Graffiti for the Government

The artists painting an Indian smart city. 

On a winter morning in Saharanpur, a town in Northern India, painter Shahid Hussain is at work, hoping to change the mood of the cold, grey day. His canvas is a massive pillar that supports the town’s busiest flyover. Remaining seemingly unaffected by the curious stares of the passers-by, Hussain meticulously draws a web-like pattern that gives away the character that will soon beckon under the bridge.

Spiderman is in the air, having almost caught the villain — a green coronavirus molecule — that brought the whole world to a standstill. As the traffic jolts overhead, Hussain’s painting seems almost figurative to the town emerging from a pandemic. The town is determined to be safer, cleaner, and responsible — or at least that’s what may appear from its public walls that have now come alive with vibrant social imagery.

Serving as a constant reminder for people to be mindful of their civic duties, the street art covers issues across the social spectrums, from COVID-19 etiquette to responsible use of natural resources to women’s empowerment.

The beautification of public spaces happening across Indian towns and cities is in part preparation for the Swacchh Survekshan 2021an annual cleanliness survey under the Swach Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) that “aims to encourage large scale citizen participation in making towns and cities more habitable and sustainable.”

The wall art also contributes to the awareness of other schemes being run by the ruling government, such as the “Jal Shakti Abhiyan” (Water Conservation Campaign) and the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana women’s Education and Empowerment campaign. All of these schemes converge under the National Smart Cities Mission —“an urban renewal and retrofitting program launched in 2015 with the mission to make towns and cities citizen-friendly.” On June 25, 2021 Uttar Pradesh, the state in which Saharanpur is situated, was declared “The Best State” under the Indian Smart Cities Contest.

When initiated, these paintings became the talk of the town and citizens appeared appreciative. Serving as a constant reminder for people to be mindful of their civic duties, the street art covers issues across the social spectrums, from COVID-19 etiquette to responsible use of natural resources to women’s empowerment. They also celebrate the efforts of health professionals (and Spiderman) fighting COVID-19 like superheroes. However, the other heroes — the artists who have created these insightful paintings — remain relatively unacknowledged.

Fifty-year-old Hussain Shahid is one such artist beautifying Saharanpur. Dressed in a denim jacket and blue jeans splashed with colors, he comes from a family of artists and has always wanted to continue the profession passed down to him by his forefathers. “I was 8-years-old when I drew my first painting in a notebook — that of a chef who appeared in my storybook. My mother kept it with her and showed it off to guests,” Hussain reminisces. From painting as a child in his notebook to professionally starting to paint in 1992, Hussain has created more than 50 street murals on diverse social issues.

“We usually have the creative freedom for our art as long as it is not religious or political imagery,” states Parveen Malhotra, another artist from Saharanpur. Much like Hussain, he learned the art from his father, who used to paint boards and brand signs for various stores in town. In fact, before the smart city schemes, several local painters, including Hussain and Malhotra, did odd painting jobs for schools and shops.

“Shop and banner painting had started to dwindle with the onset of digital graphic design and flex printing. This scheme has given a new lease of life to our profession,” states Malhotra. The short, stout man is up on the ladder, painting a wall of the pump-room in a local park. With two animated droplets, it reads in a bright red font: “SAVE WATER.”

On the adjacent wall, Malhotra’s friend and colleague, Ranjit Jha, has just finished painting majestic white wings on a bright blue wall that reads “I Love Saharanpur.” “This is a Selfie point,” states Jha as he stands against the wall in between the two wings.

Unlike several of his peers, 36-year-old Jha doesn’t come from a family of painters. Ever since he was a small child, Jha enjoyed sketching mythological figures. “Initially, my parents were a little troubled that I had no interest in academics. However, once I started finding painting gigs in town, they were supportive,” he adds.

As a 17-year-old, Jha recalls seeking out a local artist by offering him his room to stay. “In exchange for accommodation, he helped me hone my skills. That’s when I took my flight as an artist,” he states dramatically, posing between the wings.

Except for Jha, none of the other painters have had any formal training in fine arts. Most have picked it up from their family. The artists believe that the lack of an art education has prevented them from exploiting the sophisticated urban art networks that enable personal recognition through opportunities such as gallery exhibits.

Coming from low and middle-income families, the artists are also quick to voice the class and caste struggles within the art industry. “I don’t think we are perceived to be a part of the mainstream art industry,” says Paveen.

But Paveen also says there are benefits to that. “As street and mural artists,” he says, “Our work is accessible to the masses and has a strong and clear social motive.”

Indeed, their social imagery is powerful yet has a convivial feel to it. It looks like something right out of a children’s storybook, employing bright colors and animated objects. Most of them are familiar designs, pop culture characters that painters find online and fit within a new context. However, this does not take away from the creativity, innovation, and personal styles employed in their art.

For instance, Hussain’s versatility can be observed in the varied imagery. His paintings on female foeticide and industrial pollution are brutally graphic and do not shy away from revealing society’s shortcomings. At the same time, some of his art showcases abstract floral motifs in pastel hues. He says that he also employs his knowledge of color therapy in the art. He uses the color red for almost all of his paintings about women’s empowerment to symbolize its “urgency” and the “violence” that women face.

A generous use of bright red, blue, and yellow is seen in Parveen’s work, who paints several mosaic borders around his artwork and uses prominent, animated elements. In addition, Praveen has beautiful Hindi handwriting and writes notices, contact numbers, and messages with his paintbrush.

