Why you should care
Because imitators are popping up in a city near you.
Four days before India’s moon mission Chandrayaan-2 was to land on the lunar surface, residents of the country’s IT capital Bangalore woke up to images and videos of an astronaut walking on craters. Their amazement turned into amusement as they realized street artist Baadal Nanjundaswamy was at it again.
The astronaut was, in fact, an actor in a spacesuit replica walking on one of the many crater-ridden roads of the city. This was yet another project of Nanjundaswamy’s where he makes use of art to highlight the city’s chronic problem of potholes. The visuals are realistic enough to seem beamed from space until an auto-rickshaw passes by and the camera pans away to reveal street lights, a footpath and a couple of men in shorts.
Bangaloreans are familiar with Nanjundaswamy, 40, and his out-of-this-world antics that lampoon the city’s curse of potholes. Two years ago, he had a mermaid posing next to her pothole-turned-pond. Two years before that, he put a frighteningly real-looking crocodile dummy in a giant pothole.
While Indian roads are often compared to the surfaces of the moon and Mars, the visual was a first and went viral. The video generated more than 34,000 reactions on Nanjundaswamy’s Twitter page and was shared more than 36,000 times on Facebook.
“Bangalore is full of potholes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make it to the news unless someone dies or suffers serious injuries because of them,” the soft-spoken artist says. “This is why I decided to bring them to the notice of the civic agency through my art.”
Besides humor, there’s a grave reason his endeavors strike a chord. Bad roads killed close to 15,000 people in India between 2013 and 2017, according to a committee appointed by the country’s highest court. The highest court of Karnataka — the southern Indian state of which Bangalore is the capital — often lashes out at the city over the issue, such as when it reported it had about 1,600 potholes. Recently, a 3-year-old girl in Bangalore was left bloody-faced as the scooter her mother was driving skidded on a road that was dug up six months ago.
And yet, a day after the tabloid Bangalore Mirror splashed photographs of the Moonwalk and the visuals spread online, city authorities began restoring the stretch where Nanjundaswamy and his team pulled this project off.
I don’t believe in copyrighting my street art, as it is meant to create awareness.
It’s even resonating globally. Barely a week after Nanjundaswamy did it in Bangalore, Mexican advertising agency Boveda Celeste recreated the stunt in their country with his permission. Ever friendly and agreeable, Nanjundaswamy says it’s very nice of them to ask first. “I don’t believe in copyrighting my street art, as it is meant to create awareness,” he says, welcoming requests to recreate it from artists in Japan, Australia and even America.
Baadal has created about 50 artworks highlighting civic issues in Bangalore, his hometown of Mysore and other places across Karnataka. But he merely moonlights as a street artist. His main occupation is as an art director for Sandalwood (Karnataka’s native language movie industry), plays, documentaries, short films and other independent projects. He funds his street art from his own pocket.
“When I see some issue that needs to be fixed, I go to a nearby store, buy paints and do a simple illustration then and there,” he says. Bigger projects like Moonwalk require more planning. “I look for patterns and shapes and then I decide how to go about it,” he explains.
His love for fine arts was instinctive. He was going into the sciences — until he was thrown out of biology class one day for doodling. “That is when I realized my true calling,” he notes. He was caught doodling again on his first day at Chamarajendra Government College of Visual Arts (CAVA) in Mysore, but when Professor Upadhya approached to see if Nanjundaswamy was listening, he looked at the drawing and realized this chap was a special talent.
Nanjundaswamy went on to finish first in his class, learning about the artists who became his influences: Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dalí, Banksy and Gabriel García Márquez. “His thoughts and ideas used to be so eccentric that he had once painted white stripes on a horse and brought it to the university,” Upadhya reminisces.
Nanjundaswamy’s maverick persona meant he felt suffocated by set office hours and corporate culture during three years at advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather. He quit in 2017 and has been working on his own since then.
Every once in a while, he makes a statement with his witty takes on civic problems. Senior photojournalist Anantha Subramanyam K of Bangalore Mirror, who has known Nanjundaswamy for six years, asserts it is not for 15 minutes of fame. Anantha says they share a motive: highlighting issues with a hope to make an impact.
An unintended impact of Nanjundaswamy’s street art turned out to be a commercial movie in 2016. He ‘gift-boxed’ road dividers displaced by motorists to take U-turns, inspiring U Turn, a film where the plot revolves around deaths caused by such out-of-place barriers. Director Pawan Kumar, drawn in by Nanjundaswamy’s eccentricity since meeting him in 2010, has become a frequent collaborator. Other Sandalwood films Nanjundaswamy has worked for as an art director include Lifeu Ishtene, Prakruthi, Police Quarters and Lucia — the 2013 hit lavished with awards and remade in multiple languages.
He does have his detractors. After Moonwalk, online critics said Nanjundaswamy was bringing disrepute to the city. Others demanded to know how he dared mock India’s ambitious moon mission. “I used to feel irritated initially when my artworks were subjected to strong criticism. However, over the years, I have learned to make my peace with it,” he says with his usual nonchalance.
Abhilash Krishna is a member of 101reporters.com.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Baadal Nanjundaswamy
- What’s the last book you finished? MAD magazine.
- Do you have a favorite color? It used to be purple, but I don’t have any favorite color now.
- What’s one thing you can’t live without? Ideas.
- Who’s your hero? My mother.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To fly in a jet pack from Bangalore to Mysore and back.