The Work of Art in a City of Heat and Dust

by Aditya Dev Sood

Delhi As long as I have lived and thought about it, Delhi has been metastasizing, growing like a cancer outwards, drawing more and more people inwards, cutting its trees, widening its avenues, adding more and more floors per plot and cars per family. It may boast an imperial legacy stretching back a thousand years, it may once have been home to Khusro and Ghalib, and to styles of thumri singing and kathak dance, but for much of the later half of the 20th century, Delhi has been preoccupied with building itself into the massive and global city that it is now still becoming.

The walled city of Old Delhi, the one with the Red Fort from which generations of Mughals ruled, and which was eventually sacked by British troops in 1857, is but a kernel of the whole today. By 1911 its walls were being dismantled by the imperial architects Lutyens and Baker, the better to be integrated into the New Delhi they were creating. At partition about a million people were freighted into the city from all parts of what had become Pakistan, and they were allotted plots in new neighborhoods to the west and south of Lutyens’ Delhi. By the 1950s, different kinds of urban elites were pooling their resources to invest in housing societies, which bought up agricultural land along a southern ring, stretching from the Army Cantonment in the west through to the Yamuna River to the east. They swallowed whole farming settlements into the south Delhi that they built, creating newly urbanized villages that sometimes suddenly irrupt its urban fabric today. Seventeen million people now live in the National Capital Region, which encompasses the informational suburb of Gurgaon to the far south, as well as the unhappily named New Okhla Industrial Development Area, NOIDA, the city’s more intellectual Left Bank, which is accessed via multiple utilitarian bridges across dispiriting stretches of the shriveled and fetid sludge that is the Yamuna.

What kind of art should be associated with this great and emerging city today? This difficult, pressing, and largely unasked question has found a bold new answer in the form of its first public arts festival, named 48°C.

The festival’s title refers to the hottest temperature ever recorded in Delhi and has environmental concerns as one of its unifying themes. Its curator and artistic director Pooja Sood (no relation) also runs Khoj, an artists' collective in the city that has made its reputation supporting young and experimental artists and new media art. Participating artists from India and around the world have been moved to address the uprooting of trees, plastic trash, desertification, the pollution of rivers, but also to explore herbal gardens, the emotional associations of natural fragrances, vertical and urban farming.

Delhi is a sprawling, auto-vehicular city with multiple points of urban focus, many of which are already claimed as symbols of India’s Republic and its governmentality, and so it was not already always clear where public art should or could be situated. Some artists have used traffic islands, the fencing on the sides of wide avenues, and the centers of Lutyens’ circular roundabouts. In many of these cases, it is disconcerting but efficient to appreciate the art from one’s car, stopping by briefly, the way one might for a roadside vendor serving you a kulfi or a kakori kabab.

Delhi 2 Off the central Connaught Circus, on Barakhmaba Road, Krishnaraj Chonat has a visually spectacular piece consisting of a dead tree suspended by a crane atop a crumbling three-story mansion, itself awaiting final demolition and replacement with a high-rise building. The piece recalls Indian photocollages from the early 20th century, which cut and paste disconnected elements into surreal juxtaposition, often to represent spiritual or devotional relationships within the picture plane. The piece is so sublimely aesthetic, however, that the mind wants more dead trees to be suspended atop ruined buildings, which was perhaps not precisely the artist’s purpose.

Delhi 3 Just around the corner, off Barakhamba Road, hidden in a by-lane clogged with parked cars, is hidden the Baoli, or stepped-well, of Agrasen, an unlikely pre-modern structure that sinks six stories into the earth, like an older shadow or portent of all the recently-built apartment buildings that now crowd around it. Waqif’s piece has a balloon tethered to what looks like a glass aquarium, with sound and flickering lights that give the spectral illusion of water lapping and refracted by light. The water that filled the Baoli as recently as a decade ago, before the buildings around it sprang up, has been replaced by this ethereal medium, which will give no life, slake no thirst. Waqif’s introduction of electronic media into the Baoli powerfully transforms the place into a memorial for Delhi’s past and a warning of the dust we may yet become.

