Notes from St.ART Delhi @Shahpur Jat

shahpur card collage (rohanpatankar)

street (noun)

a public road in a city or town, typically with houses and buildings on one or both sides.

art (noun)

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

street art

an umbrella term defining forms of visual art created in public locations, usually unsanctioned artwork executed outside of the context of traditional art venues

St.ART Delhi is the India’s largest Street Art Festival, that in early 2014 invited over twenty artists from around the world to come and paint the town red, quite literally so. The 6 week long festival’s first stop was at the urban village of Shahpur Jat. The folks at St.ART gave us the opportunity to string together narratives from various facets of the festival into a curated walk, . Excited much, we began by going back to our ‘history of architecture’ lessons from architecture school and simultaneously, began speaking to the artists ‘on site’ to get their perspectives.

The peeps at the festival really meant it when they said they were intervening in Shahpur Jat, in the thick of the urban village. This is not the area that most people who are reading this post have seen; not the Fender Academy, not the Wishing Chair, not the Dada Jungi House lane. This was the much larger yet hidden ‘hinterland’, bustling and complex, strikingly different from the world outside it. The ‘outside’ is merely 200 metres beyond, marked by the August Kranti Marg, of the fairly new Delhi (especially in comparison to this 600 year old settlement). To the closely knit village community, this became a starting point for many a conversation- within itself and with the world outside.

Layers and intervention

While the street art became one more layer among the many layers that made the experience of the place, it also initiated a process that unearthed other buried layers. We began our wanderings and meanderings; understanding the workings and internal relationships between these many layers. The most visible among them are the ruined fortifications of the 14th century city of Siri and, in contrast, the many designer boutiques that have popped up along the outer periphery of the village, not so long ago.

We were equally curious about the ones less apparent, about why most of these houses have the title Panwar written on them, about how a certain specific corner shop selling tea and snacks would have all its signage and music playing  in Bangla, about the staggering number of sequins shops on every street and also about just how many prachin shiv mandirs there were in this village. In our two weeks of frequent study-on-ground (after our day jobs, of course), we slowly began to absorb these observations and aberrations and also began to understand that street art was intervening with these layers in ways beyond the obvious.

Landmarks

The traditional landmarks of the village also became navigational anchors for us and the St.ART team to go about town. One such landmark, albeit a forgotten one, is the anonymous Baradari, the epicenter, where the story of this settlement began. Today the baradari doesn’t quite exist. The shadows of this 14th century monument are buried under and surrounded by many generations of ambitious building all around it. The Rainbow Project gives this ‘non-place’ another anonymous anchor that unites it with the hundreds of other such anonymous places across the globe that host the rainbow.

While the village gave the festival some landmarks thanks to its geography and multi-layered history, the festival also reciprocated with a few anchors. German artist Tofu’s piece of the striped lines at the Nayi Chaupal was one of the first pieces of the festival, also one of the most memorable, perhaps because of its central location. It became the torch-bearing reference for any artist who went to seek permission for doing a wall.

The massive cat drawn by Indian artist Anpu Varkey was also part of the first wave of festival interventions, and it quickly grew to be a neighbourhood icon. It also earned Anpu many friends and assistants in the week that she spent drawing the massive piece. The January air was cold and damp, the wall was huge and the scaffolding looked fragile. The neighbourhood aunties and uncles were amazed at this petite-looking girl’s skill, and also somewhere in their hearts, proud – of Anpu as well as the cat!

Haan, aapne woh billi toh dekhi hai na? Bas wahin se dayeen taraf janaa hai.’(Yes, you must have seen that cat, right? Just turn right from there.)

Conversation

While Anpu was one of many women artists who participated in the festival and painted walls that were possibly much more challenging to paint than the ones done by their male counterparts, the commentary on feminism was taken to another level altogether by artists like Ranjit Dahiya and Sé Cordeiro. Dahiya’s monumental mural of fearless Nadira (the infamous rebellious seductress from the 1950s) cleverly gets us thinking about how a woman’s smoking and drinking fixation has been automatically branding her as the vamp on the Indian screen and outside it since forever. Se Cordeiro’s beautiful woman warrior from the Gulab Gang is as powerful as she is spunky, armed to pin down all of those men who disrespect her. Adding charm to the quaint village setting are also Alina Vergnano’s graceful murals of women, almost softening the mood of this somewhat aggressive setting.

