Take Back the Streets: Feminism and Street Art in Delhi

Searching for a wall

My journey with Delhi’s Street Art and Graffiti sparked off when I visited HKV some 4 years back, during my graduation from Lady Shri Ram College. Me and my friends wandered down the narrow alleyways and suddenly encountered a vacant lot covered with big colourful murals on three sides. I just couldn’t put my phone down. We couldn’t take our eyes off it and wanted to photograph every piece of art in every nook and corner. And every time we went back, the wall was covered with brand new graffiti or street art.

I am originally from Lucknow where there is hardly any such art and after Lucknow I shifted to Delhi for my undergrad and that is where I was first exposed to Street Art. This was a new form of artistic expression for me; it made me really curious to understand the whereabouts of this art-form. This heightened with my shift to Mumbai for my masters. There was a sharp contrast in the themes on Mumbai walls and that of Delhi. In Mumbai too there has been a recent spurt in Street Art and while I explored the city the idea struck my mind that I should do something in this field. On my return to Delhi for my internship I was given the chance to bring to reality, my ideas. With the recent wave of street art and the much talked about St+Art Festival, there was so much new street art waiting to be explored in Delhi. I had returned to Delhi after living in Mumbai for a year and I was really excited to go out into the city once again and revisit all those loved places and some new ones.

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Figure 1: Two of the many Bollywood inspired murals in Bandra, Mumbai

This pull towards graffiti and street art materialized with my exploration of Delhi and its material culture at Anand Foundation. On my first day at Anand Foundation I expressed my wish to work in this field; my wish was granted in a way I could never have imagined. In my first meeting we discussed the probable areas and themes I could cover under Graffiti and Street Art. After the 16th December case in Delhi, women empowerment and safety had taken the forefront and a lot of street art had begun to be inspired by these issues. Being a Feminist, we came upon the conclusion that my research topic should be coupled with Feminism.

It wasn’t an easy task to couple feminism along with street art since as it is there is not much graffiti in the city and over and above that we are limiting it to a particular theme. When I started visiting the many inked walls of the city: the theme of Women Empowerment was something that screamed for attention. Though, Street Art is just a recent spurt in the city, and there is not much graffiti around the city – the theme of women safety and women oriented paintings immediately caught my attention. This link between the city art and women pointed towards the very obvious concerns of the NCR with women and empowerment. Due to the recent St+Art Festival a lot of street art had flourished in the city and it provided me with the golden opportunity to research on it.

The founder of Delhi Street Art (DSA), Yogesh Saini, in an interview titled “Through the looking Glass” to University Express, talks about how it all started with the painting of trash cans in Lodi Gardens. The St+Art festival was organised by Arjun Bahl, Hanif Kureshi and Akshat Nauriyal. The Google Cultural Institute has launched a recent street art project which curates street art from around the world and displays it on their website. The St+Art Foundation are representing their festival there. The festival was organised during January and February 2014 and brought together artists from across the world to world to New Delhi.

When exactly street art began in Delhi is a hard question to answer. It’s been a gradual phenomenon and one of the best known and recognised graffiti artists in Delhi is Daku. Everyone in Delhi must have encountered something done by Daku since he is almost everywhere. When I asked Zine, another very famous graffiti artist based in Delhi, about the evolution of graffiti, he replied, “Graffiti as an art form itself has grown many heights. It came from the poor neighbourhoods of America in the 60s and 70s and today there’s graffiti in every part of the world and its one big community of artists . . . Graffiti has a beautiful process of evolution. An artist’s skill set and growth can be witnessed by all since it is out there for everyone to see and probably judge. From the first painting that a graffiti artist laid on a wall to the latest painting – can be seen through the years of that evolution by the “audience” and that to me is very special and raw!” This says a lot about the growth of Graffiti in a city like Delhi. It all started with Hauz Khas Village and now has spread to various parts of the city. People witnessed it in their everyday life, they spread the word around, it gained popularity and it was a trend that was here to stay.

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Figure 2: Trash Cans painted by the volunteers of Delhi Street Art at Lodi Gardens.

As Tiffany Conklin in her dissertation “Street-Art Ideology and Public Space” points out – how street art is a window into the city’s soul and very aptly so. She defines graffiti as a “culture of words” and street art as a “culture of symbols.”The recent bout of street art was all about spreading awareness about social issues and one major issue among them was the problems that women were facing. I also feel that street art is a means to give voice to the “deep human urges of free expression” and it fits into the “larger context of power struggle and representation.”

