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The Third Element

Graffiti, counted among the four crucial elements of hip-hop culture, is changing the landscape of the capital’s urban villages with St.Art Delhi, writes Abhirup Dam

Abhirup Dam  1st Feb 2014

A work by Brazilian graffiti artist Sergio at Shahpur Jat

"...The man in government who fears the street, because the man in the street is always on the verge of becoming political, delights in being only a producer of spectacle, clever at lulling to sleep the citizen in us in order to keep awake, in the half-darkness of semi-somnolence, merely the indefatigable watcher of pictures."

—Maurice Blanchot, The Endless Conversation

"Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don't come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they're having a piss."


While I stood beneath the striking anthropomorphic, winged machine that Indian street artist Yantr has completed on a wall in Shahpur Jat, a female co-observer, asked me in Hindi: "Yeh kya hai?" (What is this?). I retorted saying, "Aapko kya lagta hai, mujhe bhi samajh nahi aa raha hai." (What do you think? Even I can't make head or tail of it.) "Koi samudri jeev jaisa lagta hai. Lekin jo bhi hai, accha dikh raha hai." (Looks like some sea creature. But whatever it is, it looks good!) Someone standing nearby pointed towards a Valmiki temple adjoining Yantr's wall and shared an anecdote. After getting the requisite permission for the house owners, once the painting began, the priest at the temple asked for something religious to be drawn below the artwork. Yantr complied and a scene from the Mahabharata now sits under Yantr's machine. When I turned to look at the samudri jeev, I said this is the artist's vision of the Pushpak Rath. "Why not!" I heard all around.

alking along the serpentine by-lanes of Shahpur Jat, past chic boutiques, galleries and lifestyle shops, one is bound to be overcome with a certain sense of contradiction: a contradiction that lies at the heart of Indian urban existence. The contradiction entails a contrast of topography — architecture, lifestyle and language, that constitute metropolitan morphology. The local residents in most cases are rendered as mute spectators in the rapidly developing Shahpur Jat. But this urban village has been abuzz with activity during the past month, which aims to transform these indefatigable watchers of pictures, as Blanchot states, into an active, engaging and agential audience. Treading its arteries today, you will be greeted with sudden alacrity. With sudden colour. With sudden monochrome. With sudden manhole-covers sporting anagrams that read Tona when viewed from one angle, and Alias when viewed from another. With sudden strokes that mark a sense of propriety, far removed from any idea of subservience. The microcosm is at the helm of an essentially urban experiment that has come to represent not only a fair disregard for protocol, but also one of the most vociferous modes of aesthetic articulation today. Yantr, along with Tona and Alias from Germany are participating artists in New Delhi's first major street art festival, titled St.Art Delhi, the initial phase of which now nears completion at Shahpur Jat.

Human beings have been painting on walls for ages — from the breathtaking cave paintings of Altamira to the political graffiti on the walls of Paris, seen through the photographs of the Hungarian artist Brassaï in the 1920s. But street art, as a definitive form, began to take shape post World War II, when the Berlin Wall was being painted over with resonant strokes. New York City in the '80s also witnessed the life-size silhouettes of an indistinct man, attributed to artist Richard Hambleton. The Shadowman paintings, preceded by his crime scenes, where the artist drew a police chalk outlines as is done around the bodies of homicide victims and splattered some red paint on it, came to represent a distinct move from the text-based artwork seen in the graffiti all around Bronx throughout the '60s and the '70s (Broken Promises or Falsas Promesas by multidisciplinary artist Richard Fekner in South Bronx being among the early conceptual outdoor artwork).

The microcosm is at the helm of an essentially urban experiment that has come to represent not only a fair disregard for protocol, but also one of the most vociferous modes of aesthetic articulation today.