Near Chandini Chowk, perhaps the true heart of the city, the artist Sheba Chhachhi has an installation in a room at the Delhi Public Library, which happens to be housed in one of the earliest British colonial buildings still standing. A British imperial lion’s head dribbling water into a half-bowl below marks the entrance to a room that one learns had originally served as a kind of dipping pool for officers of the East India Company, who bathed in the stepped well of the chamber before taking an underground passageway direct to Delhi’s train station and to far-flung parts therefrom. Delhi 4The room is now being used by the Library for bibliographic storage, as is clear from the potli-s of books strung into approximately similar-sized lumps and strewn in every direction and corner of the room to about chest height. One walks a narrow passage through this sea of books down a series of terraces or steps to the well of the room, sighting fish skeletons, illuminated manuscripts of the artists own creation and even a backlight map of early-colonial Delhi down to an audio-visual projection, where the Indian elephant appears and then decays from time to time, to crescendos of sound. Artfully placed and hidden overhead lamps capture the dust rising up from the books. One walks through multiple media, time, knowledge, and a sea of dust. It is the room, after all, and all that it has seen that the artist is curating.

Given the architectural and urban legacy of Delhi, it is not surprising that many artists wanted to illuminate, transform and interact with its monuments and ruins. The Archeological Survey of India, tasked with their preservation, has no mandate to support or facilitate public art installation, but only procedures for levying the usual shooting fees for Bollywood song-and-dance sequences. Waqif’s piece at the Baoli, along with several others, hung in the balance until the last minute, when fees were finally waived and permissions granted.

Several projects have been sited in and around the old city of Delhi, which might have proved difficult to drive to, before the Metro came into service. Now, however, the Metro itself provides a new and often stirring perspective on the city, levitating above grade a hundred feet or more, crashing into the earth to burrow underground, rising again to offer glimpses of the bright pink and silver whirligigs that have been used to mark festival installation sites. The Metro authorities accommodated the festival after some persuasion, allowing floor and entry signage on stations adjacent to art works, but requiring the organizers to buy time on still and interactive displays atop escalators and across platforms.

A couple of weekends ago, my sister, my girlfriend and I caught the Metro at one of its southern-most operational stations, to catch some of the art works sited in Old Delhi. As we exited the station, we were greeted by an interactive piece by Ashok Sukumaran and Shaina Anand called MotorNama Roshanara: a series of bicycle rickshaw drivers have been pressed into service by the artist couple, who have trained them to give civic-minded history lessons to their passengers. The girls took the first rickshaw, and I followed along in the next one. As I climbed aboard I asked the driver to try to keep pace with the girls. He handed me a set of headphones connected to an MP3 player and said they’d have their own tour and we’d have ours, but that we’d meet up at Roshanara Bagh. As I put them on, the mundane route there was suddenly set to lilting sounds that seem to intensify the bipedal rhythms of the rickshaw. The rickshaw driver pulled into by-lanes, where he showed me a thread-making machine, an ice-cream factory, a shop selling seeds, the oldest chai-shop in the locality finally letting me off at Roshanara Bagh. The city came alive, I felt more intensely a part of it than before, its everyday reality had been artistically nuanced.

The MotorNama Rickshaw Brigade forded us back to the Metro, and we switched back to Kashmere Gate Station, which is named for one of the eight gates to the walled city of Old Delhi. This one once lead to the road heading north, to Kashmir, directly across the Yamuna, which once flowed across it. The other seven gates also survive as ruins, often caged in as protected monuments, but forever engulfed on all sides by the snarling and fuming traffic that they apologetically interrupt and exacerbate. Kashmere Gate is more fortunate, finding itself on the edge of an urban parkland adjacent to the Metro Mall.

Delhi 5 Atul Bhalla has a strange and complex work sited here, which comprises a manned stall built to look like an enormous jerry-can, of the kind that pilgrims often bring back from visits to Haridwar or Rishikesh in the hills, containing the Ganga’s holy water. But the structure is surfaced with common bathroom tiles, of the kind you would feel comfortable pissing on. From inside, an attendant offers you a paper-cup of distilled water. To the dregs you leave behind, he adds a mixture of river sand and a kind of plaster, and then places the cup upon the walls, an archive of prior visitors to the installation. If all that wasn’t enough, in the evenings the artist projects images taken along the banks of the river Yamuna upon the white glazed tiles, and gifts his visitors little stickers which ask, “Have you ever seen the Yamuna? Have you ever touched the Yamuna?” Bhalla’s project is about defilement and purification, the large presence of India’s sacred rivers in the Hindu consciousness and the striking absence of the river from our lived experience of large metropolises built upon them. As he says, if we looked upon the river everyday, if we touched it with our hands and feet, and made it more a part of our social experience of the city, we might do more to clean it up.

