In Focus

Colaba Climbs On The Street Art Bandwagon

Street Art has origins from a time we are yet to fathom and, in time, discover, writes Gajanan Khergamker

Limited as we are by man-made language, nomenclature, and terminology besides the means so simplistic and apparent like paper and other media, like say walls, Art, and in particular, Street Art, is an extension of that what can be generated on traditional medium but extends to public spaces.

On the European front, skewedly propagated as a world platform, it was in the French Revolution’s iconoclasm era, when rebels defaced high-end art to protest French society’s toxic hierarchy creating a niche called graffiti that became synonymous with vandalism. It was the waves of political and economic turbulence that triggered the rise of street art around the world: The Berlin Wall's ‘one-sided’ graffiti being projected as a fight of colourful expression on one side versus the stark totalitarianism of bland emptiness on the other being a rather simplistic definition.

So, French Street Artist James Colomina's installation of Vladimir Putin in Central Park in early August 2022, five months after the Ukraine war started, was predictably bold in both its content and process. The artist who does not reveal himself because most of his installations "are unauthorised," is "already facing problems with the authorities." 

In India, the Street Art scenario in financial capital Mumbai, in the absence of creative spunk even controlled by political entities and ‘permitted’ more often than growing organically as in the rest of the world, has failed to impress, in comparison.

“I have been painting nature, architecture, and local heritage on walls and in public spaces across the city,” says self-taught artist Sapna Patil who has been involved with painting real-life thematic images in and around Mumbai. 

Artist Sapna Patil poses against her artwork at Colaba's Badhwar Park (Pic: Manu Shrivastava / DraftCraft)

Sapna is known for her painting of a seemingly-real 'train' across a wall at Badhwar Park, in what was earlier a rather drab-looking passage, connecting Fourth Pasta Lane to Machchimar Nagar on the other side of the zone and passing through a Railway Colony. 

Her detailed depiction of the 'train', complete with windows, bars, steps even handles is exquisite. “I wish I get more opportunities to paint about issues that affect people too,” she says. 

Sapna Patil’s works are symbolic of the Changing Colours of Colaba and transformations in Mumbai's oldest precinct where, among other changes, public walls are given colourful make-overs through strategic paintings depicting the zone’s architecture and life.

The Badhwar Park ‘unsafe as ever’ passage that would lie in darkness, for over decades, even during the day, strewn with beggars, drug addicts and lumpen elements, has been transformed with ‘train’ and a surge of passers-by cannot help but stop by to take in the glory of the real-as-life painting. With scores stopping and shooting selfies in the zone against the backdrop of the ‘train’, the transformation of the stretch has been nothing short of magical.

Glossing Over Details To Fact, Flavour

The two-month long St+art Urban Art Festival for Mumbai’s Sassoon Dock Art Project kickstarted on 11 November 2017 and ran until 30 December 2017 featuring an exhibition of structures and images of workers at India’s first wet dock and the oldest in Mumbai, situated in Colaba. 

A glimpse of the St+art Urban Art Festival at South Mumbai's Sassoon Docks (Pic: Manu Shrivastava / DraftCraft)


Pitched as having remained “a forgotten space of Mumbai, only home to the native Kolis living in a world of their own making,” the paintings depicted Kolis, a community that has grown organically even before the formation of Mumbai and live and work in the sea on the ‘other side’ of Colaba at Machchimar Nagar, having poor little to do with the trade at Sassoon Docks.

Sassoon Docks instead, is a commercial venture with docks where fish are cleaned, packed and exported to markets across the world. The Sassoon Docks provides livelihood for a range of communities from across India, apart from Kolis, who, at best, buy the fish locally for sale in markets in suburban Mumbai. The depiction in the Street Art seemed way off the mark and the local flavour and details to facts, sadly amiss.

Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra's Gandhi mural at Churchgate Railway Station (Pic: Nandini / DraftCraft)

In the same year, under an initiative of St+art Foundation, Asian Paints and Western Railways, a mural depicting Mahatma Gandhi exiting a train was created by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra at South Mumbai’s Churchgate Railway Station. A structural audit of the façade, even declared it fit during an inspection in 2018. 