 

Choosing the Colours

Not being an artist, the world of paintings, graphics, sketches, etc., always fascinated me. I wondered what inspired a person to indulge in art of any kind. In fact, it was important to get a perspective of an artist before I delved into the lives of professional graffiti artists and figured out what exactly motivates them to do something so unique and different!

Aakash, who pursues painting as a hobby said that he had two roads to choose from when he passed his boards. He appeared for his IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) exams along with NID (National Institute of Design). But then he chose the former, and continues to pursue art as a hobby. He says, “An art course can’t teach you what comes from inside of you.” He was inspired to do art by the very fact that he would hold something tangible in his hands of which he would be proud of. The fact that whatever was in his thoughts and imagination would be materialised in front of him through his sole effort was what motivated him to do art and made his “life meaningful”. He mentioned that he believed that there was less money in art and more opportunities in engineering and that was a reason why he chose engineering over art.

In my exploration and wandering across the city- I came across an article that gave me a new perspective and dimension to my work. The article titled “Stars on Streets” (The Hindu, 9th April, 2015) talked about how from street vendors to beauty parlours to auto rickshaws – all employed the technique of using colourful posters of movie stars to woo customers. It talked about how from street vendors to beauty parlours to auto rickshaws – all employed the technique of using colourful posters of movie stars to woo customers.  This is one form of street art that often goes unnoticed. Not only this, we encounter art even n the backs and sides of trucks and trailers on the road every day. How can we forget that some of the biggest artists like M. F. Hussain began their journey by painting hoardings! This brought to the fore other manifestations of wall art and graffiti that is being used in our daily lives in forms of Rangolis, Warli art, Madhubani Art and the drawing of deities and symbols during religious ceremonies. Warli Art, specially is being used everywhere these days in the form of prints on clothes and as designs for notebooks etc.

The scribbling of art on the wall cannot be just reduced to modern urban phenomena. Warli art and Madhubani art has existed in India since time immemorial. Warli art is ritual art in the coastal areas of Maharashtra- Gujarat border. It is done inside the huts where the walls are covered with a mixture of branches, red earth and cow dung which gives it a red ochre colour and the paint is made up of rice paste with water and gum. The drawings thus, are always in white and are composed of pictorial representations of the human form and animals too, combined together to form stories and sometimes these stories also teach a lesson. Madhubani art is practised in the state of Bihar. It was earlier done on the walls and floors of mud houses but now it is also practised on cloth, paper and canvas. It mostly contains images of human beings and its association with nature and religious plants. The special thing about this art is that there are no gaps left in the paintings, they are filled by images of flowers, leaves, etc., making the artwork really dense and beautiful.

Making an Outline

During my stay in Delhi, I stayed in the hostel at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). And when you visit the campus, you cannot ignore the presence of the street art. The walls of the institution are full of posters by political parties which are trying to spread awareness about every issue possible. Women empowerment is one of the major aspects in the art. The brightly painted posters not only attract you but also make you think. The message accompanying the posters is also extremely hard-hitting and it makes you question conventions, norms and the present state of affairs.

The viewers of this art had some mixed reactions. Some people said that it’s redundant in an institution like JNU where everyone already knows everything about these issues, “Preaching the preached” was their concern. But then there were some students who argued that when suddenly these posters appear in front of you they have a really hard-hitting impact. “The radical ideas stick to your mind unlike lengthy books and monotonous speeches. It is an important part of the identity of JNU,” said a student studying International Relations at the University. Another student studying Political Science said that “There’s a difference between being literate and being educated. Even though these students come from a good educational background, they need this. Some people here really need to change their mentality!”

Sandeep Sourav, who is currently a student at JNU and is doing his Ph. D. in Hindi Literature, is one of these artists. He says that he is just a small part of a big team of artists who put up these posters around JNU. He states that these paintings are extremely important since it is not only for the students but for so many people who come from outside and live in JNU. He claims that these posters make it easier for us to reach out to the audience since a visual message is more articulate, and all the more so when accompanied by a hard-hitting caption. He also reflected on how it is important for the political parties to take the initiative to make these posters with a motive to work for the society towards its development and to spread awareness about social issues. He also signed off by telling me to keep an eye out for the posters that will be coming up under AISA’s ‘Freedom without Fear’ campaign which are all about women empowerment.

