When English comedian, writer and TV personality Michael Palin filmed the lowering of the flag ceremony at Wagah Border in 2007, he called the exercise a display of “carefully choreographed contempt.” In the hope of diffusing some of that resounding sentiment, comes a public art project spearheaded by Suresh K Nair, Assistant Professor with Banaras Hindu University (BHU)’s department of painting. In Attari, near the Wagah border, a 150ft x 10ft cement mural is underway, on the walls of Sarhad, a restaurant, which doubles up as a space for international arts run by former IAS officer DS Jaspal.
Called Who’s the Wagah?, the mural has five distinct modules. Elders from pre-Independence India — Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus — are shown sitting together under trees in the first panel as children fly kites. Etched in cement, the second panels takes the story forward as families are torn apart and forced to choose identities. Then comes the power and pomp show at Wagah on the third and fourth, as India and Pakistan try to outdo each other in the marching parade. In the mural, the gates at Wagah open, only to be closed again, much like what happens in reality. In the fifth, Nair paints a picture of a nation that appears unified as he shows the gates at Wagah open. A dove is shown gliding across the storyboard, its flight recorded in cement. Echoing issues of migration and identity, the mural pursues the idea of harmony; the dove of peace brings home the message.
“Along with my students who have been eager to be a part of public art projects, we’ve done a number of murals across schools, colleges and other public places in Varanasi. DS Jaspal saw the work when he was visiting the city and invited us to do something in Attari,” says Nair, a Fulbright scholar who has been working in the public space, specifically with contemporary murals, for close to 25 years. In order to better understand mural traditions of the world, Kerala-born Nair went to the Visva-Bharati University at Shantiniketan and USA’s Temple University in Philadelphia.
“The mural, which we started in June-July this year, is almost complete. We are just waiting for the monsoons to pass before we paint,” he says.
In 2013, at the behest of Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, Nair had co-curated the Mural City Project in Kottayam, which involved 350 artists from the world over. While the Wagah project awaits final touches, Nair has two other projects in waiting — one of a glass and mirror mural project in Varanasi; the other near Bodh Gaya. “The Varanasi project will show the evolution of man. There will also be a comparison of regional dialect,” says Nair. Research is on for the Bodh Gaya project, which will have historical incidents interspersed with Vedic references. “At about 750ft x 10ft, this will be the largest cement mural in the world,” he says.