“All the Street Is a Stage” Examining Urban Street Art in India
The title for this piece is very obviously inspired by Shakespeare. This was deemed fit to be the title of an exhibition showcasing the trend of the street art movement in contemporary India, because it seemed to reflect the motto and purpose of the street art revolution as a whole. Operating in the public arena across the world, this art form seems to have reclaimed the streets, working in a form deemed illegal, voicing and expressing what it means to live in the 21st century.
Having insignificant and troubled origins of random scribbles and tagging, street art today holds a position of mass appreciation, popularity and genuine aesthetics. It has become a medium to voice multiple concerns with the 21st century world, in a space that can be claimed to be everybody’s and at the same time, nobody’s – The Public. The movement questions accepted notions of what defines ‘Art’, and is also dissolving binaries between ‘High’ and ‘Popular’ Art (Certain galleries have had exhibitions of contemporary street artists like Banksy and Phlegm. Others such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Herring began their careers as street artists, and were later exhibited in galleries across the world.)
The term ‘Graffiti’ originated from the Italian word ‘Graffito’ which can be translated as ‘To Scratch’. While a continuous legacy of street art could be claimed by citing examples from as ancient as Pompeii, it should be remembered that Graffiti and Street Art are not the same thing. Graffiti ideally comprises of name-tagging and signatures, while street art is created with a message – whether social or political. Interestingly, in places like India there is not much of a demarcation between the two for various reasons such as space, target audience and relative newness of the art form in the country.
No doubt figures such as Joseph Kyselak, Aurther Stace, Gerard Zlotykamien, and many others set the stage for what was to become a mass visual movement.
But it is impossible to pin-point one particular historical trajectory for a movement as diverse in scope and as wide in geographical range as Street Art. It would, perhaps, be more accurate to assume parallel developments in different parts of the world, and individual evolutions of such urban interventions.
Street Art is comparatively new to India. But it is definitely catching on fast. From cities like Benares, to metros like Delhi, the progress of the street art movement in India is extraordinary. In recent years, this genre of art has received acclaim and appreciation through festivals such as St.Art Delhi, St.Art Mumbai and Kochi Muziris Biennale. Needless to say, the World Wide Web is full of blogs, photographs and websites focussing on the art form. The form has the ability to attract attention by just ‘being there’ – because it is in a public platform it could be anything – awe-inspiring, comic or vulgar, but it is at the same time a powerful means of social commentary, of political propaganda (Mussolini used the stencil style during the Italian Fascist regime) and equally of resistance.
Unlike countries like The United States of America and the United Kingdom, a gallery bound curated exhibition of street artists in India has not yet been conceived and executed. Of course, there are ideological and practical issues of conceiving such a project as most of the artworks are only sensible in situ, and in connection with the surrounding public space.
Nevertheless, through this virtual exhibition, it is hoped that such notions of public/popular art as unsuitable for the ‘white cube’ would be broken. As writer and artist, Iftikar Dadi points out, the relation between high art and popular visual culture in South Asia is multiply determined, and cannot be reduced to theoretical dualities such as elite and kitsch.1
This exhibition focusses on the development of urban/street art in India through the lens of two most prominent Indian street artists of our times – Daku and Tyler. Both work in the two more important metropolises of the country (Delhi and Mumbai, respectively) and under pseudonyms, but there are differences in their styles, influences and purposes of creating art.
The artist called Daku works in Delhi and his idea of social protest is evident in his chosen alias. ‘Daku’ means a bandit or an outlaw in Hindi, and that is exactly what he identifies himself with. In his words, “Yes, that is the ‘illegal’ aspect of the dacoit; but I am the one who ‘robs’ walls, painting on them without taking their owner’s permission. Once I finish my work on a wall, I ‘own’ it, without it really being mine legally!”2
From being a graffiti artist who experimented with fonts and scripts, Daku has progressed in his career to indulge in socio-political commentary. His style is the result of the amalgamation of typography and audience receptivity.His later works vary from stencils to wallpapers, some that critique the disparity between the rich and poor in the country, to those that comment on current socio-political affairs. A wallpaper with the motif of Louise Vuitton covers a large dustbin at Khidkee village, while the artist plays with the pun in his name – ‘Daku’ that can be reversed to ‘Kuda’ (‘Garbage’ in Hindi). Another of his very interesting works is the Stop Series where he pasted stickers over signboards in important locations of the city that critique, satirise and comment on current socio-cultural issues.
Based in Mumbai and a graphic designer by day, Tyler works only with stencils to leave his messages across the more influential areas of Bandra, Andheri West and the like. His/Her pseudonym is inspired by the anti-establishmentarian character of Tyler Durden from Chuck Palahniuk’s book Fight Club, and later a movie by the same name. His/Her subversive and minimal style comments on current social issues, and the work is often interspersed with humour at some points and satire at some other.
Tyler’s approach is of intrigue – he/she prefers to remain anonymous, while making art against modern day materialism and establishments. From little girls who lure chickens only to be murdered, to boys who lament the “End of Nightlife” in Mumbai – Tyler’s work speaks to everybody who care to look.
With nearly 20,000 years of cultural evolution behind it, it’s still art by any other name and nothing seems able to stem its phenomenal popularity. The once-simple idea of drawing on a nearby public wall has become something truly extraordinary in a world increasingly walled-off and walled-in. Art’s most public legacy has definitely reachedmaturity.
This exhibition aims to generate an attitude of appreciation and respect towards this art form, break existing binaries of ‘mainstream’ and ‘kitsch’, and recognise its potential to be placed as an important contemporary art movement.
We are in the middle of history being created in the field of visual studies and it is important that we recognise this process, and shower it its due credit.
- Dadi, Iftikar, “Curating South Asia”, from Guggenheim UBS Mapping Art blog.
- Interview with Daku. www.artnewsnviews.com
- All Images courtesy of the Internet.
Mphil, Visual Arts
School of Arts and Aesthetics
Jawaharlal Nehru University