The festival generated quite a stir in the neighbourhood. People were intrigued about the organization that was just going around painting on walls without even taking money for it.

Achha, aap bhi company ke hi saath aaye ho? Yeh ho kya raha hai?” (Are you also with these people the company? Just what is happening here?) “Yeh log sab jageh drawing kar rahe hain, par phir yeh festival kahaan ho raha hai?” (These people are just painting everywhere, but where is this festival happening then?)

This is exactly what even many visitors wondered walking right through this village, not realizing that, in fact,  ‘they’ were the festival! The fact they were there, looking and talking and moving around seeing this place, made the festival. This real experience was only complimented by the sea of people who saw all of these pieces online, not in relation to each other but in relation to the worldwide scene. Delhi, India had just popped up on the street art map, and so had Shahpur Jat village as this neighbourhood bursting with art!

On ground, the festival was thriving, really, on conversation between the artists and local people, often only through gestures and body language and bits of broken English (and in the case of a few curious characters among the village folk, some surprisingly eloquent exchanges in English). While traditionally, street art would be relinquished as vandalism, in this case, all of it was legitimate and carried out in broad daylight (and sometimes, in the night too, ofcourse), with police permissions et al in place. With no economic transaction at play, it was just about finding the right wall and seeking permission from the owners and soon enough, being flooded with requests for commissioned art pieces too. Well, these conversations have only just begun. And we are sure we’ll be listening intently!

AFTERNOTES:

  • We learnt about various styles of street art, from Graffiti to paste ups and murals.

  • We began to appreciate the immense amount of skill required to draw on walls (that turn very cold in the winters) and how different it is from drawing on paper in terms of scale.

  • We realized we really do like taking people out and showing them around places : )

  • We met Daku. (It was kickass!) No, we’re not telling you who s/he is.
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Delhi: Phoenix City

On the last Wednesday of August, 2012, after a design studio, we went for an event at the Attic, Connaught Place. Renana Jhabvala and Nalini Thakur were talking about professor, architect and artist CSH Jhabvala. The occasion was the launch of his latest book of sketches and writings on Delhi.

Jhabvala is somewhat of a legend at SPA, spoken of reverentially by even the senior-most of our teachers. We were fortunate enough to hear him speak a couple of years ago and were keen to hear more about the incredible man who (we found out soon) had laid the basis for the present curriculum for our college.

The place was alternative looking, the mood warm, the air cold and the room filled with quiet conversation. We planted ourselves on the (best) third row seats only to awkwardly offer them to senior (looking) architects minutes later. Stranded on the side passage, the only place left was in the front row and Renena asked us to come forward.

The scene was set and yet the program was late. We realized why soon enough, though, when the buzzing conversation in the room thickened as two guys carried in this very very old wheelchair-bound man. The quintessential Indian old man, wearing a cotton shirt with big prints, floaters and those khaki pants pulled up the waist, accessorized with retro glasses and a walking stick. He appeared to be the guest of honour everybody was waiting for.

After some negotiation, he quickly decided to shift to the front row and found himself sitting to the left of two young architecture students, us, beaming at him. He broke into our awkward gaze and made conversation. We introduced ourselves. “Ah! I used to teach there once!” And then the verbal diarrhea began: of course we knew who he was, and we had so enjoyed his previous lecture. He just smiled, looking a little perplexed.

We soon realized our error. A very awkward and impudent question from an audience member let us know that Professor Jhabvala was currently in New York. So, who then did we just confuse with our ramblings?

And then it struck us: we were sitting next to Padmashree MM Rana, Nehru’s chosen architect and Jhabvala’s close friend. We remembered Rana’s profile (and photograph) from the Sushant website, and his work was somewhat familiar via Rahul Khanna’s excellent listing.

