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Harsh Raman: Redefining public spaces, a wall at a time

From studying fashion design to altering public spaces beyond recognition, Harsh Raman has come a long way. Bhanuj Kappal speaks to him about his journey and his attempts to radicalise street art.

BHANUJ KAPPAL  29th Nov 2014

Harsh Raman’s Man Stuck in a Wall, for the St.Art festival, New Delhi, 2013. Photo: Akshat Nauriyal

f you're walking around Okhla in New Delhi this month, you might find yourself confronted by the striking image of Run The Jewels — an American duo that is currently taking over the rap world — making a pistol and fist symbol. This fantastic piece of street art, amongst many others in Delhi and elsewhere, is the work of graphic designer, illustrator, art director and graffiti artist Harsh Raman. The New Delhi-based artist is one of a crop of young artists from across the country who look at the dead spaces in our overcrowded, ugly metropolises as a canvas for public art and expression. And they're putting that idea into action, one wall at a time.

Raman, who was a part of the recently concluded month-long Street Art Mumbai festival, has been working in art and design for a long time. He's held down jobs in illustration, graphic design, product design, films and is currently the creative director at a multi-disciplinary arts studio called Harkat.

"I think that from a very early stage I was very good at sketching and interested in design stuff," he says. "Even as a kid I would design these superficial airports and I would design cities and sh*t like that."

After finishing school, he went on to study fashion design. But what really caught his interest was product design, and he'd spend all his spare time in that department's workshop, making things like a tea table that could turn into a dress. By the time he got out of university, he'd picked up almost as much about product design as he had about fashion. He took up a series of jobs, jumping from fashion to graphic design to product design and ended up working alongside alternative filmmaker Prakash Jha, whose films focus on social issues.

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“Art is for everyone. I think that in so many of the pieces I do, I try to remind people of all the things that money can’t buy. You’re looking at the same art I’m looking at, but neither of us can own it.”

"The thing that really had a deep impact on me was to see him talking to his producers and investors," he says. "Here was an old man who came to Bombay many years ago. His first job was as a cook in a dhaba. From there he got into theatre, he got into films and he has reached where he is right now. And he's telling them that I'm going to make a movie that's not going to bring any money because there's no formula and no item song. And he's telling them that he doesn't care."

Inspired by his experiences with Jha, Raman figured that he too had a lot of messages that he wanted to put out there. He'd already tried his hand at short films, but none of those worked out as well as he wanted them to. "So I thought that if I have a message and I want that to reach a thousand people, what can I do? And I thought I'd paint a wall."

uch like those behind the popular culture jamming movement, Raman has a healthy contempt for outdoor advertising and its takeover of public spaces. For him, street art is about public expression and creating an environment that allows populations to grow and be nurtured in a balanced way.

"Art is for everyone," he says. "I think that in so many of the pieces I do, I try to remind people of all the things that money can't buy. What I love about street art is that it's such a great equaliser. You are looking at the same art that I'm looking at, but neither of us can own it."

One of the first big projects he was involved in was the Brinda Project, where he and Brazilian artist Sergio Corderio set out to challenge the common man's perception about each other's countries. They interviewed Indians living in Brazil and vice-versa, and derived concepts based on the similarities between cultures. The end result was them painting three walls around Delhi in 2013, and a documentary that has been screened at various international film festivals and has been shortlisted for the Women's International Film Festival in Mumbai from 6-13 December, 2014.

"The whole idea was to bring the two cultures together and to put out the message that somewhere deep down, we're all just people," he says.

He's also involved in WOW, or Wall of the Women, an ongoing project that involves Raman and other artists from India and abroad conducting workshops aimed at helping women put up their messages on walls across the capital.

"The basic idea is about women reclaiming the streets with paint. But it's also about empowering people. If you take out anyone out there doing a nine-to-five grind and expose them to art and ask them to do something, the experience will always be enriching. I don't think there's anyone out there who wouldn't feel that way."

Raman was also one of the artists who painted walls for St.Art Delhi 2013, but he remains tight-lipped about his plans for the Mumbai edition of the festival. All he says is that you can "expect some awesome walls coming up, and expect some magic".

 
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