce things up with murals.

Lodhi Art District

Lodhi Art District

Their project in Dharavi is particularly interesting because of its uniqueness.  Located in Mumbai, Dharavi comprises a network of informal housing comprising 700 000 people.  It’s the densest place on Earth and the largest slum in Asia.  Maybe the last thing they need is a mural.  In order of priority, clean water, good education, access to food, social safety nets, jobs probably come first. Or do they?

 Murals in a slum seem a little bit like poverty porn—like when Americans take a tour of favelas in Rio. But these murals were created as a response to already existing tours of Dharavi.  They were created for the people of the slum, the eyes staring back at them are their own, like family photographs on a wall.  Dharavi, despite what the government may want, is not going anywhere and those 700 000 people have a way of life of which they’re proud.  Naezy the rapper, along with Divine, popularized this community pride in a song called Mere Gully Mein which has been viewed a walking 25 000 000 times and let to a feature Bollywood film, Gullyboy. Sensational, in a place that traditionally has been enamoured with Bollywood classics over new music.

Street art is doing the same thing. By painting the people of Dharavi and involving them in a major public art project, St+Art is empowering people to look beyond work and celebrate life. In the same way that hip hop artists are inspiring kids to become artists, urban art projects will get them thinking about visual arts.

 St+Art also took over the Lodhi area of Delhi, renaming it the Lodhi Art District, and plastering it with a variety of murals.  Interestingly they’ve catered their murals to the audiences living in different areas of Lodhi.  More modern/abstract art in shopping districts that get a more sophisticated audience.  Graphic and pop art for a lay audience.  These artists are Australian, European and of course Indian.

Lodhi Art District

Lodhi Art District

By creating these districts, organizing festivals, and creating beautiful massive murals, St+Art is bringing art into the public consciousness.  It is taking art and aesthetic and putting it in front of, most importantly, kids.  Every Indian kid will tell you (myself being one), art is not high on the list of parental priorities.  Art doesn’t pay, it’s not respected, no one will marry you, it’s not safe (a cardinal sin—being dangerous).  St+Art, though not able to sit at the dinner table, is at least starting the conversation.  What better way to address social ills, to confront the problems of every day life, than art? The long term gain from this is huge.

 Which brings us back to Dharavi.  Naezy, despite being a sensation in India, had to stop rapping a for a few years because of the friction is caused with his parents.  Even a guy as successful as him—not everyone has a feature film based on their experience-succumbed to the disease of Indian parental paranoia.  This pernicious little disease is sucking the life out of India’s culture but more on that in a separate article. In the end, Naezy’s rap, and St+Art’s murals and all the other artists who are actually saying something are going to inspire a new generation of artists.  They’ll push open the boundaries and expand the culture beyond the usual Bollywood jingles. 

 One thing that makes me uneasy about these mural fests is it takes away the coolness of murals.  Urban art is supposed to be anti-establishment, aggressive, a beautiful ‘fuck you’.  It’s hard to do that when you’re government sanctioned.  You can’t be edgy and mainstream.  It comes off as phony.

Lodhi Art District

Lodhi Art District

I have to give ST+Art a pass though.  The task they’ve set for themselves is monumental.  The audience is extremely diverse and complicated.  What they’ve achieved in 4 years is staggering.  I asked them what they would do if there was a conflict between their artwork and the government.  They didn’t have an answer which is a little disappointing in a placed with as much fucked up-ness as India.  It hasn’t happened yet but when it does, they’ll hit a fork in the road.  As much as I like them, as much as I appreciated what they’re doing, I really hope they maintain their integrity in the face opposition.

 They are afraid of the communities they work with though.  Their districts, murals and shows are all done in consultation with the community.  If they don’t like it—tough luck getting a second chance.  That at least I can appreciate.  You are plastering a neighbourhood with shit that they might not agree with.  It’s one thing if you’re doing it illegally but if you’re setting up highly complicated, engaging artwork, you need community buy in. 

All in all St+Art is an inspiring and impressive outfit. They’re cool, hopefully they’re able to speak truth and pursue art for art’s sake. After meeting them (and quite liking them), I have faith.