Archive for June 2015

Drab old walls are being given a splash of colour in cities across the country. Sonia Sarkar finds that artists are happy to be able to share their art with the common man.

A cat sits quietly on a wall in a building in a crowded area of Delhi. Dadasaheb Phalke is looking at a roll of film in Mumbai’s Bandra. A series of chinar trees stands tall on the columns of a Srinagar flyover.

Suddenly, drab old walls are getting a splash of colour.

“The idea is to change the landscape of Indian cities. India is so colourful but our streets don’t portray the real image. Also, our walls are covered with political posters and advertisements. We want to change this look,” says Giulia Ambrogi, the festival curator of St+Art India Foundation, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation which promotes street art. “We want to create new landmarks in our cities.”

The movement for public art in Indian cities started in 2012 when a group of 10 people came together to give shape to a unique festival in one of Delhi’s densely populated urban villages, Khirki Extension. Brought together by the Delhi-based artist forum, Khoj International Artists Association, and supported by advertising agency W+K Exp, the festival sought to beautify the congested streets of Khirki with wall paintings.

“This festival was the first open engagement between public and art in that place,” Ambrogi says. It also gave birth to the foundation, and soon similar projects were being taken up in different parts of the city.

The Foundation chooses a site based on the visibility of the building or the walls and subsequently puts up a proposal with the owner of the space. Once permission is granted, it commissions artists to paint the wall, or the facade.

One of the new landmarks of Delhi is the huge mural of M.K. Gandhi which adorns a side wall of the police headquarters in central Delhi. The artist, Anpu Varkey, put this up in collaboration with a German artist, Hendrik Beikirch.

Varkey believes that street art in India is catching on. “When people see these paintings on the streets, they often want us to paint their homes and walls, too,” the 34-year-old graduate from the Baroda School of Art says.

Street art has also picked up in Mumbai, Pune, Calcutta, Bangalore, Varanasi and Srinagar. Efforts are made to give the art a theme that complements the place where it appears. For example, the walls of a working women’s hostel in Bandra has a black-and-white image of Mother Earth. Called Prakriti, it has been painted by Pune-based Harshvardhan Kadam, who perceives Nature as a divine feminine force.

“The beauty and grace of the self-reliant Mother Earth has similarities with the qualities of self-belief and self-sustainability of women,” Kadam explains. “A hostel that supports women itself is a strong statement. It was apparent I would draw a woman here.”

Similarly, the otherwise dull white wall of the Delhi cold storage building in Azadpur, known for its mandis, is now all black, with a few fruits and vegetables placed next to a candle. The painter is Miami-born Alejandro Hugo Dorda Mevs, better known as Axel Void.

“Since the cold storage is used for freezing fruits and vegetables, this image is relevant,” says St+Art India Foundation co-founder Arjun Bahl, who commissioned the project.

The campaign also seeks to introduce art to people who have no access to galleries. “We chose this wall because this building is a part of the lives of so many people – such as rickshaw pullers and vegetable sellers – who have not been exposed to art but who would be happy to see such a colourful image,” Bahl adds.

Artists use acrylic distempers, enamel paints and spray cans for street paintings. They also have their favourite subject. Varkey loves to work with cats and Japan-based Lady Aiko, who recently painted an image of the Rani of Jhansi on one of the walls of Lodhi Colony, mostly focuses on women. Kadam, who has a master’s in design from IIT, Bombay, finds mythology intriguing.

“Mythological characters are my superheroes. But they don’t carry religious connotations because street art has to be non-controversial,” says Kadam, whose painting, Six horses of Sun God, has been wowing passers-by in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat for the past one year.

For onlookers, indeed, the paintings are a change from graffiti and posters. Calcutta, known for its political slogans on walls, now has an image of the Ganges on the boundary wall of the German consulate in Alipore. The work, by graffiti artist Samita Chatterjee (or Samsam), shows a youth trying to clean the river, represented in dark blue and black and dotted with fish bones, painted in white-grey, highlighting a toxic build-up.

In Srinagar, too, passers-by who were earlier used to anti-India slogans on the walls now find art on the streets. Six young artists have been asked by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation to beautify walls.