However, a part of the cladding of the 81 ft x 54 ft mural broke loose during a cyclone in 2019 and fell on a 62-year-old pedestrian, killing him. The entire façade including the painting was ultimately brought down by the Western Railways.

Creating Art To Inspire

On similar lines is the work of Chandigarh’s Sachita Aditi Sharma now based out of Himachal Pradesh in North India. After having painted “an entire village in Punjab to inspire villagers and show them a life that goes beyond drugs, walls in Goa even at venues in Hyderabad," Sachita now works across India.

Chandigarh artist Sachita Sharma strives to inspire people through her works

“I’ve cleaned little corners and walls in cities strewn with garbage and excreta and created works of art,” says Sachita who feels the entire ordeal of ‘getting permissions’ from local administration which is either inaccessible or simply not keen to comply, defeats the purpose of beautifying public zones.

Delhi-based artist and President Awardee Roop Chand feels the potential of artists being able to tap on public sentiment and educate masses has not been utilised to its fullest potential. "There is so much that artists can do to contribute. It's just that their potential has not been realised," maintains Roop Chand.

Delhi-based artist and President Awardee Roop Chand painting a waste-bin at Lodhi Garden

Why, he feels that something as simple as propping up a social message on a brightly-painted waste-bin in a public place may make all the difference. “I have done it personally and seen it work. People actually stop, read and take in the message,” he says.

A Film Industry Splashed On Public Walls

The walls adjoining the streets of Mumbai's Western suburb Bandra are strewn with art works depicting old Hindi films, graffiti and the works, converting the zone into a virtual art-lovers paradise. The wall-paintings are impressively colossal in size, strategically placed and sure to leave an indelible mark in public memory.

The Street Art that has begun making pleasant appearances across Mumbai’s streets has been facilitated by the civic authorities and overseen by local politicians. With all permissions in place and authorisations, even financial support provided through non-profits involved in the venture, Mumbai’s Street Art completely overlooks issues of strife and sensitivity that feature on public walls in most other foreign cities.

Bandra is home to myriad wall paintings, murals and street art (Pic: Manu Shrivastava / DraftCraft)

Unlike French Street Artist James Colomina, who literally lives underground and refuses to even identify himself or his family for fear of reprise, the artists working across Mumbai’s streets feature, without fear, across media. Why, most of them are art teachers, commercial artists, some even out-of-work poster artists who have been provided livelihood by the surge in Street Art across India’s financial capital. 

There is simply no element of conflict in the Street Art across the public spaces of Mumbai. There’s a slim chance of an artwork being politically incorrect or harming populist sentiments when all of it has to go through the fine comb of a local politician before being vetted thoroughly by the authorities before seeing the light of the day.

And, that, is the difference in Street Art in India. Not that it isn’t good or lacks punch. It’s just that it’s different. Positively different, colourful yet bordering on inane and socially irrelevant. “I wish I can use art to highlight the issues faced by my community, in time,” sums up Sapna Patil who belongs to the Agri community.

Figures On Walls To Lead The Way

Look at Swaero Artist’s For Empowerment of Society (SAFE), an alumna of artists who studied in state-run social welfare schools and colleges who feel, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”; "Swaero Bano-Hero Bano"; "If not now, when? If not we, then who?"

Over 30 murals, featuring prominent world leaders, are popular selfie points in the area (File pic)

A tiny Dalit colony in Kollapadakal village of Maheshwaram that lies an hour away from Hyderabad registers the inspirational lines on a colourful mural that has become all-too-familiar to locals.

In different colours on the walls of homes, over 30 murals, featuring prominent world leaders, are popular selfie points in the area. The Street Art walls were inaugurated by senior IPS officer RS Praveen Kumar Swaero, the secretary of the Telangana Social & Tribal Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society in 2020.

Interestingly, several murals of contemporary student achievers that include mountaineer Malavat Poorna, Kamatam Madhuri, Nemali Siddharth, Darshanala Sushma, Praveen Kumar IPS and Dalit billionaire Pagidipati Devaiah were also painted on the walls. And because, as the SAFE president feels "painting local figures will make students think to become one of them.”

Empowering Marginalised With Art To Start Anew

Literally transforming the face of Mumbai’s slums has been ‘Misaal Mumbai’ a slum painting and repairing initiative by artist, muralist and social worker Rouble Nagi started after ‘Paint Dharavi’ in 2016 in Mumbai where she, with her team, painted and water-proofed houses. The aim being not just to beautify the walls of the slums but to connect to people through Art and bring a positive change in their mindset. 

