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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Walk 1

September 8th, 2012

Walk 1

It’s a fairly pleasant Saturday morning. All of us gather at exit number 2 of the Chandni Chowk Metro Station. Rohan is late (as usual) and we can’t start the walk until he comes because he’s got the route maps printed for everyone. Friends from college, their friends from outside college, and some new friends who read about us online, join us on our very first walk of the Delhi Dallying Walk Series. 30 people, brimming nervous energy. And we begin with Walk 1.

Walk 1 is interesting because it takes you through the residential pockets around Chandni Chowk, sharing with you a slice of the vernacular life in Old Delhi. It consciously misses the touristy spots, to introduce you to the more everyday things of Shahjahanabad. While moving from the eastern end of Chandni Chowk towards the west, through the galis, it loosely weaves together a chronologically sound narrative, with bits of lip-smackingly good food thrown in.

Summarizing, from the treasurers’ haveli in Gali Khazanchi  to the beautiful Jain mohalla of Naughara, we explored the 17th century grandeur of Shahjahan’s reign (along with some 21st century jalebis and samosas). While moving through Maliwara towards Nai Sadak, the remnants of the Maratha siege and the mutiny of 1857 became apparent. Ballimaran and Mirza Ghalib’s Haveli are a testament to the days after the revolt, and also home to the famous Hakims of the Sharifkhani clan, which made for some very interesting haveli hopping.

Coming back onto Chandni chowk, after a small breakfast of kachouri-aloo and the elusive Nagori Halwa, we explored a part of Lala Chunamal’s stunning haveli (a little hushed as we did not seek permission from the current tenants!), who happened to be one of the most influential characters during the revolt. Entering the bustle of Khari Baoli, we went up to the hidden flower market of Fatehpuri, explored the fascinating view from the eerily enchanting  Garodia spice market, and concluded at the recently completed, austerely modern Polyclinic for the Destitute at Lahori Gate, leaving everyone to ponder about what modernity really means for the contemporary old city.

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Walk 1 is a great way to start a conversation with Shahjahanabad, which is a city within a city – one which we tend to be oblivious to, but one which enchants and entices.

Of ‘hang-out’ places and pigeon droppings!

Sort-of in the center of  Central Delhi, just off Hailey Road (which in turn, is just off Barakhamba Road), ‘Agrasen ki Baoli’ is one of those places which you wouldn’t typically chance upon. You can’t spot it from far away cause its cozily tucked in,  and surrounded by buildings which are many times its depth, in height. If you’re there, you’ve probably heard of it from a friend, or maybe seen a photograph. It is one of those (many) monuments of Delhi, which don’t usually find a place in history books or travel guides.

So when I actually went there for the first time, I was a little shocked to see people; mostly youngsters and quite a few of them at that. I guess one should be happy about that; after all, don’t we keep saying that people in our city need to look at monuments as more than just mere blackboards for scribbling ‘Pinky ❤ Rinku’? Instead I felt a tinge of disappointment because I’d expected it to be deserted and would rather have seen it with fewer people dotting my field of vision! Anyhow, the Baoli has a rustic charm, to put it simply. The steps, leading down to the water (almost non-existent except on very rainy days),  in exposed stone masonry are an obvious result of time and weather at work. One can spend hours just sitting there and listening to the pigeons rustle and flutter, while absorbing the tension between the zenith and the nadir – shards of high-rises rising behind the plunging depths (ok, that’s a bit of an  exaggeration) of the baoli. Thanks to its ‘protected monument’ status, ASI had put up a much-needed historical overview of the place, which is believed to have been built by Maharaja Agrasen during the Mahabharat era and rebuilt by the Agrawal community in the14th century. Another addition by the ASI, is a prefabricated security cabin (in reflective glass X-/), annoyingly placed right at the top of the Baoli.

A few weeks back, I made my third visit to the baoli. As mentioned in the previous post, 2/3rds of Delhi Dallying was in Bangalore for the last many months and I had found myself feel immensely proud talking about my city (I know I live in NCR but whatever!) to my Bangalorean friends. Some of them happened to be in town for the day and I thought I ought to show (off) Delhi to them, in its full summer glory. This started with breakfast at Bengali Market followed by a walk past my school (Modern School, Barakhamba Road) across the road to this beautiful baoli. Despite the summer heat, there were a couple of youngsters  ‘hanging out’. There were about a dozen plastic chairs stacked up at the broken mosque on the south-west corner of the baoli which got me wondering if this place could actually hold events. Another addition was a visitor’s book displayed proudly right in front of the security cabin.

Now, this book is brilliant! It is  an honest reflection of what the people of the city really feel about such monuments, the sarcasm comes out poignantly in most of the comments and the language is just SO Delhi. At first glance, I couldn’t stop laughing at the ridiculous ‘Nice, Good to Smooch!’ comment. But on reading further, it was clear that some people were genuinely concerned about the baoli. There is rightful criticism about the lack of drinking water and ‘the wonderful aroma of bat shit and pigeon droppings’ as well as some interesting suggestions like ‘jhule hone chahiye’!

The visitor’s book is definitely a step towards involving people (rather making people feel involved)  in managing public places but will these suggestions and concerns result in improvements? Time shall tell. Till then, enjoy the comments!

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Photo Credits: Our ‘Bangalorean friend’ Alkananda Yeshwanth

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!