“These paintings depict the lives of Kashmiris – rural lifestyles, folk art and the scenic beauty. We are also planning to have more images of the ‘good old days’ when Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims lived happily together,” Srinagar municipal commissioner Tufail Mattoo says.

Street art is fairly new to India, though some public spaces have been encouraging and exhibiting art. But across the world, it has been an enduring trend, especially in cities such as New York, London and Berlin.

“But street art in India doesn’t follow the same trend as that of the West. In the West, it is mostly artist-centric where they mark a territory and leave their impression on the wall. But our street art has a lot of local relevance. This is mostly about our people and their lives,” Kadam feels.

Globally, the interest on Indian street art is growing. “India is definitely a good place for painting,” says Germany-based Christian Kreamer (known as Dome), whose painting Coming Home – a human figure, animals and objects such as a guitar and a bicycle – is up on the Diamond Arch Building in Bandra.

Art experts view the trend as a “positive” movement in contemporary times. “Artists have been moving away from the confines of studio spaces and painting in public spaces. The world of street art defines these spaces as canvases. These creations are also seen as reflections of our society in its various facets,” says National Gallery of Modern Art director Rajeev Lochan.

Street art also seeks to celebrate the fact that it is nobody’s possession, but belongs to everybody. “The most important philosophy of street art is that the artist should never own the space,” 34-year-old Ruchin Soni, who has painted a three-wing figure called Angel on the walls of the Tihar jail in Delhi, says.

This form of art also underlines that nothing is permanent. “After some months, the colours will fade. Perhaps the space will be taken over by another artist later,” Soni says.

Meanwhile, though, it certainly is a sight for sore eyes.

(The story has been published in The Telegraph:

With India and Bangladesh signing a land boundary agreement, the focus now is on people who live on the border, straddling both countries. This is an attempt to catch a glimpse of life in nowhere land.

Eleven-year-old Abhijit Majumdar plans to spend most of his summer holidays in Bangladesh. Not with a passport and a visa, but by just stepping out into his backyard. The front of his house is in India, the back in Bangladesh.

“My friends from Bangladesh come to play football with me,” says Majumdar, who lives in Dakshin Para in the South Dinajpur district of West Bengal.

His house is among the 70 houses in his village on or near the zero line or Radcliffe Line, the international boundary (IB) drawn between India and what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. A large part of the house falls in India, while a portion lies in Bangladesh.

As India and Bangladesh sealed a Land Boundary Agreement recently to exchange enclaves on the border where thousands of people from the two countries live without proper citizenship and legal rights, the focus is now on people who are placed near the zero line of the India-Bangladesh border.
A 2216km-long stretch of the 4,096km border falls in West Bengal, covering North 24-Parganas, South 24-Parganas, Murshidabad, Nadia, Malda, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Coochbehar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.

Around 70,000 people live on or near the zero line across the border, more than 11,000 in South Dinajpur alone, where the border is the most porous.

There should be no settlements within 150 yards of the IB. But this no man’s land is dotted with houses, with large agricultural fields and ponds surrounding the habitat.

One can easily cross the border by stretching one’s leg. The distance between the two countries is less than a foot in most areas. A series of white pillars – some submerged in ponds or half buried in the ground – indicate that this is the border area.

For the residents, there is nothing new about living in two countries. But when Hamida Bibi came to Shrikrishnapur village after getting married 10 years ago, she felt strange when she looked out of her window into Bangladesh.

“Now it is so normal,” Bibi says, standing next to a bamboo tree which was planted in India and branches out into Bangladesh.

For people across the two sides, the border is no barrier. “I often cross the border. I go to the Katla market in Bangladesh, two kilometres away, to buy clothes or grocery,” Bibi says.

It is difficult to tell which house is in India for the undulating by-lanes with packed mud houses snake across the two countries seamlessly. From one house, you can hear the sounds of two women quarrelling – one is in India, the other in Bangladesh. The bone of contention is the quality of saris that a Bangladeshi woman has sold to Indian villagers.

Stories of harassment are common. To go to another village a few kilometres away, the local people have to take permission from the jawans of the Border Security Force (BSF). The huge black gates that stand next to the IB fence, around 150 yards away from these villages, open only from 6am to 6pm. To cross the gates, the villagers have to submit their identity cards at the checkpost.

