How street art is rejuvenating Indian cities and rebuilding lives

A volunteer with the group Delhi Street Art paints the walls of Ramjas College. (Patralekha Chaterjee)

DELHI, India — The booming street art scene here is as much about the children and the poor of “the street” as it is about the art.

To see why, start at Khushi Rainbow Home, a shelter for homeless children at the southern edge of Delhi. Khushi means “happiness,” and 18-year old Jasmine Sheikh is bubbling with it as she recalls splashing the bland walls of the shelter’s library with vibrant colors.

“Earlier, I drew with coal, little sketches on the pavement,” Jasmine says, speaking about her time living on the capital city’s streets. “Once I drew on a wall. But every time I tried drawing, someone would yell at me.” Now, Jasmine not only is allowed to draw on the walls. She’s encouraged to.

Jasmine is one of about 100 girls in the shelter, many of whom have been rescued from abusive work environments by child protection agencies. After receiving instruction from some of Delhi’s most renowned street artists, the girls livened up their reading room with images of flowers, books, stars and planets. The girls tell me that with each brushstroke, they felt a little more empowered — free to express themselves in a city where they’ve been treated as an urban underclass.

Residents of the Khushi Rainbow Home
show off their artwork. (Patralekha Chatterjee)

“The artists came here. They spent time with us, they helped us, showed us what we could do,” says Jasmine. “Then we took the brushes and we painted through the night. The library looks so good. We want to spend more time here, and we want to paint all the other walls of our home.”

The girls’ experience is an illustration of how artists can partner with communities to bring change. In this case, the partners were from Delhi Street Art, an organization started in 2013 by Yogesh Saini — an engineer who had successful stints in Silicon Valley, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other places. Saini returned to India determined to do something creative and helpful to society.

Saini has built a team of 150 artists who volunteer to help children and community groups transform their private and public spaces with paint. Working in Delhi, as well as other cities such as Pune and Ahmedabad, they’ve helped turn the drab walls of marketplaces, community centers and prisons — and even the imposing concrete underbelly of a highway flyover — into beaming expressions of community spirit.

“Our art is not about perfection or just beauty,” says Saini. “It is not egocentric. Lots of street art nowadays is really about brand-building of the artist. We feel differently. We want to work with communities. Our volunteer street artists help those who have perhaps never held a brush or always been told they could not paint.”

Colorful collaborations

There’s something of a street-art fever sweeping through urban India these days. Many groups and individuals are involved, including some with high-minded social goals and others whose interests are more commercial.

In February, Delhi hosted its third ST+ART festival, a gathering of street artists from across India and around the world who come to showcase their work and collaborate on projects. One initiative by ST+ART temporarily turned a cargo depot on the edge of Delhi into a makeshift public gallery of painted shipping containers.

Street art is not new to India, of course. For centuries, India has had a rich culture of wall paintings of religious and cultural motifs. Even today, there are many indigenous tribes who draw on their house doorways. Then there is product advertising, social messaging and film posters from Bollywood jockeying for wall space.

More contemporary ideas of street art arrived in India about a decade ago. The first murals sprouted in Bandra, a tony neighborhood in Mumbai. Delhi followed. Over time, street art has come to be seen as a tool for beautifying neighborhoods — public art produced by ordinary people for the enjoyment of ordinary people.

Delhi Street Art volunteers painted a flyover in the Indian city of Ahmedabad. (Yogesh Saini/Delhi Street Art)

While the movement has sprung up organically, without much support from the government, colorful murals have come to be seen as one part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign to clean up India’s cities.

Street art also seems to be good for business. Shankar Market, in the heart of New Delhi, is a case in point. The market used to be a warren with crumbling walls and cobwebs everywhere. It still is a warren, but the walls shine with a dazzling imagery of dragons and octopuses, musicians and dancers.

Ramesh Handa, 63-year-old president of the local traders association, had asked the New Delhi Municipal Council for a facelift for the market. The council asked Delhi Street Art. Handa couldn’t be happier with the result. There are more tourists — both Indian and foreign — and curious onlookers. Dry fruit seller Chandra Bhan Rao says the murals draw photographers and crowds, and boost his sales.

[Read: Street food vendors fight for their place in India’s urban future]

Then there is the collaboration between Delhi Street Art and local colleges. At Ramjas College in Delhi University,  volunteers are busy cleaning the walls and starting to transform them into a kaleidoscope of colors. MTV India and the snacks manufacturer Parle are partners in the effort here. The artists say they want to propagate the “Clean India” mission of the government by engaging young people around the mission of reducing litter. As one volunteer says, “Wherever walls have been painted and beautified, there is less garbage.” 

Building confidence

But the most exciting idea coming out of the new street-art movement is what Delhi Street Art is doing, using art as a tool for engaging society’s most neglected people.

Art student Deepak Saini volunteers with the group. He says part of the thrill comes from helping people find an artistic streak they never realized they had. They learn not just painting techniques, he says, but also how to clean up a place, how to negotiate a ladder, how to mop up afterward. And when it is done, he hopes, the sight of something bright and beautiful in the community will deter people from littering.

Many times, it works. But sometimes there is resistance. Deepak says a policeman once told the group, “There are far more important issues in India. Why don’t you tend to the sickly, or save lives? Why are you wasting time painting walls?”

The library at Khushi Rainbow Home is more popular
since the residents painted it. (Patralekha Chatterjee)

But the girls at the Khushi Rainbow Home are evidence that it’s no waste of time. The girls are keen to show visitors their artwork. The dash of color has made the reading room known as Aseem’s Library a more popular place for the girls to spend time. Summi Munir, a 14-year old resident, tells me she would like to go back to the pavement where she once lived, and cover the walls with paint.

The girls occasionally receive visits from their parents. Sabiya Hussain, an 8th grader, says her mother was surprised to see her art on the walls. “My mother said she did not know I had talent, that I could paint,” Sabiya says. “She is so proud, she tells all her friends.”

[Read: How Design Museum Dharavi aims to change the conversation about Mumbai’s biggest informal settlement]

Payal Dutta, a teacher at the shelter, sees the difference the art program has made with the girls. She has begun using color as a tool for teaching English vocabulary words by having the students close their eyes and imagine objects of different colors before spelling out the names of the objects.  

“Color has a calming effect, especially on children who have grown up in the streets amid violence and abuse,” Dutta says. “The children love the colors on the walls. It makes them feel good and it boosts their confidence.”

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Patralekha Chatterjee is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Delhi. She is an award-winning journalist and columnist who has written extensively on Asian cities. Full bio

LEARNING FROM DELHI

  • Through an organization called Delhi Street Art, street artists volunteer to help children and community groups transform their private and public spaces with paint. 
  • An annual street art festival has begun to attract artists from across India and around the world. 
  • While some of the artists are working for personal or commercial gain, some of Delhi’s street-art movement is aimed at engaging society’s most neglected people.

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