Street art in India followed a similar, though somewhat detracted, path. Political propaganda written on walls, often referred to as "walling", was a common sight in major cities until the end of the '90s. The early Left movement emphasised public art and the paintings on walls that stood alone or accompanied text, chalked an idiosyncratic aesthetic, traces of which still survive in specific spaces. The ink-on-paper sketches and woodcuts developed by Chittoprasad influenced the wallings done by the Communist Party during the early 1950s. What is more interesting is that the specificity of these spaces is marked by policing and restriction of more accessible sites, rendering them museumised in public imagination. But the last few years have been witness to a rising phenomenon which has "taken back" this access, even if at the behest of some unavoidable negotiations.Image 2nd

Most of you will remember that four years ago, the capital was suddenly mushrooming with STOP signs before the Commonwealth Games. Some of you will also probably remember that some of them went beyond just saying "STOP". Handiwork of street artist Daku, the reworked signs carried a word just below the stop in uppercase but a smaller font. STOP PROMISING, STOP PRETENDING, STOP RAPING, STOP SHOPPING are among the signs that still line city streets. Daku is an alias, a nom de guerre of the artist who has been spraying Delhi walls with art for a few years now. He is definitely now an artist to reckon with when it comes to street art. Artists like Rush, Treble, Harsh Raman Singh Paul, Yantr and Anpu have left their mark on city walls too, all of whom are participating artists at the Street Art Festival. Extension Khirkee was perhaps the first street art festival of the city in 2013, a project that involved many of the aforementioned artists. Project Brinda (fusing Brazil and India) was a street art project by Harsh Raman Singh Paul and Brazilian artist Sergio Cordiero that was completed in 2013. Both these projects have somewhat constituted the conception and achievement of St.Art Delhi as a lot of the people on board were involved in Extension Khirkee.

Arjun Bahl, organiser of the festival, says: "The idea was to generate a certain amount of positivity about street art and enable the community to accept it. Hence we decided to stick to all the essential protocols, in terms of permissions and proper delegation. We are actually really thankful to the Delhi Police, who have not only cooperated but allowed us to paint the wall of the Delhi Police headquarters." The 40-day festival, on till 28 February, is planned in three phases — Shahpur Jat, Hauz Khas Village and Khirkee Extension. Participating artists will paint walls across the three localities, where walls have been chosen with permission from residents. The festival has also breakaway events, such as screenings, talks, exhibitions, curated walks and a graffiti jam, which featured special appearances by Daku, Bond and Zine and culminated in two days of bombing, tagging and exchange of styles.

One of these events is an ongoing exhibition at the Max Mueller Bhavan, which displays a projection installation by the German artist Bond, who has earlier collaborated with Daku on an artwork in Nizamuddin. Most of these artists bring to the table an eclectic mix of forms and mediums, which somehow stupendously influences their work on walls.Image 3rd

In a dumpster layered away inside labyrinthine Shahpur Jat, you will come across striking graphic stencils of a crow in polychrome by Taiwanese artist Ano. One part of the image is of the bird holding a burning stick of dynamite in its beak, followed by an explosion in 8-bit-character style reminiscent of arcade video games, culminating with the bird in flight. I could not help but imagine a parallel with the character of Dandabayash, the ageless primordial talking crow who stirred up an urban insurrection in Nabarun Bhattacharya's novel Kangal Malsat (War Cry of the Beggars). German artists Tona and Foe's black and white stencil art is reminiscent of Banksy and the artists capture the essence of the locale fantastically. Harsh Raman Singh Paul's mural of a humanoid figure, trying to break through walls on which they are painted, remarkably articulates what the festival stands for, in a sense. When New Delhi-based artist Anpu arrived at Shahpur Jat, she could not help but notice the number of cats that inhabited the locality. It is true. There are no dogs in Shahpur Jat. Only cats. Her huge mural of a cat playing with a ball of yarn also demonstrates how wonderfully the immediate surroundings have been incorporated into the artworks.

The wonderful thing about street art is that it never tries to influence the reception of the artwork — some of the artwork done during the festival now serve as local landmarks if one asks for directions at Shahpur Jat. "Woh ghar jis pe bada sa bachcha bana hua hai, bas uss hi ke paas hai" (It's close to that house with a huge kid painted on it), I overheard. Yantr's machine, which appeared to me as the Pushpak Rath and a sea creature to the passerby woman, reaffirms this claim. As Banksy, quoted at the outset, says: if it makes someone smile, it is good.

Street art, among other things, dispels any notion that holds public space as private and commercialised, and offers it back as a collective good, where a sense of belonging and dialogue restore it to a meaningful place. Rest assured, it can be said that the Street Art Festival is definitely facilitating this.

For information on events and schedule, visit

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