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 light of diffusing some of that sentiment, comes a public art project spearheaded by Suresh K Nair, Assistant Professor with Banaras Hindu University’s department of painting. In Attari, near the Wagah border, a 150ft x 10ft mural is underway, on the walls of Sarhad, a restaurant and a space for international arts run by former IAS officer DS Jaspal.
Called ‘Who’s the Wagah?’, the mural has five distinct modules, etched in cement. Elders from a pre-independent India — Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus — are shown sitting together under enormous trees in the first panel. The second panel 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 stiff marching parade. In the fifth, Nair shows a nation that has become whole again as the gates at Wagah open. A dove is shown gliding across the storyboard, echoing issues of migration and identity. The mural pursues the idea of harmony and 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 public places in Varanasi. DS Jaspal saw the work when he was visiting the city and invited us to Attari,” says Nair, a Fulbright scholar who has been working on contemporary murals, for close to 25 years. Kerala-born Nair went to the Visva-Bharati University at Shantiniketan and USA’s Temple University in Philadelphia to learn the art of mural-making.
“The mural, which we started in June-July this year, is almost complete; we are waiting for the monsoons to pass before we paint it. Also, our going back to Wagah is dependent on us getting leave from the University. In a month or so, we will return to finish it,” 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 around the world. While the Wagah project awaits the last touches, Nair has two other projects in waiting — one of a glass and mirror mural project in Varanasi, and the other near Bodh Gaya. “The Varanasi project will show the evolution of man, and that of technology alongside local imagery. There will also be a comparison of regional and local dialect in the project,” says Nair. The Bodh Gaya project will have historical incidents interspersed with Vedic references. “At about 750ft x 10ft, when finished this will be the largest cement mural in the world,” he says.