Aashti Miller decided to return home to Mumbai from the United States where she was an architect, a few months before the start of the pandemic.
Greta von Richthofen was traveling abroad when the coronavirus pandemic hit the world. “I had to go back to Germany. It was a chaotic and strange time, and I was really scared,” says the Hamburg-born graphic novelist. Two years later, von Richthofen’s first trip outside of Europe was to India, to find the meaning of travel through art.
Aashti Miller decided to return home to Mumbai from the United States where she was an architect, a few months before the start of the pandemic. “I used to work remotely before remote work became a global phenomenon,” quipped Miller, a Mumbai-born architect and illustrator.
In February, von Richthofen and Miller came together to create a large mural in Delhi’s Lodhi Art District, followed by another in Chennai’s Kannagi Nagar Art District earlier this month. The two murals, whose brushstrokes explore elements such as diversity, peace and harmony, rights and gender equality, reflect the importance of public art for a society reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Their giant mural in Delhi’s Lodhi Colony measuring 100ft wide and 35ft high has a yellow fish with wings, a flamingo on a bicycle, a big bird on roller skates and a giant orange whale in a deep ocean, all representing the possibilities of travel in a world cut short by the health emergency. The colorful objects, including a bright yellow giant bird flapping its wide wings, push the boundaries of the imagination as much as they connect with the community. At Kannagi Nagar, the mural is 39 feet wide and 43 feet high.
Project of the Goethe Institut (Max Mueller Bhavan) in collaboration with St+art India Foundation, an urban contemporary art platform, the murals also highlight the indispensable collaboration between cultures. Called Graphic Travelogues, the project follows two others in the past that explored comics and cooking through art. “Public art is interesting because it’s democratic and not like you have to pay for a movie or an exhibition,” says von Richthofen, whose first graphic novel, Das Gute am Ende des Tages (The End of Day) released last year, documents the start of the pandemic. “I think it’s art for everyone,” she adds.
Miller, who began experimenting with illustrations during the lockdown in Mumbai, believes people have come to value public spaces in the absence of open places and lack of contact with others. “It’s pretty amazing how the lack of human connection drives people to redefine open space and public ground,” she adds. The artists, who were selected through an open call in December last year, spent weeks researching cultural and architectural elements from Delhi and Chennai before starting to create sketches for their works. The sketches took them into a fascinating world of color, helping them select up to 37 shades for the two murals.
Weeks later in the field, their creativity and collaboration inspire many, including students returning to campus for the first time in two years, retirees seeking new beginnings, and schoolchildren loving a multitude of colors.
“The mural gives you a strange sense of peace just looking at it,” says Arya Ramesh, a final year student of Early Childhood Care and Education at Ambedkar University. “Each wall has a different painting and each painting has a different meaning,” says Ritika Mehra, an undergraduate student at the University of Delhi, of the murals in the art district of Lodhi. “I am fascinated by works of art. They lift your mood, sometimes make it worse,” she jokes.
At Kannagi Nagar, a residential colony for rehabilitated people from coastal areas of Chennai after the devastating 2004 tsunami, Miller and von Richthofen relied on a variety of community-related drawings of fish. “Early on, we agreed somehow that we had to have this fish in our work. So through this whole theme of moving, being basically a fish out of water, and people there who feel like that really impacted us,” says Miller.
Another mural project in the nation’s capital, also in February, celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. Created by French artist Fabien François Thomas aka Mr Poes, the project in partnership between the French Embassy and the Union Ministry of External Affairs, features two large murals on the walls of the Mandi House metro station. On the theme of the order of the traditional French garden, the murals painted in two weeks using 260 aerosol cans assimilate the artist’s impressions of Delhi. “It’s a bit like the French desi garden,” explains Dana Purcarescu, Chargé d’Affaires at the French Embassy. “I wanted the murals to be positive green by bringing a bit of nature into them,” says Thomas, who was born in Paris and now lives in Lyon.
“The city of Delhi is very green. It’s an amazing city with lots of gardens. I wanted to make a positive image. The colors I found in Delhi were close to the colors I had in mind,” adds the artist, who has painted murals in many cities around the world, including favelas in Brazil and flyovers in England. According to Thomas, “public art brings joy to people.”
Faizal Khan is independent