Other villagers who live beyond the gates are not allowed into this area – this correspondent entered covertly with the help of a local villager.

“They have cut us off from our own country. They refuse to open the gates for us even if there is an emergency at night,” says 24-year-old Tahmina Bibi of Shrikrishnapur village. “We have to wait till a senior officer gives us permission.”

The BSF claims that security in these villages has been tightened because this is the hub of illegal trade. The villagers, mostly women and children, smuggle into Bangladesh goods such as cough syrups, rice, spices, cooking oil, saris and cycles. The goods are mostly transported by trains to and from Bangladesh which pass through Hili Block close to the zero line. Trafficking of cows and trading of illegal currency are the two biggest problems that security forces face on this porous border.

“Having a house on the zero line is not a problem. The problem is that these houses are used for illegal activities,” says Veena Sikri, former Indian envoy to Bangladesh.

Villagers accuse the BSF of raiding their houses in search of illegal goods. “The jawans beat us up. They treat us worse than animals,” complains Minhajul Islam, who runs a grocery shop in Purba Gobindapur.

The BSF denies the allegations. “We do our job for security issues but they think we are harassing them. If we don’t keep a check, we would be accused of colluding with them on illegal trade,” says Sandeep Salunke, inspector-general, BSF, South Bengal Frontier, who is also in charge of the North Bengal border.
Some of the villagers claim that they possess identity cards issued by both Bangladesh and India.

“Living on zero line is like living on the edge. There is always an air of suspicion around us. Dual identity cards help because when we are not allowed to cross the gate we can always go to the other side in case of any emergency,” says Monirul Islam (name changed).

The BSF says that the identity cards are issued by district administrations, and they have no way to control this. But to check crime, it has proposed to the ministry of home affairs to facilitate the relocation of these villages to an area outside the IB fence. The ministry of home affairs has asked for a response from the states bordering Bangladesh.

“It would be appropriate if the issue of people living ahead of the fence near the zero line receive the same kind of attention that the areas under Land Boundary Agreement received,” says Salunke. “The onus is on state governments to provide land and ensure that the villages ahead of the fence are relocated and that no Indian is staying close to the zero line.”

The villagers are worried about being relocated, and not being adequately compensated.
“Most of these people have been living in their ancestral houses. Some of them have agricultural land, too.

If they don’t get good compensation, why should they move out of their homes,” asks Anil Roy, a member of the Dhalpara Gram Panchayat in Hili block.

And would it affect their schooling, ask the children of Purba Gobindapur village. Ever since their primary school shut down two years ago, many of them have been walking to Daudpur in Bangladesh to study in a madrasa.

“We want to study. It doesn’t matter if it is an Indian or a Bangladeshi school,” says Jahana Khatoon (name changed).

Clearly, for the villagers, straddling two countries is part of life. Cross-border love stories are common. Tamina Bibi of Islambagh in Bangladesh and Rashid of Jamalpur in South Dinajpur met when Bibi crossed the border to fetch water from Rashid’s village seven years ago.

“We fell in love and got married. The borders didn’t matter,” she says.

In the Haripukur mosque, next to a boundary pillar, Indians and Bangladeshis pray together every Friday. “The mosque belongs to Bangladesh but we pray here because it is right next to our village,” Haripukur resident Mohammed Amjad Ali points out. “When the leaders of the two countries are promoting goodwill, where is the problem when we do so?”

The story has been published in The Telegraph, June 14, 2015

I thought of writing this blog several times earlier. Every time, I collected my thoughts, I made an excuse not to pen them down. Strangely though, this perpetual desire to delay, perhaps, came from my unjustified fear that I might have to go through the pain once again.

But today, I forced myself to write it. I felt an internal push to flush out all fears and apprehensions that I have developed in the past two years. It is certainly cathartic.

In fact, a piece written by one of my ex-colleagues on her ailing mother, in a way, inspired me to start writing it. In that blog, she mentioned, how her mother cannot recognise anyone after she met with an accident some months back. After reading it, I was reassured that life is all about sudden changes and we should gracefully accept them. And we are not the only ones dealing with it.