The two women’s takes on Jhabvala the father and Jhab the professor were interesting. But the real fun began when Renana requested Rana Kaka to share his times with Jhabwala. Rana staunchly refused to make use of the offered microphone and (struggling initially) rose and walked to the podium. 🙂

And then the storytelling began, and everyone was captivated. He spoke of his days at JJ, where they studied Ionic, Doric and Corinthian column capitals for three years, only to culminate in a studio exercise to design roadside kiosks. He also spoke about the library (a long corridor, really) and the constant presence there of a peon, peeping over students’ shoulders, whose only job was to ensure that no books were vandalized!

On one such un-private visit, he came across legendary American Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. Frustrated with his training, Rana wrote to FLW: “I have lost my way in(to?) architecture. How do I dis-educate myself?”

The postal department soon went on strike and all communication was stranded mid way. However, this meant heyday for a philatelist friend of Rana’s, who found ample opportunity to steal all kinds of exotic stamps off of the heaps of letters at the post office. He found a letter with an American postmark addressed to Rana, and graciously forwarded it (after stealing the stamps, of course.)

FLW had written, simply: “If you can arrange to come here, we’ll put you to work.” And so, with help from the princely state of Porbander, Rana became the first Indian Fellow of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. at Taliesin, Wisconsin, USA. In America, he met Jawaharlal Nehru at a formal event during his trip to the country. All Nehru asked him was,” वापस आ रहे हो, या नहीं?” Rana was speechless (a feat, we’re sure!).

When he did return to India some years later, he penned a letter to the Prime minister informing him. Nehru promptly employed him in the planning department for the government. Eventually, though, he did get around to talking about Jhabvala- their reunion, many years later, at Wenger’s. Jhabvala threw a matchbox at Rana’s head to get his attention! (This incident was illustrated with zestful hand movements.)

All this zestful talk was far more than the two words that had been expected of him. Renana was worried and tried to interrupt. But he didn’t care one bit! The incredible zeal in his eyes was only proof of his love for architecture, for urbanity, for the city of Delhi. He was a storyteller and his audience was with him on this joyride, taking new turns with gestures and expressions. We left the venue after the talk, beaming. Little seminar work happened but we slept very well that night.

The first Wednesday morning of October, 2012 found us all together again after an eventful night of seminar work. Our inboxes had a new email about a condolence meeting at school later in the day in the memory of Late MM Rana. We just looked at each other and our hearts sank. We had barely met this charming 93 year old gentleman a couple of weeks ago and now we would never be able to hear more from him. Only during the presentation in school did we find out about the incredible amount of interesting buildings he had designed in and for the city of Delhi. He gave us the Shanti Van, the Bal Bhawan, the Nehru Museum, the Amar Jawaan Jyoti and so many other anonymous buildings that form our experience of the Nehruvian New Delhi.

We wonder how enthused we really are about the world around us and how much better we could ever get. Most of all, we wondered if we would ever attain anything close to his exuberance and energy. We only felt extremely fortunate to have been part of his last architectural public appearance. And even more thankful to our instincts that we recorded the later half of his talk for us to cherish for the rest of our lives.

Rana, you will always be in our minds.

This post co-written by Bhavika, Rohan and Varun.

Our tryst with the DDA!

A few days back a friend and I went to the DDA office, which happens to be right opposite our college’s planning block. We were looking for some information about one of their projects in Dilshad Garden. It was then that we got our second taste of how government offices work (the first is our college’s administration itself). The tallest in Delhi at one point of time, it is quite an imposing building. From the inside it reminded me of the ministry of magic from Harry Potter’s 7th movie (part A), with a core of 6 elevators going to certain floors only, spewing out a variety of people every time the lift doors opened. The place stank like a toilet, tube lights didn’t work and ofcourse, paan stains, everywhere. To get hold of the right person to talk to, we were made to hop around from one lazy ‘Madam’ to the other bored ‘Sir’ and so on, only to be told that the chap who knows where the records are kept hadn’t come to office.

