Why the Street Is at the Heart of Indian Art - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Why the Street Is at the Heart of Indian Art

Why the Street Is at the Heart of Indian Art

By Sanjena Sathian


Because this should be your next dream travel destination.

By Sanjena Sathian

For the sophisticated traveler, there are spots one must hit in any given country: a five-star restaurant, a resort, a high-end artistic locale — a museum or gallery, perhaps. But those who visit India might consider taking travel to the street instead. To chaat carts and auto rickshaws, and definitely to the art that populates cities’ walls and billboards — some of it legal, some not so much. 

Graphic design, graffiti and street art are having a moment in India, from Mumbai to Delhi. Walk through the alleyways of the Bandra neighborhood in the former and spy the work of Ranjit Dahiya, who tells me he “wanted to make the city more Bollywood” (more than it already is?!) by graffitiing mega images from old-school Hindi films, like Anarkali and Sholay. Dahiya, born in a small village near Delhi, is a graphic designer by trade who started out painting signs in villages for the government. And though his work has come a long way, modern street art is somewhat reminiscent of the low stone walls you pass on rural highways, covered in hand-painted Vodafone ads. 

He and I walk through the ’hood, which is a veritable homage to his art, and through his apartment, where he has 18 cats. In here are Bollywood posters aplenty and work from other street artists in Pune, Germany. Street art worldwide is exploding, and much of it came to Delhi two years ago for the nearly two-month-long St.Art festival, which saw the city decked out in grand images of Mahatma Gandhi on the sides of its buildings. People came from Brazil, Sweden and elsewhere to participate and witness. 

India loves its color, and the art can sometimes seem even commonplace here amid the sensory kaleidoscope. But some is more political and even intellectual. There’s Tyler, a faceless Mumbai artist who’s got a beef with consumerism, and Daku (from dacoit, meaning thief or bandit), who once simply graffitied “FUCK” all over Delhi.

Sitting with respected artist Hanif Kureshi on the balcony of his studio in Delhi’s fashionable Hauz Khas Village, I see an example of the art going the other direction — from the physical to the digital. One of Kureshi’s projects involves preserving the typography and fonts that old-fashioned artists used to illustrate those vintage signs. Kureshi has an almost Andy Warhol-esque perspective: “We’re losing these” to modernity, he says, and though many signs are advertisements — pop culture (low culture and proud of it!) — he’s anxious about the move many storied painters are making to vinyl, a material he finds distasteful.

Back in Bandra, there’s the boutique Kulture Shop, where co-founder Jas Charanjiva pulls double duty as a street artist, occasionally doing ads for Motorola while also hitting the streets with politically and socially-minded street art. One of her signatures: an image of a tough-as-hell-looking sari-clad woman with the text “Don’t Mess With Me” inked underneath — done just after the infamous 2012 gang rape. At the shop, she commissions custom works like notepads and soft T-shirts featuring the work of top Indian graphic artists. The shop is clean, white, modern and ultra-cool — and yet another example of the face of modern visual culture in India, high, low and purchasable alike.

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