Under the schemes, the local civic bodies require artists to use walls of public offices, buildings, and bridges as their canvas of social art. And in street art, these spaces become essential elements of the finished product.

A 45-year-old artist named Subhash is an expert in innovatively incorporating the architecture, shape, and texture of the space in his art. For example, in one of his paintings, the hexagonal mosaic-like stones with which part of the wall is built appears like fish scales in a marine landscape. Similarly, the walls of the town’s clubhouse — which boasts several sporting activities — has a painting of women in Victorian clothing playing a game of tennis. This not only encourages playing sports but also symbolizes the colonial origins of club culture in India.

“While delving into street art, one has to be mindful about the atmosphere which gives context and purpose to the painting,” says Subhash. Once when told to paint something against open defecation on a busy street wall, Subhash spent hours scouring for inspiration online. He finally succeeded in making a masterpiece with the look and feel of cool graffiti, an eye-grabber for the passers-by. The painting showcases a collage of rectangular blocks, each, with imagery of toilet signs: photos of Mughal kings and queens or actors and actresses alongside arrows pointing to an actual public toilet around the corner.

Unlike most other local artists who paint directly, Subhash first sketches his art with chalk. It takes more time but he says that it affords his art a certain finesse. Although Subhash has “uncountable” paintings under the schemes to his credit, he admits that painting was never something he wanted to do for a living. “I always wanted an office job, but the dire financial conditions at home prevented me from going to university. One of my friends, a street artist, knew I painted as a hobby and offered me a gig. 25 years later, I am still here,” narrates Subhash.

Subhash’s slight hesitation toward this profession comes from the lack of organizational and financial stability within the industry. The artists have been working under contractors that are outsourced through tenders by civic bodies. Under this system, the artists claim to be paid around INR 9 ($0.12 USD) per square foot compared to INR 35 ($0.47 USD) when commissioned directly by the civic body. This middleman system has thus reduced their profit margins. Moreover, the contractors are not artists themselves. Hussain complains that this restricts transparency in operations.

“We’re also not reimbursed for our paints and equipment,” states Parveen. He is quick to add that most painters use eco-friendly paint. “Not only is it good for the environment, but it also does not harm our skin,” adds Parveen, holding up his blue and purple-stained fingers.

Skin contamination is one health hazard associated with painting. But it’s not the only one. Two years ago, Hussain fell down the ladder and broke his leg while painting high up on a wall. He has a rod fitted into his leg. Hussain wishes that all painters received helmets, safety equipment, and medical assistance to do their job safely. However, he hasn’t put his concerns forward.

These painters seem apprehensive in voicing their grievances and demands because of their gratefulness towards the current government. “Our dying profession has received a new life. At the moment, we are just happy to have regular work at least for the next few months,” states Jha.

The local civic bodies organize several functions and contests that showcase the artwork of various painters. “We are acknowledged with certificates,” claims Parveen, but like the other painters, hopes for more recognition in the mainstream public spheres.

Most paintings are credited to the local civic body alongside the scheme, with the painters’ names and contact numbers appearing in mini fonts on the corner. Their names do not appear at all when a painting has been made by more than one person.

“I do not know if the city has truly become clean or smart or not, but people love our artwork. However, some citizens also feel that the art is part of propaganda, and the government needs to divert their spending on more pressing issues.”

However, the artwork that has brightened the former drab walls of town seems to be getting good feedback from citizens. “I do not know if the city has truly become clean or smart or not, but people love our artwork. However, some citizens also feel that the art is part of propaganda, and the government needs to divert their spending on more pressing issues,” says Jha.

The performative nature and the propaganda value of the paintings will remain an unending debate between various political factions and sections of society. But Saharanpur’s Municipal Commissioner, Gyanendra Singh, believes that this social art goes a long way in inspiring people to be responsible citizens. “The city has become beautiful with big, bold and bright messages which will last in the memory of people. As a result, people will think twice before throwing garbage, defecating and spitting on the walls,” he adds. However, Singh feels that groundwork operations need to be coupled with awareness. This is why budgets are also allocated for conducting skits, school collaborations, and civic discipline drives along with the paintings.

Singh’s sentiments resonate with the aims of various schemes for which these wall paintings are made. For example, apart from making “Keep Your City Clean” imagery, the civic body is also setting up large dumpsters throughout the town.

As a result, cleanliness standards in the town seem to have improved. But it remains to be seen if and when the other social messages will be heard. For example, while paintings of women’s empowerment adorn several walls in town, hardly any women can be seen painting these walls. The awareness around planting trees is abundant; however, new highways and road work calls for the felling of several trees in the districts.

The need of the hour is thus: This art must stop existing in a vacuum and intersect with grassroots work. Paying for paintings on walls is one start — but it is far from enough. Various government departments also need to work together and participate in the call for action they put out in the paintings.

The painters feel that their social art is one step forward towards achieving that. The initiative is also a way for the government and the arts to collaborate together for the sake of the collective good. And the government could use more art — after all, art has the power to transcend geographical and linguistic barriers to shift thinking. This enormous potential of street art is what the painters want their children to appreciate. Hussain hopes his daughter, a 12-year-old aspiring artist, will grow up in a truly smart city and, like him, make it more accountable through her art.

Devyani Nighoskar is an independent journalist currently based in Northern India, reporting on art, culture and development for various Indian and international publications. You can view her published articles and portfolio here.