The Atheist Bringing God to the Streets
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because graffiti can bring both gods and politics into the public space.
By Sanjena Sathian
“Total vandalism,” observes Harshvardhan Kadam, as he examines a wall of the Indian Law Society’s Law College in Pune. The sight is far from offensive: a lavender-skinned profile of the Hindu god Shiva, beloved as the dreadlocked, occasionally weed-smoking rebel. His hair fans out behind him, Medusa-esque.
The image is one of Kadam’s early works, and part of a series the artist titled Mythopolis, in which he brought psychedelic depictions of Indian mythology to the streets of Pune, his home city, and throughout the beach-hippie paradise of Goa and the winding lanes of the holy city of Varanasi, among other locales. Kadam, 33, one of the country’s top street artists, is experimenting with a form once dismissed as pure graffiti that today is increasingly accepted and sought after. In collaboration with a small army of interns and fellows who help run his studio, Inkbrushnme (which doubles as his pseudonym), he’s commandeered walls across the country and even painted on cars and surfboards; in a previous life, he illustrated a comic book by Deepak Chopra, developed characters for films, drawn album artwork and, inevitably, dotted his resumé with various commercial projects — the stuff an artist needs to sustain himself.
From Ranjit Dahiya’s Bollywood images adorning the walls of Bandra in Mumbai to underground types like Daku (meaning dacoit, or thief) in Delhi — who once simply scrawled “fuck” in Hindi characters all over the city — India is experiencing a street-art boom. There are “more and more larger-than-life murals,” says Yantr, another top street artist, whose moniker translates to “machine” in Sanskrit. Kadam, like many of his peers, insists on the democratic nature of his work: Why, the art school graduate wondered, should art be trapped inside galleries, appealing only to the rich? Especially in a country like India, where color in the streets is natural and few street artists face legal repercussions for graffitiing up a wall.
“Harshvardhan’s work is deeper than what you might expect when you see it at first glance,” emails Jas Charanjiva, an Indian-American street artist and the co-founder of graphic art mecca the Kulture Shop. She describes how he immerses himself with locals before painting in a new city, depicting stories that a passing resident might recognize and be able to narrate him or herself. Kadam tells me he loves “retelling a story — especially in public spaces where some people have forgotten these stories.” And few street artists are tackling India’s mythological history, Charanjiva notes. While gods and myth are ubiquitous across Indian art, from calendars to taxi bobbleheads to television shows, they haven’t been seen on many public walls, she says. More often, she continues, street art is “used as a method to shine a light on social issues” — which would include one of her own signature pieces: a sari-draped woman staring defiantly at passersby, declaring, “We won’t be torn down” and “Don’t mess with me,” in response to the 2012 Delhi gang rape.
Kadam has art in his blood — his father and his recently deceased mother both worked as illustrators for the popular Amar Chitra Katha comic books, which introduced Indians around the globe to Hindu myths and epic tales. He says his father didn’t teach him to draw; the old man’s approval was hard to come by. His mother, he recalls, told him he grew up drawing huge landscapes on the floor in chalk. Today, as we sit in the small apartment he shares with his brother, his mother’s breathy, pastel paintings surround us, and beer bottles sprouting bamboo plants line the windowsills. In the middle of the room, his friend, that famous artist Yantr, sits hunched over an injured parrot; Kadam tends to the rescue by offering it a piece of tomato to suck on while we talk. Describing him as “gentle” would be an understatement.
Kadam’s big break came at a young age, when he was hired to illustrate Chopra’s book for the Richard Branson-founded Virgin Comics. He left before finishing the project; Sharad Devarajan, Virgin Comics’ co-founder who is now CEO of Graphic India, wrote OZY that it was an honor to work with Kadam. Since then, he’s made a living by combining passion projects with commissioned work. In one case, a fancy apartment complex in Mumbai sought him out to brighten the space, and he responded with a painting he believed would bring together the upper and lower rungs of society, a story known by the people who’d pass by on the street rather than just a treat for those dwelling in the high-rise. Kadam describes himself as a failed architect — he flunked his 11th grade exams, which is a big deal in India; he took the B-grade route through education, earning a diploma instead of a degree. His dad offered no financial help.
For his work, Kadam conducts extensive research into Indian iconography, its evolution in colonial times, its patronage. And yet, despite the many gods populating his art, he identifies as an atheist. He relates to his subjects as characters, calling Shiva “extremely misunderstood. For me, they are superheroes, and also partly human beings.”