The other thing that inspired me to write this blog is the film, Piku, which, I thought, is based on a father-daughter relationship (For me, it was not just about constipation of an aging man but something more). I watched it with Baba and both of us could relate to the main characters – Bhashkor and Piku.

Both of us enjoyed the nuances of the relationship. I could see Baba smiling and laughing, every now and then. Sometimes, he cross-checked the names of the actors with me. He looked very involved in it.

These days, very few things amuse Baba. So when we see him smiling, we feel relieved that he is happy. We keep a constant watch on his expressions because he doesn’t articulate his feelings as immaculately as before.

Yes, all four of us – my father, mother, sister and I- live a life, which is clearly demarcated into two phases – before and after. The event which divided our lives into two separate phases is my father’s cerebral stroke on April 3, 2013. The stroke paralysed his right side. It robbed him of his speech too.

But after rigorous sessions of physiotherapy and speech therapy, he is now able to walk with the help of a stick and he has regained his speech, to a certain extent. But his comprehension skills have been badly affected which delays his speech. Sometimes, he fumbles. He takes a little longer than usual to gather his thoughts before he can speak.

But this has been a long, very long journey for him. When he came home after spending 17 days in the hospital, he was no less than a little baby, who had to learn everything afresh. He was nose fed for a week before he could start eating through his mouth. After many months, he learnt to eat on his own, using his left hand. He learnt to pronounce words and speak in sentences. Initially, it was very difficult to understand what he wanted to say. We repeatedly failed at our job but he never gave up. Now, we don’t make guesses anymore. He is coherent and clear in his speech. He also learnt to write with his left hand but surprisingly, his handwriting remains as artistic as before.

These days, his job is to write short sentences and essays to let his thoughts flow. As part of his therapy, he makes small additions and subtractions too. I am proud to see his diligence and sincerity in doing his homework. His honesty and hard work remain the same as it used to be before, when he ran a fire bricks factory as a works manager on the outskirts of the mining town, Dhanbad in Jharkhand for more than three decades.

In these two years, there have been many ups and downs. Some days, he would walk well but then, there would be phases, when his pace would slow down. He would sink into bouts of depression, when he would refuse to speak and would gradually forget basic words of communication.

Every time, the pace of progress is lost; there has been a whole new process of starting things afresh. But if we cajole him to keep trying, he makes an effort to overcome these hurdles. He, truly, has the spirit of a fighter.

For the past two years, many have questioned his abilities to cope with physical deformities. It is difficult to convince people that he is doing enough to live a normal life but it’s not easy for a stroke patient to recover fully. Only a few understand that his journey from the hospital ventilator two years back, where he was lying like a vegetable, to a casual evening in a nearby theatre today, has not been easy. He is not suffering but he is struggling. He is struggling to live a “normal” life.

On many occasions, I have asked myself, why does my father have to go through all this? Why a stroke? Is stroke worse than cancer? I must confess that there have  also been occasions, when I have secretly envied acquaintances whose parents are hale and hearty and can move around alone.

That’s when I also remembered what my father always said, ‘you are better off than many, in many ways.’ After reading my ex-colleague’s piece on her mother, I am clearly convinced that we are better off than many.

People who know my father well remember him for his sense of humour, which is laced with sarcasm. He is a man with immense knowledge about practicalities of life. He is an intelligent man who has made the most of his resources.

As his child, I have always been in awe of  his spontaneous thinking. Whether it is making protective gear with unused welder’s glasses for us to watch the solar eclipse or covering the damp walls of my room with Rajasthani paintings in Delhi’s Outram Lines, he always thought on his feet. Even now, when his brain functions only partially, he has surprised us by thinking on his feet, more than often.
Whenever I try to remember our lives before Baba’s stroke, I feel, as if, I am talking about some past life. It feels a little distant because a lot has changed in these two years.

But it’s my mother, whose life has certainly changed in a big way in this period of two years. A homemaker, who preferred to spend most of her afternoons reading Bengali novels and watching television, she was oblivious to the world’s various games. But now, she has stepped up in a much bigger way than we could imagine. Someone who needed guidance in her bank proceedings or to book a taxi is now handling everything all by herself. She always looked up to Baba for every big or small advice but now she has only her own judgement and wits to rely upon. Not like Baba can’t help her decide but these days, Baba chooses to be nonchalant about worldly matters. Sometimes, it is difficult to cope with his insouciance.

