Its a bright winter morning in Delhi, and Gond artist Bhajju Shyam is by the side of a road in Lodhi Colony, in conversation with a team of artists, some in days-old, paint-splattered denims. Hes been in day-long sessions with them for over three weeks already, digging deep to find ways to contemporise his traditional wall-art form, and make space for it in todays throbbing, global street art scene.
The 26-day-long residency hes been in, is an effort by the St+art team in collaboration with Asian Paints and the Sanskriti Foundation, who roped in Bhajju, a 2018 Padma Shri awardee and one of the most prominent names in Gond art today, to participate in what they've titled From Craft to Contemporary.
Weve been wanting to touch upon Indian traditional wall painting art for a while now, says Hanif Kureshi, artistic director and co-founder of St+art India, an artist collective, which over the last few years, has brought together artists from around the world to paint various urban pockets in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Goa, and Hyderabad. This includes street artists like Switzerland-based Nevercrew, Polish NeSpoon, American Axel Void, Brazilian Eudardo Kobra, and Delhi-based Anpu Varkey and Daku among many others.
The residency, their first ever, has worked in two ways: first, the very urban, contemporary artists on the team interacted closely with Bhajju, a leader in the Pardhan-Gond community, who see their wall-art as closely linked to their daily lives and their spiritual connect with nature; second, Bhajju could explore the possibilities of technology used by these street artists, to facilitate and explore new ways of practising Gond.
We decided to start with Gond, because its fairly popular already, and with Bhajju because he is a leader in his field. If we want to look at tweaking aesthetics and exploring collaborations to re-look at the [Gond] form as contemporary art, we need someone like him it makes a difference when he does it, says Hanif.
Learning with the foxes
Bhajju is working at Block 7 of Lodhi Colony, somewhere between house numbers 73 75. He takes a break from painting, to consider how much work is left to be done. They are a bit behind schedule after all. But it was a huge collaborative effort, unlike what I do usually. There have been so many heads at work for this wall, it has been very interesting, says Bhajju.
When the wall is complete, it will be crowded with colourful foxes. The idea came about because I had asked the St+Art team if they knew what sort of wildlife existed in Delhi before people populated it, Bhajju says. As you know, Gond art is all about animals, plants, the sun and the moon, the stories we tell of them, and the things we learn from them, he adds.
The claim that Delhi was full of foxes, is apt, he says. Yahan ke log bilkul fox ke tarah hain chalaak. (People here are just like foxes clever.) He says it with straight-faced sincerity after all, Gond teaches you that every animal and its trait is useful, and has its rightful place in the world.
He then explains how the lead-up to working on the wall meant many iterations of his usual acrylics on paper and canvas with brushes. The St+Art team then brought in digital processes: one night, they turned off all the street lights in the area to project his concept onto the blocks wall; together, they made small edits and changes on Photoshop. Then, the team made huge laser-cut wooden stencils so that the repetitive patterns typical to Gond work could be spray-painted easily onto the wall.
Back in 2016, Hanif first met Bhajju on these very Lodhi Art District streets. He wanted to get him to do a wall even then. But it didnt work out [the Foundation was] still new and we didnt have budget for it, Hanif recalls. Three years later, with the backing of like-minded stakeholders including Anubhav Nath of Ojas Art, who is an external advisor on From Craft to Contemporary, things have come together.
When Bhajju finishes the wall this week, itll join a neighbourhood of artworks by contemporary artists from home and abroad. It will, like the rest of them, be open to many interactions from passers-by who will pose with them for photos for the gram, to pavement-hawkers and street-side barbers marking their spot with urgently scrawled wall-signs.
More importantly, it will serve as a benchmark for the future of Indian folk and tribal art forms to tap into their endless possibilities, and confidently experiment, for arts sake.