Studying at SPA, back in second year , a bunch of us created a ‘utopian’ (we like to call anything remotely whimsical, that!) character – Archiman. Armed with a parallel bar, transparent string and lethally pointy set-squares, he was to fight the ever-loathsome Dr.DDA (flanked by his secretary Miss Pencil, ofcourse!). Mr. DDA was touted as the biggest architectural kill-joy ever, forcing the entire fraternity to water down any  creativity and stick to its by-laws (Oh, we wrote a song about that too!).

Two years hence, in fourth year, we are at a stage in our design studio, where we have no option but to read the ‘wretched bylaws’ and basically, play by the book (Hence, the visit to the DDA office). Initially its all such a strain; why do we have to provide 15% housing for the EWS? Do we have to leave a 6 meter setback? Can’t we exceed this height limit? But the more I think about it, I see the logic. Apart from certain climatological and safety reasons for providing setbacks and minimum sizes, there are manifestations of an overall vision for the country, the city and the neighborhood, which need to trickle down right to the individual building. These manifestations could have social goals, such as providing housing for all or visual ones, such as maintaining the greenery of Delhi, the one thing which probably all of us are proud of.

However, this is not to say that all of these laws are justified. Looking at Delhi today, its apparent that it is an inverted city. The center is so sparsely populated and the peripheries are packed. This is directly linked to by-laws, FAR and density limits etc, decided by the DDA. Similarly, the minimum standards for housing and slum resettlement are things which have been quite the same for years. With the kind of progress that flexible architecture has made in recent years, it is surprising that the authorities have not  adopted more economical and space  efficient designs, to counter the huge pressure of  migration.

These are just some observations I have made over the past few months. These are my opinions and I might be getting some facts wrong. But what is important is, that as students, we realize that following certain building laws is actually in our interest but at the same time, we should have the audacity to challenge the law, if we can justify it.

One of the many avtaars of Archiman!

(credits: Akshay Khurana)

The DDA building at ITO

(courtesy: http://www.skyscrapercity.com)

Begumpur ka ‘Qila’!

Bhavika: Bhaiyya, yahan par hi rok dijiye

Rohan: I think this’ll be really cool!

(Car stops, parks in what could be a dug up construction site, but is actually a parking lot)

Me: I can smell a source of methane!

(looks at the cowdung next to his feet)

And so we walked, from house no. 1A (4 floors,tacky painted plaster) to 173, Begumpur(wood clad, metal plated, furniture boutique, which we aren’t allowed to enter, because the doorman says “Aap kya hi khareed loge?!”)

Begumpur doesn’t strike you as a village. You would probably call it a dilapidated colony, with its closely packed 3-4 story RCC structures and ‘sanitized’ neighborhood parks. A sweet and talkative lady told us, that 10 years back this place was full of single story dwellings with arched entrances. She proudly showed us the ‘solitary arch’ that her family had preserved, unlike the others, sadly pointing out the cracks that had developed due to the metro passing under it. The population mostly consists of Jaats, Baniyas and Punjabis, and some Muslims too. What exists today is obviously a very heterogeneous society, unlike what had existed during the Tuglaq rule.

When we asked around about the famous Begumpuri Masjid, we were answered with perplexed faces, “Yahan toh bas ek qila hai!”. Due to the dilution of the original residents, today the old masjid, which was the prototype for most mosques on Indian soil, is not even known to the people who dwell around it.

Thankfully, the ASI has done its bit to preserve the monument. As we climbed up the awe-inspiring steps of the masjid, we all realized why people chose this over the Khidki masjid as the basis for subsequent mosque design. The shear proportions of this structure were magical. It wasn’t that big, but it looked huge. Multiple domes on the side cloisters added an element of detail to an otherwise plain design. I must admit, it probably looked even more charming due to the weeds and greens that had engulfed bits of the mosque.

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We went on to see the Vijay Mandal, which is surrounded by overgrown greens all around, quite charming, till you see a man rising out of the greens wiping his posterior!

As we walked back to the car, I felt a tinge of sadness about the neglect and oblivion towards these spaces. And so I am writing about it, hoping that others too, go there realize how awesome these places are!