July 3, 2022 5:43:13 am
Right across the bustling Mehar Chand Market, a worn-out grey wall has a faded and peeling portrait of an old woman. Artist Hanif Kureshi introduces her as Vimla, who sells parathas in the neighbouring Khanna Market. She drew the attention of German artist Hendrik Beikirch, who wanted to pay tribute to anonymous women who manage multiple tasks seamlessly.
“We are only used to seeing pictures of famous personalities. If it is someone unknown, you wonder why and that question is very important… When was the last time a wall made you think,” says Kureshi, co-founder of St+art India, a not-for-profit organisation that works on art projects in public spaces.
Since it was established in 2013, the foundation has added vibrant hues to numerous walls across Delhi, but Lodhi Colony has been completely revamped, with walls every few meters painted with a different theme. “Earlier people used to go to Lodhi Garden for a walk, now they also come here. I often see people taking photographs with the artwork. When people started painting here some years back, even I would do that and show it to my friends. I can tell a new work from an older one,” says Ramesh, a vegetable vendor.
In the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, the locality always had commuters pass by but now, with its street art and growing numbers of branded stores and cafes, they often halt here. Several look closer at the walls to take a better look at the stories they tell. If the repercussions of global plastic consumption are highlighted on one, another celebrates femininity, and yet another delves into history and mythology.
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Looking at a mural with withering trees, Kureshi reminds us of a Delhi that was the city of gods, Indraprastha. Krishna is believed to have established it where Khandavaprastha, the city of ruins, stood when the Pandavas were exiled after they lost a game of dice. The Amitabh Kumar mural ‘Dead Dahlias’ denotes how Delhi is now again crumbling and going into a state of ruins. It is, however, a city that we still love, as another wall announces. The words “We Love Dilli” painted in Devanagari by LEK + Sowat and Kureshi cover a wall in black that also has characters “half-erased with water to create an effect described as ‘colour rain’”. Once again, the work is meant for the neighbourhood and beyond.
Kureshi recalls the first time he visited Lodhi Colony on the recommendation of a friend who thought its magnificent walls, with its repetitive arches for the housing done by British town planner-architect Walter Sykes George, would be perfect for street art. At the time, the collective had already explored areas such as Khirkee Extension and Shahpur Jat through street art festivals. A handful of walls had also been painted in Azadpur Mandi and Connaught Place. “We realised we should focus on one area,” says Kureshi. In Lodhi District, everything seemed to be in favour — from the high walls to pedestrian-friendly lanes.
Soon, with the permission of the New Delhi Municipal Council, two lifts were parked and artists began painting on the walls, inviting interest and curiosity. This was not graffiti, associated with protest art, but an attempt to introduce India to street art. “At first, we thought it was a commissioned project where artists were being paid to paint, only later we came to know that it was a street art project. It has changed the face of the entire area and added so much colour,” says a morning walker, who lives in the neighbourhood. The life in the streets changes through the day, from the crowds gathered around vegetable and fruit vendors early mornings to noon-time that sees the opening of the swankier stores.
The lanes might appear to be a maze for someone unfamiliar with the locality but not to Kureshi. We decide to use each mural as a landmark to make our way back, even as Kureshi, a graduate in fine art from MS University, Baroda, points at the high arches of the residential quarters. A remnant of colonial times, the locality was built in the 1940s as part of Lutyens’ Delhi and was meant to house their officials. It was completed just before Independence. “They made a complex for themselves but never really lived here,” says the artist. With the occasionally perched monkeys and birds now, the arches provide openings between the inside and the outside. Several of them, Kureshi reveals, have backyards below. “It was possible for barbecues and parties… It is so much more organised and better planned than the rest of Delhi,” he adds.
As Kureshi chats with the residents of the area, he enquires about their health. Many know him due to the numerous hours he has spent here. “We used to be here a lot. During the last two years, it has been different due to Covid,” says the artist who has shifted base from Delhi to Goa. As we halt, the wall in front of us brings together elements from Old Delhi and Mexico, painted by Mexican artist Saner. The heart, “which has a special place in Mexican culture”, is right at the centre of the composition, with a moustached man and a woman wearing Indian attires on its two sides. The onlookers are two monkeys in finery, sitting atop window sills, and at the bottom edge are dense bushes and flowers.
Touted to be India’s first art district, the neighbourhood has also benefited from the attention it has received due to the murals. Often a location for film and television shoots now, its upkeep has improved, says Kureshi. There are also enthusiastic rickshaw drivers willing to give a guided tour of the district— often spinning their own tales. “I have often taken the trip and quizzed them about the works,” says the artist.
While each wall has a work of a different artist, a deliberate attempt has also been made to incorporate varied genres and art forms. So Australian artist Reko Rennie’s geometrical patterns in bright pink and blue represent the indigenous heritage of Australian aboriginal Kamilaroi people, while Bhajju Shyam paints Delhi as a concrete jungle inhabited by foxes in Gond style on his wall.
There are more than 50 artworks in the neighbourhood, with one of the latest being Bengaluru-based Shilo Shiv Suleman’s tribute to women waste pickers in Delhi. We stop at a wall with the words ‘Yaha’ and ‘Must’ (This must be the place) – a work by Australian artist Georgia Hill and Kureshi, that also reflects the latter’s interest in Indian sign painting and hand lettering.
With Covid hopefully nearing its end, we are told that more works would soon be added. Booking a cab back, the location that pops up is Lodhi Art District — a term that comes from the very art that is much younger than the locality it inhabits but has changed its face completely. We meet our driver near a wall that seems to best portray the buzz in the neighbourhood and its sense of community living. Titled “Impressions of Lodhi”, Singaporean artist Yip Yew Chong introduces us to a balloon seller who mesmerises the residents with music from his flute. There is a sweet shop with trays full of mithais and piping hot tea in a kettle. Above, we find flocks of birds, just as in the sky above.
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