Art reclaims public spaces, initiates discourse

When prominent artist Arpana Caur painted a mural on the wall of Lady Irwin School at the erstwhile Canning Lane, now Madhav Rao Scindia Marg, in 2000, the idea of art in public places was relatively new to the common man, but for the artist the experience of painting under the sky was existential.

“It was a collaborative project and I remember passers-by showing keen interest in what we were painting. They would ask many questions and also offered us free drinks for our work. The intimate interaction with the viewers and getting direct feedback from them is essential for every artist and public art has the potential to do so beautifully,” Caur tells Metrolife.

The white space of galleries has created imaginative doors in the art world that dissociates general public to enter these “elite zones”, wherein the museums have failed miserably to attract public attention. However, for the past few years, a revolution is slowly simmering to reclaim public spaces to initiate an arty dialogue, with the state and private institutions working collectively to beautify the city using colours of creativity.

In the beginning of this year, Delhi Metro joined hands with the India Habitat Centre (IHC) as a part of the initiative “The Habitat Initiative: Art in Public Spaces” at two stations – Mandi House and Jor Bagh to promote art among the commuters and general public.

“Public art is an expression of the thoughts, ideas and aspirations of the entire nation,” Anuj Dayal, Delhi Metro's executive director for corporate communications, tells Metrolife. “Such creative pursuits give our stations a distinct identity and character and do not confine them to being mere concrete structures constructed to facilitate commuter movement.”

This partnership has made Dr Alka Pande genuinely happy who believes in the power of public art. But the art consultant and curator of Visual Arts Gallery, IHC didn’t want the monotony to set in and has been experimenting with light boxes by making frequent changes in text and photographs.

“I am looking at it culturally, thematically and weather-wise and am keeping an eye on the cultural calendar to ensure the display resonates with everyday commuters whose day’s monotony can be broken by a single picture mounted at the station,” Pande tells Metrolife. “All the experience I have, I want to share it with the commuters who are running in and out of the station.”

The bright display does receive appreciation and attention from the commuters who care to read the text. If in March, the panels at the Mandi House station featured different ways of celebrating Holi in India, these days the display narrates interesting mythological tales.

Last year was equally interesting when the terminal 2 of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA) opened with an art museum, ‘Jaye He’-- a three-kilometre long art wall with a display of over 5,000 artwork and artefacts; a photography festival ‘Fete de la photo’ spread across multiple venues in the capital celebrated the centenary of Indian cinema; and the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) joined hands with Delhi Street Art (DSA) to refurbish New Delhi's oldest market, Shankar Market with a street art project.

“An average person is not energised by the idea of going to a gallery to see art. So the pertinent question that arises is how do you make a big impact by reaching out to a large number of people,” Surbhi Modi, founding director of Floodlight Foundation that organises Publica, a public art festival, tells Metrolife.

Positioning and placement of artworks in public spaces is extremely important, as Modi points out how “informal and informative” artwork engage commuters with art.

“People on the streets are distracted. so one has to contemplate a lot about the text and visual image before placing a particular work in public domain. Most of them won’t understand five pages of text, so the trick is to make it appealing and simple,” says Modi.

This simplicity and public connect came out lyrically with Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta’s public installation “I live Under Your Sky Too” on Carter Road in 2013. Using verbal vocabulary that switched between Hindi, Urdu and English, the artist expressed peaceful coexistence of humanity in a simple idiom.

“Public art being nascent, faces challenges both with artists struggling with the language and with the state embracing and giving it spaces to show. In metropolises like ours where land is highly valuable and often contested with many claims to it, every indoor space is also valuable and would be great if we can mount interesting shows and focus equally on bringing in general audience into these spaces,” Gupta tells Metrolife.

This artistic discourse will surely swing in a new direction, giving the public a quick course in art appreciation.


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