Earlier, Baba used to call the shots on every occasion but now his interest lies only in deciding what time he will go for a walk or what snack he would like to munch in the evening. (He insists that he should be fed  “phuchka” every day but his demand is difficult to meet with).

But as a daughter, I celebrate my association with him for a lot of things. I love the way he has lived his life on his own terms and conditions. He has never toed the line. He has never taken the easier road. He has always taken a stand. Perhaps, it is his rebellious nature that pushed him to participate in the uprising in Bengal in the 70s.(Many young men in Bengal in the 70s were part of the movement).

Since childhood, I have heard many stories from my grandmother and Aunts about how he had to be away from home, for months. Once, he came to our north Calcutta house to see my grandmother. The cops got to know about his whereabouts and chased him. He would have been shot dead if a neighbour hadn’t helped him jump off the boundary wall of the colony and flee.

Every time, I have heard these stories, I basked in the glory of my father’s “not so glorious” past. I developed a sense of pride to be the daughter of this rebel. I have shared these stories with people I trust.

Baba is well versed with Mao Tse Tung’s The Little Red Book and Lenin’s ‘What is to be Done?. Baba deeply believes that it is important to challenge the establishment. He has always been a great supporter of the masses. An avid follower of the Leftist ideology, he strongly believes that there will be a resurgence of the Left.

It is some of these ideologies that make him different from others. But let me also confess, as a child, I felt deprived because he didn’t behave like any other father. For example, when our school bus would break down, he would come to school, on his motorbike, to check why his kids haven’t reached home yet but would not take them along with him. Instead, he would go to the BCCL (Bharat Coking Coal Limited) office and ask them to send another vehicle to fetch all kids from school. (Just a backgrounder, most school children in Dhanbad used to commute in buses provided by the BCCL).

That was in the late 80s. In the early 90s, when he graduated into a four wheeler, in similar occasions, he would invite other kids of the neighbourood to come with us in the vehicle to ensure they don’t feel deprived.

When we used to visit Calcutta during vacations, I remember, my father used to buy clothes for all our paternal cousins. For him, every child (we are seven of us in the joint family) held equal space in his heart as his daughters, sometimes even more. He always felt indebted to his brothers who took care of him after his father passed away. He was only 11 then.

All his life, he accumulated memories. But these days, he tends to lose them, bit by bit.

My father is the salt of the earth. Just like before, he will be the first person to offer help to anyone. Since his mobility is restricted these days, he expects us to execute duties which he would have done earlier.

In these two years, I have seen an ebullient man slowly turning silent. I have seen a workaholic, forced to be confined to home. But I am happy that certain things that make him special such as his temper (I inherited it from him), his straightforwardness and his ever-forgiving heart (which my sister has inherited) remain with him.

He loves people unconditionally just as before. Till today, he is a big fan of women who make it big. He continues to be a liberal thinker. He would always encourage his daughters to fight for their rights. He would want young women to make a career before focusing on marriage. He would advice us to work for our own satisfaction and not for money. (He followed this principle all his life.) He is the same man who would prefer to wear a shirt worth Rs 50 if that fits him well. He still abhors branded clothes.

He continues to remain someone who we can fall back upon. But yes, sometimes, he responds, sometimes, he doesn’t.

But even now, he continues to be my confession box. When I complain to him about a frustrating day at work, he says, “Take it easy.” When I confide in him that I have been drinking a little too often, he says, “Be careful. Don’t make it a habit.” When I tell him, I am dating someone, he curiously asks, “Are things  serious?”

I realise, the more he changed, the more he has remained the same.

There is something else that remains unchanged. It is his love for music. He starts his day, listening to his favourite singers – Begum Akhtar. Manna De. Shyamal Mitra and Geeta Dutt. Even today, he flawlessly sings his favourite Shyamal Mitra number, ‘Na na na jaabo na, mono jete naahi chaaye.Ei shundor prithibi chhere..mono jete naahi chaaye.” (No, I won’t leave now. I don’t want to leave this wonderful world, now )