Alongside are some of the posters put up by AISA and SFI (political parties at JNU) depicting the miseries faced by women. The first poster is about how Dalit women have become victims on account of their caste and the state protects the offenders because supposedly women from these castes “deserve this”. The poster also recounts the names of places where these misfortunate events took place. The image is a horrific one. After the woman gets raped, not only her but her family is also evicted from the villages, their homes are burnt. It’s always the woman who is found at fault, the man has to face no shame and walks freely and lives a normal life.

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Figure 3: Poster put up by AISA and SFI at Kamla Complex, JNU.

In this poster by SFI, we see an image of a woman who has hanged herself because of the harassment she has to go face in her everyday life. In a really touching poem by Meena Kandasamy, the message that is being conveyed to us is that how women have to face the wrath after she is raped, and not the offender. Here is a woman crying out for freedom, for equality and for revenge. She tells us how she was violated by her landlord and how being raped branded her as ‘impure’. So many women have committed suicide after being raped, since the society blames them and not the culprit for the rape. It’s the woman who is supposed to be the one at fault and it’s assumed that she has lost her honour and not the man for committing such an atrocious crime.

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Figure 4: Poster put up by SFI outside the JNU Library.

This poster by SFI talks about alternate sexualities – there are lesbians on the left and a gay couple on the right. The imagery is very beautiful in the way the posters have shown the passion between two people in a very subtle way without having offended anyone’s sensibilities and at the same time the message of normalising homosexuality reaches across to the audience so easily.

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Figure 5: Poster put up by AISA in a JNU canteen.

The poster above is of Irom Sharmila who has been fighting against AFSPA and is on a hunger strike since the year 2000. Her demand to the Government is to repeal the Armed Forces Special Protection Act which has been committing acts of violence on the people who live in parts of the north-east. Women specially are faced with extreme forms of exploitation on the hands of the Indian Army under this act, so much so that 30 women protested in support of Sharmila in front of the Assam Rifle Headquarters, holding a banner saying “Indian Army Rape Us”.

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Figure 6: Another poster depicting Irom Sharmila.

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In these posters put up by AISA, the one on the right talks about giving freedom to women, smashing patriarchy. It also highlights the many problems faced by women today – honour killing, rape, discrimination, female infanticide, domestic violence, sexual harassment, dowry, etc. The poster on the left highlights the problems that women face today in their houses. How they are caged and when they, metaphorically, try to breakthrough, they are left to bleed to death. The poem in the poster tells us how the death of these women is the death of half of mankind itself.

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Figure 7: Posters near the Administrative Block, JNU.

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Then there were these posters again by AISA, asking women to raise their voices against inequality and patriarchy. The caption accompanying the picture on the right says “It’s time to leave the confines of dark rooms and closed doors and to come forward and march on the roads in a procession to fight for your rights.” It’s amazing how the political parties have managed to cover almost every contemporary issue. It has been rightly said in reference to JNU: “The walls teach you so much more than the classrooms do.”

Filling in the colours

After JNU I decided to visit Shahpur Jat and Hauz Khas Village, which were two of the main locations where St+Art was active the most. Shahpur Jat Village and Hauz Khas Village are urban villages which have now become the hub for youngsters since there has been a flourish of bars, cafes and designer boutiques. To quote Google Cultural Institute, both the villages “can be regarded as representative of the larger economic dsparity that exists in ‘globalised’ Indian cities”. On the one hand there are these posh localities and there are still rural residential areas nearby.

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Figure 8: Mural of Nadira at Shahpur Jat

The Mural above was done by Ranjit Dahiya. The actress Nadira was painted here as a part of the ‘Bollywood Art Project’ under St+Art.  It’s interesting how the artist chose Nadira as the piece to be painted. She wasn’t your typical hindi film heroine, she wore western clothes and was often cast as the temptress or the vamp. In this mural as well, we see her smoking a cigarette and a wine glass in front of her. The stereotyping of women can clearly be seen here in the sense that women who drink and smoke are assumed to be bad women – vamps. Why the artist chose this particular mural is a reason to be contemplated. In the present scenario though things might have changed, the image is a fascinating one. A woman in a modern attire might appeal more to the audience today and to the women as well.

