Directly opposite the bustling Mehar Chand market, a worn gray wall features the faded and chipped portrait of an old woman. Artist Hanif Kureshi introduces her as Vimla, who sells parathas at the nearby Khanna market. She caught the attention of German artist Hendrik Beikirch, who wanted to pay homage to anonymous women who seamlessly handle multiple tasks.
“We are only used to seeing pictures of famous personalities. If it is a stranger, you wonder why and this question is very important… When was the last time a wall made you think,” says Kureshi, co-founder of St+art India, a non-profit organization that works on art projects in public space.
Since its inception in 2013, the foundation has added vibrant hues to many walls across Delhi, but Lodhi Colony has been completely revamped, with walls every few meters painted with a different theme. “Previously people used to go for a walk in Lodhi Garden, now they also come here. I often see people taking pictures with the artwork. When people started painting here a few years ago, even I used to do that and show it to my friends. I can tell a new work from an old one,” says Ramesh, a vegetable vendor.
In the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, the locality has always been a hub for commuters, but now, with its street art and growing number of branded shops and cafes, they often stop here. Many take a closer look at the walls to better see the stories they tell. While the impact of global plastic consumption is highlighted on one, another celebrates femininity, and yet another delves into history and mythology.
Looking at a wall painting with withered trees, Kureshi reminds us of a Delhi that was the city of the gods, Indraprastha. It is believed that Krishna established it where Khandavaprastha, the city of ruins, stood when the Pandavas were exiled after losing a game of dice. Amitabh Kumar’s mural “Dead Dahlias” shows how Delhi is collapsing again and falling into ruins. Yet it is a city that we still love as much, as another wall announces. The words “We Love Dilli” painted in Devanagari by LEK + Sowat and Kureshi cover a wall in black which also features characters “half-erased with water to create an effect described as a ‘rain of color'”. Again, the work is for the neighborhood and beyond.
Kureshi recalls the first time he visited Lodhi Colony on the recommendation of a friend who thought its magnificent walls, with their repetitive arches for housing by British architect-planner Walter Sykes George, would be perfect for street art. At the time, the collective had already explored areas such as Khirkee Extension and Shahpur Jat through street art festivals. A handful of walls had also been painted in Azadpur Mandi and Connaught Place. “We realized we had to focus on one area,” Kureshi says. In the Lodhi district, everything seemed to be in favor – from the high walls to the walkways.
Soon, with permission from the New Delhi City Council, two elevators were parked and artists began painting on the walls, sparking interest and curiosity. It was not graffiti, associated with protest art, but an attempt to introduce India to street art. “At first we thought it was a commissioned project where artists were paid to paint, it wasn’t until later that we learned it was an art project by street. It changed the face of the whole neighborhood and added so much color,” says a morning walker, who lives in the neighborhood. Life on the streets changes as the day progresses, with crowds gathering around vegetable vendors and from early morning to lunchtime which sees the opening of the most exclusive stores.
The alleys might seem like a maze to someone unfamiliar with the locality, but not to Kureshi. We decide to use each mural as a landmark to return to, even as Kureshi, a fine arts graduate from MS University in Baroda, points to the high arches of residential neighborhoods. A remnant of colonial times, the locality was built in the 1940s as part of Lutyens’ Delhi and was intended to house their officials. It was completed just before Independence. “They made a complex but never really lived here,” says the artist. With the monkeys and the birds sometimes perched, the arches provide openings between the interior and the exterior. Several of them, Kureshi reveals, have sunken backyards. “It was possible for barbecues and parties… It’s so much more organized and better planned than the rest of Delhi,” he adds.
As Kureshi chats with the locals, he inquires about their health. Many know him for the many hours he spent here. “We were often here. In the last couple of years it has been different because of Covid,” says the artist who moved from Delhi to Goa. As we stop, the wall in front of us brings together elements from Old Delhi and Mexico, painted by Mexican artist Saner. The heart, “which occupies a special place in Mexican culture”, is at the center of the composition, with a man with a mustache and a woman wearing Indian attire on both sides. The spectators are two monkeys in finery, sitting on window sills, and at the lower edge are dense bushes and flowers.
Considered India’s premier art district, the district has also benefited from the attention it has received due to the murals. Often a film and TV location now, its upkeep has improved, Kureshi says. There are also enthusiastic rickshaw drivers ready to take a tour of the neighborhood, often telling their own stories. “I often made the trip and asked them about the works,” explains the artist.
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Although each wall has a work by a different artist, a deliberate attempt has also been made to incorporate various genres and art forms. For example, Australian artist Reko Rennie’s geometric patterns in bright pink and blue represent the indigenous heritage of the Australian Aboriginal Kamilaroi people, while Bhajju Shyam paints Delhi as a concrete jungle inhabited by foxes in the Gond style on his wall. .
There are more than 50 works of art in the neighborhood, one of the latest being Bengaluru-based Shilo Shiv Suleman’s tribute to women waste pickers in Delhi. We stop in front of a wall with the words ‘Yaha’ and ‘Must’ (this must be the place) – a work by Australian artist Georgia Hill and Kureshi, which also reflects the latter’s interest in sign painting Indian and hand lettering.
As Covid hopefully comes to an end, we are told that more works will be added soon. Booking a taxi, the place that pops up is Lodhi Art District – a term that comes from the very art that is much younger than the locality it inhabits but has completely changed its face. We meet our driver near a wall that seems to best represent the effervescence of the neighborhood and its sense of community life. Entitled “Impressions of Lodhi”, Singaporean artist Yip Yew Chong presents a balloon seller who hypnotizes residents with the music of his flute. There is a confectionery with trays full of mithais and hot tea in a kettle. Above are flocks of birds, just like in the sky above.