During the day, Vaibhav Raj Shah paints landscapes, creates experimental works and makes films about some of the most important artists and performers of India. At night, he walks through some of the most decrepit addresses of the city and stamps public spaces with grades — 06/100 for a dirty wall, for instance.
Founder of Endocrine Films, who had directed artist films for the India Art Fair and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, among others, Shah is popular in the art circuit as the ‘beauty inspector’.
When he grades spaces, from bungalows to benches, Shah says that he is speaking directly to the government about neglected public structures as well as to the people who vandalise these. Are they listening? In the countdown to the elections, Dipanita Nath has a conversation with the artist. Excerpts:
Which areas have you graded lately? Have you awarded a high mark to any space?
This year, I went around the old city of Pune and villages around Pune District. To award a high rank to a place is really challenging because the entire city looks vandalised. Any piece of public property is completely dilapidated and no one cares. The reason to ‘Fail’ a space is quite obvious.
When did you start ranking public spaces and why?
Doing landscape painting in watercolour during college, I realised that I was making the sky bluer and painting the trees greener. The zebra crossing, the fungus-infused buildings were all being fixed by me in my paintings. This was because I did not like what I saw. I was performing a mini Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in my paintings. My art professor used to award marks like 90/100, ‘very good’, to my paintings but I was not making any real change to the landscape. It was all a lie. Everyone was lying. We live in a very dirty country. That realisation led me to pick up the graffiti can.
I started the project #thebeautyinspector in 2012 and began doing what my professor did to me — award marks. But, this time, it was in the real world on ‘public’ property. I re-vandalised what was vandalised. I ‘failed’ an entire country and spoke directly to the commissioners and corporators and people directly. See, we are not British, and I don’t use the British format of landscape painting to express myself. It only makes sense that I connect to my people, by discovering new formats to engage with my Indianness.
What kind of attitude do people have of public spaces in India?
I’ve been invited to various artist residencies. My last major body of work was in Mexico City as part of a year-long scholarship. In India, I’ve worked in most major metropolitan areas, where the influx of rural India meets superficial urban sensibilities. Public space as an idea isn’t seen with the same notions here in India. Bus stops, parks, canteens, overbridges, benches and entire landscapes like beaches, municipal corporation property — all of these fall within my scope of observation. But what I’m actually ‘failing’ are the people, because the people are ‘failing’ the system.
You are an artist, whose mandate is to capture beauty and, when there is cruelty and darkness, to present it aesthetically. How do you balance your politics as a landscape artist with judging real-life landscapes that comprise broken and neglected roads, destroyed forests and glass buildings?
We studied art and design to transfer our knowledge via some utility or concepts to the world. But, in a system where (non-creative) administrative people start taking creative decisions, we get an ugly world. Also, Indians use public spaces very poorly. The sense of home is very local, and largely restricted to their physical brick and mortar homes. They don’t consider the parks and roads and sidewalks as an extension of their homes. I think that’s a mentality shift waiting to happen.
Have you had run-ins with the law or people who think they are the law?
Oh yes. My practice takes place in the dead of the night for a reason. I remember that, once, the police caught me doing graffiti in Mumbai’s Mahim. On explaining my project, they took me to more spaces to fail them. The police are amazing. It’s the midnight vagabonds who scare me. They take sudden ownership of spaces as if they are the beat police and corner me. It can get ugly. Wearing sport shoes helps.
In election times, do you think voters are more distracted by issues, such as patriotism and Pakistan, and forget the overflowing drain in their backyard?
I think our country has just passed through stage one of pop-patriotism, when the dust settles and there is clarity, people will definitely see the leaking drain and also my works. At least, I live in hope.
In your studio, what are you doing?
I love working. Right now, I’m working on large scale canvases, painting an image of India we all wish to see. It’s sarcasm on canvas. I personally have never seen a Swachh Bharat. So I’m painting it. Using fiction as reality as a subject. The eventual landscapes will be pretty to look at, but are borrowed from the most gruesome WhatsApp videos from India.
What inspires your art?
Most of my inspiration is content-driven, via conversations with people, my long motorcycle rides along the countryside and reading the news. For visual inspiration, I cannot pinpoint any one source. Like all artists, I guess I just start drawing and don’t stop till I’m satisfied. For now, I’m concentrating on my canvases and drawings. I recently showed a few works at TIFA in Pune as part of an open studio exhibition.