Art is where the city is
Madhusree Chatterjee

CITIES are canvases of art in the 21st century India. The psyches and venues of art are changing, from closed spaces of museums and art houses to large public arenas.

"Colour it with imagination, creative language and dialogue — and the cities become panoramic canvases of high contemporary art," says Mukesh Panika, director of the Delhi-based Religare Arts Initiative.

One of Kavita Singh Kale’s works that was part of the project, “Connaught Place: The Whynot Place”
One of Kavita Singh Kale’s works that was part of the project, “Connaught Place: The Whynot Place”

Religare has been trying to transform Connaught Place, the soul of the capital’s business precincts, into a work of live public art.

The project initiated by Religare Arts Initiative, "Connaught Place: The Whynot Place", had been encouraging young artists to capture Connaught Place as a theme to create multi-media projects around it.

The result is a large body of canvases, video art and photographs that unearth the spirit of Connaught Place and the capital, ranging from its underbelly, migrant life, streetside religion, numerous shrines, tiny shopping arcades and imposing colonial Gothic architectural heritage built around 1911.

"The issue of identity is more serious now. Questions like where we are coming and going top the list of ruminations. Artists are looking at the past, present and the future of the people and the places in which they live because it is easy to relate to them," Panika says.

The history of the changing city and its future are the subject of a new art residency project in the capital, "Transforming State". Featuring 16 artists, the project is trying to chronicle the saga of changing Delhi through multi-media techniques.

The residency project had brought together a select group of emerging and mid-career artists ranging across different media and sensibilities. The programme was launched in the summer of 2009. The 16 participating artists from five nations were selected by a jury for the 2010 residency programme.

The artists included Purnna Behera, Brad Biancardi, Becky Brown, Rebecca Carter, Raffaella Della Olga, Garima Jayadevan, Greg Jones, Kavita Singh Kale, Megha Katyal, Nidhi Khurana, Jitesh Malik, Kustav Nag, Rajesh Kumar Prasad, Vishwa Shroff, Rajesh KR Singh and Onishi Yasuaki

In the artists’ lens are the ancient step-wells or baolis that dot the old quarters of the capital. They date back to the period of the Mahabharata when water was stored in large public reservoirs to beat the fickle monsoon.

"The baolis have been documented in a photographic art series with accompanying texts as part of a group initiative," says project mentor Paola Cabal, a Chicago-based artist.

"Delhi has an interesting artistic heritage. The most evident layer that stands out is the Mughal canvas. In contrast, Gurgaon presents a more aesthetically innovative urban picture," Cabal adds.

As part of the project, artist Nidhi Khurana is creating "new metaphors from the capital’s old and new maps". She is re-drawing the maps in the context of the "co-dependency of the old and the modern".

"Cities, they rise, they spread, they decline. Competition either aids their decline or forces them to revitalise. The Delhi of today encompasses the seven ancient cities over time," says leading contemporary artist Sumakshi Singh, co-mentor of the project.

"With the approaching Commonwealth Games, the face of Delhi is rapidly transforming. Personal and cultural identities are blurring. Indian and western values are clashing and merging. Architecture is either choosing historic renovation or completely denying the past," she adds.

"The economic boom has changed the city and people are trying to understand what they are culturally and spatially located through art," the artist observed.

Delhi-based artist Arpana Caur was looking for a "larger audience" when she painted walls in Bangalore and Delhi. "I wanted to move out of galleries and establish a dialogue with people through art," she says.

For artist Anjolie Ela Menon, "Art in the large urban canvas is more rewarding". "Works in public scapes have more permanence because they reach out to people," says the renowned artist.

For interactive artist Ravi Agarwal, "The public space is exhilarating."

"The audience on the street can be merciless and the artist can be vulnerable. At a workshop in Srinagar a few years ago, I was performing, while soldiers frisked people. Despite the army presence, people stayed back.

"The audience signs an unwritten agreement to bear the consequences of watching. The audience is performing, too," says Agarwal. — IANS