Artist and social worker Rouble Nagi has colourfully transformed slums and villages across India (Pic: Rouble Nagi)

Plugged as the first slum painting initiative in India, the Rouble Nagi Art Foundation painted and repaired 1,50,000 plus homes to date and are currently working in over 163 slums and villages across India. 

Educating through art about the importance of children education, empowering women, creating job opportunities for youth, cleanliness, hygiene, sanitation, waste management, and children health in slums and villages, Rouble Nagi reaches out key messages through Street Art. 

“Besides being a quick way to create visual impact, our projects employ people and give them a sense of ownership over the artworks they create in their own community while improving the condition of their houses,” says Rouble.

And now, with ‘Misaal Kashmir’ underway, the Mumbai-based artist with 800 murals to her credit and having organised over 150 exhibitions, is focusing on the youth of Kashmir. She believes that they need to navigate their lives with the vision of growth and positivity, stop following peers and politicians "if you feel they are leading you towards a negative path".

Rouble's efforts have borne fruit in Worli and brighten up the skyline (Pic: Manu Shrivastava / DraftCraft)

Along with her team, Rouble has been travelling through Watlab, Sangrama, Handwara, Langate and the rural belt of Pulwama armed with nothing but art and paints to empower women to generate a livelihood for themselves. 

The village reformation project, 'Misaal Kashmir' helps artists transform the community by tapping the local creative energy. It’s part of the 'Misaal India' initiative launched in 2018. Rouble Nagi’s attempts are bearing fruit, slowly yet surely, heralding a new beginning for those for whom all seemed lost.

India Holds Distinction Of Housing Oldest Art

In any informed study of the history of Street Art, it would be pedestrian to trace the roots of Street Art to 1st Century BCE when Roman citizens scribbled messages to each other on dry brick walls, as is suggested in public domain. 

India’s approach to Street Art has been legendarily descriptive and narrative rather than confrontational as is the wont of the nation itself, known for its non-violent, non-aligned, non-expansionist nature across the world.

For the record, cave paintings dating back to approximately 30,000 years in rock shelters, home to humans, millennia ago, make Bhimbetka, the oldest existing public art available. And, well in reach barely 28 miles (45 km) south of Bhopal, in west-central Madhya Pradesh state in India. 

Discovered only recently in 1957, the complex is one of the largest repositories of prehistoric art in India. The Bhimbetka rock shelters form a canvas for some of the oldest paintings in India. 

Most of these are done in red and white on cave walls depicting themes and scenes like singing, dancing, hunting and other common activities of the people staying there. The oldest of the cave paintings in Bhimbetka is believed to be about 12,000 years ago i.e., 8,000 BCE.

Ancient rock carvings at Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh stand testimony to the oldest form of 'street art' (File pic)


The paintings have been divided into various periods like Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Chalcolithic, Early History and Medieval history and are present in 500 caves out of the total of 750. Bhimbetka is named after Bhim, among the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata. 

Legend says that he used to sit outside these caves and on top of the hills to interact with the people in the area. The caves derive their name from this legend and translate literally into ‘Bhim’s Resting Place’.

Cave paintings show themes such as animals, early evidence of dance and hunting from the Stone Age as well as of warriors on horseback from a later time (perhaps the Bronze Age). The Bhimbetka site is one of the largest prehistoric complexes and has the oldest-known rock art in India. 

The term ‘street’ itself is derived from ‘strata’, a short form of the Latin 'via strata', a road spread with paving stones. Why, the birth of Latin, as language itself, took place around 700 BC. In Bhimbetka, Street Art existed in 8,000 BCE, way before it came to be defined and known as such.

(इस लेख का हिंदी संस्करण पढ़ने के लिए यहां क्लिक करें)


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Author: Gajanan Khergamker
Inputs: Manu Shrivastava, Nandini Rao, Sagarika, Anushka Singh and Ritika Seth
Special Thanks: Rouble Nagi

This report is part of The Art Of Cause Project - a DraftCraft International initiative that documents Art Projects and Street Art campaigns that reach out, rectify and resolve strife, across the world

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