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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Of breathing spaces and public places

From Lucy Peck’s absolutely brilliant DELHI: A Thousand Years of Building (2005):

There are numerous problems associated with Delhi that do not appear to have ready solutions. Some of the causes are easy to identify: it is widely understood, for instance, that low-density development causes traffic congestion. In the case of Delhi the situation is exacerbated by the lowest densities occurring in the ring that encircles the commercial heart of the city, while higher densities occur further out.

This phenomenon was recently termed (very aptly, I think) “the inverted suburb” by our Design studio faculty Dr. Leon Morenas. It definitely adds to -in fact, is one of the main reasons for- Delhi’s traffic problems, but I think I agree with Varun when he says that the solution can not be to increase the built in Lutyens Delhi. Can you imagine the city without this green centre as breathing space? Of course, there are other issues, such as how these green spaces are mostly private and also never used as such in our climate, but the point is that they also act as necessary lungs for the city. And how awesome is the fact that (according to the Masterplan 2021) Delhi is one of the greenest cities in the world?

The green lungs

Also from the same book:

Another easily identifiable problem is the astonishing amount of unused or ill-used land in the city centre, including a suprising amount of decayed industrial land that lies empty. Among many startling inept land use decisions must be counted the new Indraprastha Park between the Ring Road and the main north-south railway line near the Yamuna, which is inaccessible by foot from any residential neighbourhood apart from Sarai Kale Khan- surely a prerequisite for an urban park!

This park is very close to college, and this is another thing which I’ve always wondered about- who uses it? I never see any people about, though I confess I’ve never been inside, and only seen it from the road. Of course pedestrians can’t use it -crossing that stretch of the Ring Road is near impossible- and I don’t even see any cycles or cars outside it, so we can’t even say that non-pedestrians use it. Neither have I ever seen any hawkers or ice-cream walas (who unfailingly congregate around used public places).

The large public park(s?), bound by the railway line and the ring Road.

This just begs the question: What were they thinking? Actually, they probably had pretty good intentions, of providing Delhi with a very well designed and landscaped public park, but how could they not have thought of something as basic as accessibility?

___

Update (28/09/2011), by Rohan Patankar

The Indraprastha Park opened in 2004 over a saturated landfill site. Hence, its location was not determined by its pedestrian linkages at all. I guess the intention was to give the city a green lung and a visually pleasant open stretch. (BTW, I absolutely love the Jaali detail on the boundary wall of the park, will try getting a picture soon). About the desertedness, I have seen lots of school buses and cars parked on weekend mornings, but surely, its complete potential hasn’t been realized. Partly because of inaccessibility, and partly because of its bleh function. If the need and use of the open space, could be identified (maybe, themed) more specifically, it would pull people out of their neighborhood parks, for stronger reasons, repeatedly.

So, what do you guys think? How can this Park be made more successful? What other intervention would have made more sense or been better suited to the site? Which public function (that the city lacks) could have been accommodated here?

Indraprastha, Dehli, Delhi

According to Devdutt Patnaik’s retelling of the Mahabharata, in an attempt to make peace between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, blind king Dhritarashtra gave the Pandavas the forest of Khandava-prastha. On Krishna’s advice, the five brothers invoked the fire god Agni and burnt the forest to the ground, slaughtering all living things -trees, herbs, grass, animals, birds, nagas, asuras- so that no one could lay claim to the land on a later date.

Maya used the principles of Vastushastra when building Indraprastha

Only one survived: the asura Maya, architect of the demons. He begged the Pandavas to spare his life; in exchange, he would build for them the greatest city in all of Bharat: Indra-prastha.

The modern city of Delhi, is, of course, said to be on the ruins of this very Indraprastha.

Quite an impressive legacy.

On a side note, from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Delhi, city in India, of unknown origin, perhaps connected to Hindi dehli “threshhold,” with reference to the watershed boundary between the Ganges and Indus, which is nearby.

I found one source on the web which contemplates whether this threshhold might have been the door to India, or whether it was meant to represent the outskirts of the same Indraprastha. Delhi then would be a suburb which grew bigger than the mother city.

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)

Delhi Dallying: Seminar I [18.02.2011]

Delhi Dallying held a seminar on 18th February 2011, as a part of Utopia 2011, the annual festival of SPA, Delhi. We had 4 expert panelists who came together to discuss the imageability of Delhi.

Question raised: If ‘New York : Skyscrapers, then Delhi:?’?

Bharati Chaturvedi, Environmentalist + Editor

Ms. Chaturvedi drew our attention to an aspect of the city which we tend to be oblivious to, often unaware of. She spoke about the informal sector of Delhi which is an integral part of Delhi’s ecological chain and also its economy, but is still unrecognized, and often banned. Delhi is a city of ‘walas’ like the neighbourhood fruit vendor, press-wala and maid, who form a large chunk of Delhi’s population.

Himanshu Verma,  Art Curator + Activist

Mr. Verma is passionate about the traditional flower markets of Delhi (like the ones near mehrauli and Baba Khadak Singh Marg) and has been heading the ‘Genda Phool’ campaign to prevent them from being shifted to a dedicated depot on the city periphery. He raised some very valid arguments explaining how these markets were actually ‘activity generators’ and enlivened an other-wise dead space, for the few hours that they are functional everyday.

Madhav Raman, Architect

Mr. Raman is currently involved with the Delhi Ring Rail project and went on to explain the twisted identity that Delhi is headed towards. We often aspire for Delhi to be like Shanghai or New York but that is where the problem lies. The whole point is that Delhi has its unique identity. Infact, it has multiple identities owing to the influx of migrants from all over the country, which makes it a diverse melting pot. He stressed on the promotion of sustainable models of development like the promotion of low cost public transport and indigenous, site specific development.

Narayani Gupta, Historian + Professor

Ms. Gupta concluded the seminar by sharing her experiences of Delhi. She spoke about a protest which she had undertaken in the 1980s wherein they protested against the demolition of the King George V monument, saying that British buildings too, were an inherent part of Delhi’s image as well and one cannot and should not try and erase them from history. She explained the transition of Delhi from a post-independence, nascent city to the rapidly growing metropolis that it is today.

Conclusions:

The discussion led us to conclude that Delhi has the potential of being truly cosmopolitan, as it has multiple images, not just one. Their is so much diversity in the city, that it actually adds to the character of the city.

(This was just a start and we hope to have many more Delhi Dallying seminars soon!)