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Figure 9: Mural by Alina at Shahpur jat

Photo Courtesy: Akshat Nauriyal

This particular mural by Alina from Denmark represents a group of women in a very serene and calm setting. The mural evokes peacefulness and camarederie for me. A resident of the building opposite the mural told me how she could see a close alliance of women with nature – another powerful force on Earth.

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Figure 10: Mural by Sergeio Cordeiro at Shahpur Jat.

Photo courtesy: Akshat Nauriyal

This particular mural named ‘Voodoo Woman’ was done by  Sergeo Cordeiro at Shahpur Jat. Google Cultural Institute quotes him as saying: “Not everyone will get it, but there is a message of empowering women – giving them respect and security. They shoul be free you know.” It’s true that women are considered most powerful when they are believed to posess such magical powers as the ones that thes voodoo woman has. People have always been afraid of witches and have tried to burn them at the stake. This is probably the only form of a woman that terrifies them. Here is one strong, powerful, empowered woman who can make men dance on her instructions – quite literally.

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Figure 11: Mural by Jaao Samina at HKV.

The mural on the right was done by Jaao Samina from Portugal at Hauz Khas Village. The photograph is of an anonymous Indian woman. It has been done as a tribute to the Indian woman and all the trials and tribulations that she has to go through. It’s an image of a typical housewife – who looks after the children, serves her husband, caters to the whole family’s needs, cooks, cleans and what not. The list is never ending. To me, the smile on her face is a reminder of how even after such hard work there is a smile on her face and her love for her family and kids don’t diminish even by a fraction.

My visit to Hauz Khas Village was a really interesting one, in the process of looking at murals and taking pictures, I met a graffiti artist at work. Santosh, who is just 17 years of age, is a budding graffiti artist who was working at a graffiti tag. There was also a couple who was getting their pictures clicked by a professional photographer with the murals as the background. They borrowed a paintbrush from Santosh and the man posed as if he was spraying the woman on his side with those colours. As I watched this interesting series of events unfold, I realised how this graffiti is not just a source of joy to the artist, like Zine said, but also to so many other people who find it so fascinating. So many people get their modelling portfolios done with the graffiti as their background and everyday there is one more person uploading a profile picture on Facebook with these murals in the background.

A conversation with Santosh gave me a whole new perspective on street art and graffiti. He was a young graffitist with a zeal and passion for graffiti which in his words was his ‘addiction’. His father is also an artist and he himself is a lover of wild-style graffiti. There is a world of graffiti beyond all these hyped festivals which are government sanctioned and legal. It’s the dimension of graffiti that is hidden and illegal where people remain anonymous and reclaim their right to the public space by leaving their imprint on it. Santosh painted his first graffiti tag on the terrace of his house and then there was no stopping him. Now he paints graffiti at cafes, bars and even for political parties and their campaigns. People get fascinated by his profession but at the same time there is no dearth of advisors telling him to find something more productive since there is no career in Graffiti.  But he reiterates how graffiti is his addiction like smoking is for some people. Even if it is harmful for him, there is no other way anymore. He has big plans for the future and wants to pursue fine arts after school. He told me about the Graffiti battle that he attended last year in Hyderabad and hopes to attend this year in Mumbai.  He even sent me pictures of his works that he feels convey a message encouraging women empowerment.

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Figure 12: Photo Courtesy: Santosh

The two pictures above exemplify the statement “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The first picture obviously talks about female foeticide and the statistics today clearly show how the number of men is so much more than the number of women today. Not only that, we can also see this image as a portrayal of how men are considered stronger and more powerful. It is amazing how all that has been expressed with the help of a simple beam balance and the symbol for male and female. The second picture is of a woman who resembles an Indian Goddess with several hands. The hands, in this case, are not holding a flower, a trishul, etc. Instead she is holding household items that a typical Indian homemaker uses. She is also holding a baby girl in her hand. The nourishing goddess figure is replaced by the nourishing figure of the mother.

Adding Finishing Touches

The most interesting and perhaps the strongest symbol of women empowerment – a mural of Rani Lakshmi Bai was done by Lady Aiko from Japan at Meherchand Market near Lodi Gardens. Lady Aiko is a street artist from Japan and her pieces are always influenced by women in some way or the other. It’s really interesting how she has interpreted the image of Rani Lakshmi Bai, being from a foreign country, in her own way. She has used her typical stencilling style and there are floral designs in the background while Rani Lakshmi Bai brandishes her sword with a smile on her face and her baby on her back.

