These days, Rahul Chawda’s neighbours offer him a curious greeting as they pass by: “Happy New Day”. Chawda, who owns Bloombox, a brand consulting venture in Bangalore, returns the salutation happily. Passers-by and previously taciturn fellow residents of Jeevan Bhima Nagar are simply echoing the message he has pasted on his own front gate.
Chawda’s efforts to engage with citizens around him are modelled on a public art initiative called To Say It, started in 2008 by three graphic artists in Vienna, Austria. Chawda stumbled on Tosay.it late last year. On his personal website Kraftfolio.com, Egor Kraft, one of the project’s creators, explained that their aim is to “broadcast ideas that are usually ignored by mass media, or to comment on the issues that seem important to the author of the text”.
Chawda says he was drawn to the idea of making simple social statements without an agenda. “I think the streets can be an artistic medium within reach of the common man,” he says. With his wife, artist Aarti Karwayun, and two friends, he first took to the streets in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, with a sheaf of such posters. He will repeat his efforts soon, this time using posters in the regional language.
Rahul Pramanik, a Goa-based designer who helped out on one of Chawda’s distribution efforts, hopes to replicate the project in his city. “There are various ways to get a message across, but this method really appeals to me,” he says. “I would be interested to see how people in a liberated place like Goa respond to the posters.”
After Chawda’s handiwork, walls in the residential localities of Indiranagar and Malleswaram and the commercial areas around Brigade Road bore messages like “A beautiful moment has happened here”; “Your life is a story”; and “The secret of happiness is…”, a poster that’s ripped right before it reveals the answer.
These sentiments, pasted amid the typical trimmings of urban ramparts—movie posters, political slogans, municipal admonishments against urination and littering, and flyers promising everything from quick PAN cards to work-from-home options—are incongruous enough to provoke reactions from pedestrians, he says. “An old man who was walking past told us, ‘The secret (to happiness) is don’t get married.’”
Public text from To Say It has popped up in the Netherlands, Italy, Russia, Finland and Australia. Indian cities, though, aren’t likely to be as accommodating of such initiatives. For instance, The Red Swing Project, which took root in 2007 in Austin, Texas, US, and aimed to turn underutilized public spaces into playgrounds, saw solitary red swings installed in places as far-flung as Haiti, Poland and Brazil. But when they appeared in Puducherry, Gokarna and Mumbai, they were taken down or stolen within hours.
Chawda says he was aware that most of his posters wouldn’t stay intact for more than a day, but this doesn’t detract from his intention. “If I can plant a question into the mind of someone who’s stepped out to buy milk before it’s torn down, then my job is done,” he says. “I like the idea that it’s not permanent, this is not art in a stuffy frame.”