On our way back into Kashmere Gate Station, my sister shrieks at a man who has bumped into her, accidentally-on-purpose, and I find myself intervening to turn the guy off and on his way. This is the third time today that men in or around the Metro have accosted her, but it is nothing strange for the public culture of Delhi, where the crowds consist of young single men, and women must make elaborate arrangements to accompany one another and to dress appropriately so as not to attract their attention. The sense that there will be no consequences for outrageous behavior, which is particular to Delhi, seems to me to derive from the lawlessness of highways, for one would never act this way in one’s own town or village. Delhi, however, is still only a matrix of roadways and recently carved-out neighborhoods, and not yet a site of civic virtue.

The Metro, however, forces the public into an interior, familiar, even domestic environment. In its steel furniture we have no choice but to sit, stand and face one another, examine one another’s fashion and style, become part of a commuting public that learns to accommodate the extremes of class and status differences with quietude, if not understanding. The Metro, more than any other single public works or social engineering program, seems most likely to shape the future urban consciousness of Delhi .

Delhi 6 It is evening now, and we have arrived at Ramlila Grounds at the very edge of medieval and colonial Delhi-s, which is the site of an annual dance-theater on the Life of Ram. Several art works are installed here, they are large, they light up the grounds, and they animate the many children and young men walking around this park, across the road from Delhi’s first and hesitant high-rises, dating from about the 1970s. I have a buzz as I walk around the park, wandering into full-scale landscape architectures that are illuminated with light and play with shiny surfaces. Friso Witteween’s piece is an allegory for the festival as a whole, a pair of Stonehenge-like piers in circular formation, but in one case falling slowly like dominoes, outward, ending up like a nest of pick-up sticks. The inside, self-reflexive world of art production is falling open and reaching outward, seeking to engage and participate with a public.

We are accosted by a reporter, who asks to interview me, as a member of the public, on camera. “What do you feel when you see this kind of art in a place like the Ramlila Grounds?” Her point is that while scores of people were roaming among the installations that winter’s evening, the ramlila, or passion-play about the life of Ram, attracted tens of thousands of viewers every night on this very spot in October. This is a different kind of art, to be sure, and so far the general public has had little opportunity to be exposed to it. But some pieces will elicit a response from people, and the best artists will seek out and respond to feedback from their new audience, and the whole process has just about started, I respond, with as much optimism as I can.

All day we’ve heard passers-by stop and talk amongst themselves about the meaning of installations they had no specific intention of visiting. The environmental and ecological messages of most pieces are not difficult for people of all classes and life experiences to comprehend and identify with, even when not accompanied by didactic documentary video. To this extent, they understand the works as a form of agit-prop: social-service messaging rendered in a visually-expressive idiom. And so for funders, partners and organizers, this is a kind of baseline achievement, a minimal success factor.

I recalled coverage in the daily print media, which took, I felt, a particularly unhappy direction, with reporters asking college students and young courting couples how much they would pay for the art to take it home: “A hundred rupees!” “Not even one rupee.” “I’ll have to ask my father.” The idea that the art was public and not for private possession, for a higher and collective purpose, apparently, could not serve as a starting point for either these beat reporters, or for the young people whom they sought to engage.

For the moment, the work of art in this emergent city of quarters and pieces is merely to create shared focus, to allow its observers to recognize the place in which they stand, to make of the city’s careering multitudes a single audience, a collective common, a public that can own and eventually take responsibility for its difficult inheritance.

The evidence of the festival, meanwhile, is that art has been and will continue to be confused for advertising and commodity in Delhi, even though some works in the festival have revealed great and sublime possibilities. In the best traditions of the natyashastra, these works have brimmed over with music, dance, light, energy and even more media than Bharata could have described or imagined. Yes, I am imagining grand new total-media-art-works in the future, for only they could match the wedding and funerary processions, the iftar celebrations, the durgapuja-s and even the ramlila-s, that every neighborhood and housing society puts together for itself every year.

Photo credits:

1 – Joseph Radhik
2 – Nita Soans
3, 4, 5 – Sundeep Bali