The first thing an outsider observes in New Delhi is how unwalkable its streets are. This city has, over the years, gathered a steady reputation for being, well, not that great. And so, in 2012, when I came across St+art India’s first, albeit small, initiative in south Delhi’s urban village, Khirki Extension—in which they transformed the walls with avant-garde and dystopian art—right opposite the glitzy malls, I found it revolutionary. It was a strong statement against what we consider art—confined within the white cube—and its potential to engage a community beyond our own.
The street art culture was in its infancy back then. And the St+art India team—comprised of Arjun Bahl (director), Akshat Nauriyal (co-founder), Giulia Ambrogi (curator), Hanif Kureshi (artistic director), and Thanish Thomas (project director), among others—has since built upon this cultural shift. In the following years, St+art India has created interventions across the country with one sharp agenda: to repurpose urban spaces and bring about distinct community pride and consciousness.
Since 2015, the crew has been heavily engaged with Delhi’s Lodhi Colony, utilising its “architectural symmetry and broad pavements”. “It's a walkable neighborhood which is very rare in Delhi. That's a difference between Delhi and Mumbai. In Mumbai, I feel a lot more people are used to walking, while in Delhi it's not that pedestrian friendly,” Akshat Nauriyal tells VICE.
The festival is back, and with it, its latest efforts to create what they call the Urban Art Festival, which includes the ongoing project in Lodhi Colony and another one in south Delhi’s Kona. We spoke to Nauriyal, who is also a new media artist and a musician, about the festival and how it is continuing to break boundaries even in 2019:
“When we started our work in 2015, we did two walls: one with an artist called Daleast, and another with Japanese artist Lady Aiko. At that point of time, the idea of doing more works and transforming Lodhi colony into an art district took shape. From then on, we began doing work in the community and in Lodhi colony, and gradually reached here after four years of extensive work, where we have almost by the end of this festival, close to 50 murals.”
“The second component is in Kona, a really interesting space in Jor Bagh (south Delhi). We're doing an experiential sort of an immersive exhibition, which is called ‘F(r)iction’. It was held in two phases across four weeks. The first phase saw this pop-up done with Atypical, which presented seven contemporary artists from Singapore. In the second phase, we added artists who deal with the intersection of nature, art, and technology. The idea is, as the world is changing around us with the digital age, the influence of technology has absorbed us but has also provided new tools for art.”
“We try to look at the location and the context of the spaces that we're working in, and then see what sort of artists could bring value to that. The Lodhi Colony line-up ranges from some of the best muralists from the world, to an artist called Andreco, who works with themes around climate change and does more performative work. For ‘F(r)iction’, we have a mix of muralists and an artist dealing with immersive technology and new media.”
“I've worked on an augmented reality piece myself, which sort of looks at how there is a growing concern with space debris. It looks at the fact that humans have been launching objects into space since 1957. There's more than 8,000 objects out there, and a lot of it is not functional. It's actually alarming because the worst-case scenario could be that, in a few years, if this continues, we might not even be able to exit the planet or see Earth from space.”
“We're used to having completely rundown spaces and then transforming them into art experiences. The challenge here was that we actually had sockets and electric connections and all of these things to take over a space that already has some structure and some kind of a context. The challenge was how we take it and completely reimagine it.”
“Community engagement is a very big part of the observation of this festival. We started by sending out pamphlets to over 7,500 households. We used the newspaper network to activate and bring these pamphlets to those not just in the colony, but also the urban villages right behind Mehr Chand and Khanna Market. The idea was to thank them for all the support that they've given us for all these years, but also inform them about what we were going to do and hear back from them.”
“We created a feedback mechanism where we put a WhatsApp number on the pamphlets and asked people to send us a few questions. What we heard back was that there were a lot of kids interested in painting, of course, but also theatre, music, and dance. So now, we are collaborating with an NGO called Project Aawaaz, which works with children and schools from different socioeconomic backgrounds. So now, we have weekly sort of workshops every Sunday in music, dance, and theater.”
“Also, once we heard back from the residents, we've started working on our community wall, which is called ‘Saath Saath’. For this, we worked with one of our artists, Dutta Raj, to create an outline of a geometric design, where anybody from the community can work on. Once the blocking of the colours is done, we're going to add the words that people sent us as a response to the pamphlets that we'd sent about the things that they associate with Lodhi Colony. This is just a small way of including them as participatory mechanisms. We're trying to empower people from the community itself to take up this project in the future so that it's sustainable in the long run.”
“As an organisation, we work with cultural institutions that help us bring artists from different countries. One of our main supporters is Asian Paints, who's been with us since the second festival. They have seen value in our vision and are supportive of the notion of art in public space. For the community outreach, there's Rivastra that we were doing upcycling workshops with. We're also getting Braille handbooks printed, and are trying to do sign language tours. Our motto is art for all and we're trying to extend that to as many aspects and parts of society as possible. We have the support of all the government bodies that we work with, from the Central Public Works Department to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. There's been an ongoing collaboration with the Singapore Tourism Board.”
“In all these years, we've never been able to actually celebrate the work we've done here. By now, it is a comprehensive amount of artworks and it actually presents itself as a walking art district, which is why this festival is called the Lodhi Art Festival, and this is the solidification of the Lodhi art district.”