Shahpur Jat

Shahpur Jat, Delhi


Shahpur Jat is an urban village situated in the heart of South Delhi. Located amidst some of the poshest neighbourhoods of the city, it was the site for the first street art festival organised by the St+art India Foundation. Over a span of 2 months (Jan - Feb 2014), 25 Indian and international artists came together to create artworks across the village.

Previously inhabited predominantly by the Jat community and brimming with small, hole-in-the-wall shops occupied by craftsmen and colour-dye artisans, by 2014 Shahpur Jat was undergoing rapid gentrification. As cafes and designer boutiques started popping up on its peripheries, several new visitors started flocking to the area. The heart of the village, however, remained the same – with a strongly knit community of locals occupying centre stage. This made the space a vibrant mashup of cultures and ideologies, and served as the perfect ground for the first St+art festival.

Even back then, unlike in the west, street art in India didn’t have any negative connotations. It didn’t come attached with a sense of vandalism, mainly because the street art scene in India was still in a nascent stage. This meant that our proposal, even though not entirely understood, wasn’t met with vehement opposition from the locals. But permissions had to be still sought. We sought them using two approaches: bottom- top and top-bottom. While the first kind involved knocking on residents’ doors, seeking permission to paint on their walls, the second kind included approaching the pertinent government bodies for permits.

After an initial round of negotiations with the residents, we began work on a couple of walls.

Cat, by ANPU

The first mural to be completed was that of Indian artist Anpu, and the community really took to the new cat in their neighbourhood. Since Shahpur Jat had no signage for directions, the cat became a landmark for locals to navigate the neighbourhood - directions were given with the cat as the focal point. Post-Cat the community really opened up to us, with more residents volunteering their walls. By the end of the festival, more than 20 pieces had been painted all across the village, including some inside houses!

'Surya', by Inkbrushnme

Sometimes the residents gave us walls no-strings-attached. Sometimes, the permission to paint on a wall involved a barter. Case in point, artist Inkbrushnme’s wall. His wall was part of such an exchange - residents gave us a wall on their balcony, but in return requested that the artist paint a smaller mural of their choice inside their house. Fair deal, the way we saw it.

Inspired by the chaotic topography of the area, Pune-based artist Inkbrushnme decided to paint ‘Surya’ continuing with his project ‘Mythopolis’ where he explores mythological themes through street art.

Artwork by Harsh Raman

Another artist inspired by the materiality of the structures was Delhi-based artist, Harsh Raman.

Shahpur Jat is chaos. It's like a maze, and there are these places here that you wouldn’t imagine exist. So for you to come in here and try to find these pieces, will be a game in itself.

- Harsh Raman

The festival seemed like an experiment of sorts where the artists had free reign to toy with their respective styles. A small area housed everything, ranging from huge murals and small portraits, to stencil art and paste-ups.

Additionally, the variation in artworks wasn’t restricted to only medium (stencil, paint etc), or size, but also extended to style. The village welcomed Tofu’s abstract geometric patterns with pleasant bewilderment and surprise, not having encountered anything like it before.

Geometric work by Tofu; accidental collab between Tofu and Andy Yen

Concentration of artworks in an area initiates a dialogue - not only between the artworks and people, but also amongst people. This also inspired conversations between artists, resulting in unique collaborations, where the artists united their distinct approaches to deliver mutually-inspired and driven narratives.

Some of the collaborations were incidental, such as the one that Tofu’s work made with Andy Yen’s.

Bond stylised the English alphabet on the wall of a school in Shahpur Jat!

Some pieces came about as a result of interaction between the artists and the locals. One such piece happened with Bond - a graffiti writer who played one of the most instrumental roles in bringing together the graffiti scene in Delhi. While painting a smaller piece, he met a young kid whose uncle owned a school in Shahpur Jat. One thing led to another, and Bond ended up painting the alphabet in his style inside the school premises for children to see and learn from!

Alina's distinctly woman figures, out and about in public spaces.

Some pieces gained a life of their own once perched on walls, becoming part of the everyday life and spirit of the community.

Italian artist Alina worked on the wall of a jewellery store with her distinct style of painting woman figures in public spaces. The people of the neighbourhood really took to her, and extended her the famous Indian hospitality.

Artworks by Foe, Alias, Ano, Sergio, Tona, Tones and Yantra

The aim of the festival was also to work closely with government bodies and enhance neglected public spaces to make them more attractive for use. These included public toilets and garbage collection centres.

Shahpur Jat isn’t pedestrian friendly, but it is mandatorily pedestrian (extending to usage by two wheelers) - so it requires that you walk around. This lead to the opportunity of having curated walks in this rarely discovered part of the city.

Other than the invited artists, several other artists joined the festival and started adding their works to Shahpur Jat spreading the work through the entire neighbourhood.

Amidst the general encouragement and excitement, we did however notice a certain suspicion about the project. When probed, it directed us to a larger problem. We live in a world that is overflowing with advertising - visual culture is almost always associated with some sort of branding or selling. Hence a lot of people couldn’t understand why their walls were being splashed with paint for free. The intention of making art more democratic (sans monetary benefits) was always met with initial reservations. As would be the case in all subsequent versions of the St+art festival, the first walls always proved to be the most difficult ones.

Since 2014 a lot has changed in Shahpur Jat. With overall development of the city, and stronger municipal control - buildings have been built and razed down. Hence, not all artworks exist now. But as is the case with street art, and life, not everything is permanent - some of it stays, while some of it lives on in our memories (and in photographs).