In a crisp winter morning, Priyanka Mehra, project manager at St+art India Foundation, meets me in Delhi’s Lodhi Colony. We’ve decided to negotiate the lanes and by-lanes of the neighbourhood to view the oversized technicolour murals that wrap around residential blocks. The constellation of murals—handiwork of experimental international and home-grown street artists—announces the Lodhi district as a public art museum of sorts: open and accessible to those willing to slow down and admire. “The aim of the foundation is to make art truly democratic and for everyone, by taking it out of the conventional gallery space and embedding it within the cities we live in," explains Mehra.

We stop when we come across a building with a large, yawning arched window. From afar, it appears as though a pall of black smoke hangs across the wall. Step closer and the smoke dissipates to reveal a swarm of painted militant crows, attacking, crashing and falling on to one another. It’s spellbinding chaos. “This one was done by an artist called DALeast," Mehra points out. DALeast is a well-known Chinese-born street artist who works with spray paints and is known to create awe-inspiring, three-dimensional artworks. If you are from Delhi, chances are that you’ve already seen this particular work, but have probably wondered what it meant. “DALeast realized that there is a large number of birds in India and that we are an over-populated country. The mural depicts how chaotically organized this country is and how we all fall together in one place, somehow or the other."

It was in 2016 that larger-than-life murals—with their cool, gritty graffiti, big-eyed caricatures and oneiric lettering, laced with a touch of insolence or subtle activism—began cropping up on streets with a pronounced fervour. St+art India Foundation had been given a nod from the CPWD (Central Public Works Department) to pick 30 walls that could get a crafty visual makeover. It was the first time that this subcultural art form, which continues to remain on the fringes, boldly spilled on to the central avenues of Delhi, blanketing the bare walls of Lodhi colony with hues it had never known. Since then, St+art India Foundation has been responsible for ambitious projects like Mumbai’s Sassoon Dock Art Project and the Maqtha Art district in Hyderabad.

‘Order In Chaos’ (close-up) by DALeast. Photographs Courtesy: Akshat Nauriyal / ST+ART India Foundation
‘Order In Chaos’ (close-up) by DALeast. Photographs Courtesy: Akshat Nauriyal / ST+ART India Foundation

On 15th January, the Foundation launched its third edition, St+art Delhi 2019 (on till 15th March), which will witness the participation of over 30 artists from across the globe. While in 2016, prolific artists like Daku and Shilo Shiv Suleman had used the walls to explore themes closest to their heart, this year, artists like NeSpoon from Poland will be working with community women from the Lodhi district, using their local embroidery and lace-work patterns as inspiration.

“NeSpoon takes traditional lace and embroidery work made by local women privately in their homes—and creates these large paintings based on them," explains Guilia Ambrogi, co-founder and curator of St+art, on the phone. “Her work is focused on celebrating the crafts practised by women and empowering them." On the other hand, India-based Aravani Art Project will interweave themes central to LGBTQ+ rights into their work. “This festival is about inclusivity," says Ambrogi. “It is arts for all, access to all. We have themes relating to climate change, environment, as well as gender-inclusivity." In addition, there will be workshops, curated walks, as well as public movie screenings of old Hindi films. Other international artists participating are Georgia Hill (Australia), Yoh Nagao (Japan), Daan Botlek (Netherlands). From India, participants include Sameer Kulavoor, Hanif Kureshi, Sajid Wajid and Shilo Shiv Suleman.

This year, St+art India Foundation will also select one particular wall which will be dedicated to the residents of Lodhi colony. “The residents have been extremely supportive of the project and this would be our way of giving back this year," says Ambrogi. “We have printed bilingual pamphlets (Hindi and English), which we’ll distribute across Lodhi district homes. The pamphlets will ask the residents a few questions like, ‘What does Lodhi mean to you? What would you like us to do for your neighbourhood?’ We’ll be starting a WhatsApp group for the residents to take a photo of their ideas and send it to us. Based on the feedback, we will create a final composition."

While admiring the multihued concrete canvases, framed by lush green trees, Mehra and I spot a pair of young men filming what seems to be a personal music video, with an artwork made by Mexican mural artist duo, Saner Lalix, in the backdrop. “The Lodhi art district has become a cultural landmark for Delhi, where these murals serve as backdrops for creativity and self-expression of the people," explains Mehra. This scene captures the pulse of what St+art India Foundation had set out to do three years ago. As they return to Delhi this year, armed with a fresh batch of paints and spray cans, Lodhi colony gears up for wonderland.

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