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Figure 13: Murals at Connaught Place.

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Figure 14: Mural of Rani Lakshmi Bai. Photo Courtesy: Akshat Nauriyal.

When I went to Connaught Place after so many days I was enchanted by the street art on the wall right between the inner circle and the outer circle. There was an open cage and birds were flying out of it and there was a woman riding a majestic bird, as free as the wind, leading all the other birds flying behind her. On the adjoining wall there was another woman riding the waves and sitting in a pose that is typical of a female goddess. The female character was associated with two very important elements – water and air – which represent freedom itself. Both the images are really empowering in the sense that they are metaphorically portrayed in control of one element of nature which gives them power which no one else possesses.

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Figure 15: Murals at Delhi University, North Campus

Two years ago, a street art competition was held at the North Campus of Delhi University in which students took part to paint murals on whatever themes they chose on the wall right outside the Vice Chancellor’s Office. The themes that these students chose were really interesting since they were all about spreading awareness about one social issue or another. On my visit there I could identify a lot of them relating to the themes of women empowerment or just highlighting the issue of the oppression of women.

In the two murals above, we see that the woman is being followed or stalked by strange men. In the first picture it appears like she has been put in chains and the men are conspiring to harm her and then most probably kill her, as indicated by the ‘trishul’. The smirk and the evil expressions on the faces of these men clearly indicate their intentions. This is a problem that almost every woman goes through in her life – being stalked by men who leer at her and insult her. The minimum amount of respect that she deserves is also not accorded to her.

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Figure 16: Mural at DU

In this particular mural, the artist has just tried to represent all kinds of women that exist in India. There is a woman in a burqa but at the same time there is a woman in a modern attire, there are working women and housewives, students and then there are shadows of women whom you can assume to be whatever you want. The artist, I think, is trying to portray the changing face of women in India. Compared to the ages passed, today women stand on an equal standing with men. Why the artist decided to portray these particular images is a question to be reckoned with. The image of a burqa-clad woman and a woman in a dress in the same row might be used as a contrast but it is to an extent stereotyping the fact that these two women are different on account of the way they dress in. They could have been working at the same place and just the fact that she is wearing a burqa doesn’t mean that she does not feel as free as the woman in the dress. Everything else is pretty much in shadows and is left to the imagination of the audience.

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Figure 17: Mural at DU (Left), Picture by me. Mural at Shahpur Jat (Right). Picture Courtesy: Akshat Nauriyal

Admiring your masterpiece
           

These were some really interesting murals, one of the pictures is from the DU wall, and the other one I found online, is from Shahpur Jat. I wanted to end my paper with these pictures because in these pictures we see firstly, a woman roaming on the streets at night and secondly, a woman as someone who is watching something on the street and not being watched. These women have claimed the streets for themselves – the streets are public spaces and should be free to all and that is what these women are trying to do here. The similarity between street-art/graffiti and the condition of women is exactly this – the effort to reclaim the streets and free spaces for themselves. The fact that street art is being used to spread this message makes a lot more sense now. It’s an arrow shooting two targets at the same time.

So this is where my journey ended, or maybe not. This was an experience that is going to stay with me throughout my life. No matter where and when I encounter a piece of graffiti or street art, I am definitely going to take a moment to admire and analyse it. The response that street art is gathering today in Delhi ensures that with time it will only get more popular, and that it is here to stay.

Acknowledgements

Shenaz Parveen, Project Director, Anand Foundation.

Ruchika Sharma, Student, JNU.

Sandeep Sourav, Student/AISA member, JNU.

Aakash Srivastava, Student, DTU.

Zine, Graffiti Artist.

Santosh Maharane, Graffiti Artist/Student.

This was originally written as a part of my internship at Anand Foundation. All pictures taken by me unless stated otherwise. Copyright Reserved. Please seek permission before using them elsewhere.

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7 comments

  1. this is fantastic to learn about! I have posted a link to your post in the comments section of a post over on Neptune and the Oak celebrating the point: For these artists, it’s not about approval and their action bears fruit that edifies many.

    https://neptuneandtheoak.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/uranus-in-aries-the-good-guys-too/

    thanks very much for sharing this. if you would like to see the street art of some Cypriots, just click on ‘street art’ in the side margin . I would love to hear what it ‘speaks’ to you.

    Liked by 1 person

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