One morning in 2015, Tanya Munjal and her grandfather emerged from their front door in Lodhi Colony – a quiet, decorous residential neighbourhood in south-central New Delhi – and encountered the unexpected. A dramatic, colourful mural painted across one of the colony’s block-long buildings. Painted by Japanese street artist Lady Aiko, the mural celebrates the charisma and bravado of Rani Lakshmi Bai, a legendary Indian freedom fighter. Munjal and her grandfather were surprised – and excited. The bold colours and the flagrant broadcasting of a subversive warrior – a woman, no less – were unprecedented in their conservative district. Within a few months, several more murals had appeared. And just like that, Lodhi Colony’s transformation into India’s first public arts district was underway.
The mural had been commissioned by the Delhi-based St+art India Foundation, an initiative bringing art into public spaces with the support of Asian Paints, a multinational firm from Mumbai. ‘We want to make art more democratic, to bring it out of museums and take it directly to people,’ says Akshat Nauriyal, St+art’s head of content and one its co-founders.
Beginning organically in 2014 with small street art festivals in Shahpur Jat and Hauz Khas – neighbouring urban villages in the middle of posh South Delhi – St+art picked up momentum fast. In 2015, projects were launched in Delhi’s Lodhi and Maqtha in Hyderabad, along with debuts in Mumbai’s Mahim East, Dharavi and Sassoon Docks districts. By 2017, Lodhi boasted 29 murals featuring top names in the global street art milieu.
In a country perpetually associated with classical artforms, St+art’s headlong plunge into the contemporary, edgy art world was revolutionary. ‘Our mission is to activate spaces not known for art and culture. Not to gentrify them, but to bring attention to their unique stories and experiences’, explains Nauriyal.
For folks like Munjal – now a 21-year-old fashion graduate – who live and work in the newly art-infused districts, the changes have been profound. ‘In Lodhi, no one owns their own place, and it’s largely a transient community, so people generally keep to themselves’, Munjal tells me.
But when St+art organisers first showed up in Lodhi to scope out community interest, everything changed. ‘People started taking interest in their spaces and in each other. It’s brought us together as a community. Even if they don’t like a mural, people are talking, and they are curious’, says Munjal.
‘Growing up, art meant dressing up, going to a museum, having to be quiet and not touching anything’, she recalls. ‘Now, we see children, parents, grandparents looking, talking and touching art without barriers.’
Nowadays, Munjal does double duty at her family’s leather studio and volunteers as a production lead for St+art engagements in the community. ‘I really wanted to be part of St+art’, she says. And she’s not alone. Sixteen-year-old Deepak Singh also grew up in the burb and had no opportunity to meet tourists and artists, much less to view art. These days, Singh, his younger siblings and friends lead ad-hoc tours around Lodhi.
A similar scenario transpired in Mumbai’s Mahim East and adjacent Dharavi, considered one of Asia’s most densely populated slums. Sumeet Singh, 24, was born and raised here, foregoing high school to support his family by finding odd jobs in unregulated tanneries and laundries that service a city with few municipal facilities.
Dharavi is typically only visited by outsiders on ‘slum tours’, which allow visitors to see impoverished areas of developing cities, but now tourists and locals head here to see provocative street art. Sumeet Singh began working with St+art as a production assistant, helping procure materials for visiting artists. ‘Everyone is so excited to have the artists here. They all want to cook for them and talk to them’, Singh exclaims. ‘People are happy, and Dharavi looks better.’
‘It was crucial for artists and communities to work together to conceptualise the pieces and respect the aesthetics of each community’, explains St+art co-founder and chief curator Giulia Ambrogi. ‘Lodhi’s residents have broader global awareness, so the murals are more expressive and diverse in style.’ Meanwhile, Mahim East’s gritty, inner-city vibe invited more daring projects, like Australian artist Guido van Helten’s surreal, photorealistic rendering of the breakdancing troupe The SlumGods. The work is staggered across four multistorey buildings and looms impressively above the grimy streets. Singh, a former B-boy dancer, loves Van Helten’s work. ‘It’s my favourite and makes me feel proud to live here’, he says.
Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks was the springboard for the city’s transformation from fishing port to glitzy financial and entertainment hub, but nowadays, people seem to think it is just an obscure stop on the bus route. An influx of art, including a vibrant vermillion oil drum mural by French duo Ella & Pitr, has added colour to the area’s industrial quays.
Last January, St+art returned to Lodhi, commissioning an additional 23 murals and coordinating art, upcycling and street performance workshops for residents. Mumbai-based visual artist Sajid Wajid Shaikh pitched in with Shakti, a tribute to the power of women painted in his signature pop art style. ‘We are taught that men carry the weight of the world,’ says Shaikh, ‘but it’s really the women whose shakti, or strength, nurtures and powers our lives.’
Shaikh, like most Indian artists, is astounded by St+art’s impact. ‘Most people are worried about putting food on the table. Going to a museum isn’t even on their radar,’ he says. ‘But the other day, a taxi driver told me he goes to see the murals [in Lodhi] to unwind. And, that’s what art is: it gives people a break and another perspective.’
On their daily walks, Tanya Munjal and her grandfather still stop to admire the art. ‘When St+art first came here, people would ask, “Why are you wasting paint?”,’ she recalls. ‘Now, everyone wants a mural on their block!’
Where to Find India’s Artsy Neighbourhoods
New Delhi: Lodhi Art District
The last residential colony built by the British Raj, Lodhi is India’s first official public arts district. Stroll through its wide, leafy boulevards to view staggering, block-long murals painted in styles ranging from photorealism and expressionism to abstraction and pop art.
Mumbai: Mahim East
More than a dozen murals, from the portrait of Gandhi at the Mahim Railway Station to Italian Francesco Camillo ‘Millo’ Giorgino’s outsize love letter to the monsoon have helped Mahim reinstate its past glory.
St+art’s interventions turned Maqtha’s walls into playful, provocative canvases, while colour-coded artwork helped guide its labyrinthine alleys into the present.
St+art India’s art districts in Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad are free and open to the public. Downloadable maps and DIY walking-guides are available online. Private tours can be arranged with advance notice.
Cathay Pacific flies to Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad from Hong Kong every week