Shahpur Jat

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.

Image Credits: Akshat Nauriyal

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.

Indian artist Anpu Varkey's admiration for cats and their playful nature often forms interesting themes in her work. Here, the cat is playing with the woollen yarn and is lost in its own world. This work, due to its huge size quickly became a local landmark and meeting point for the villagers and tourists alike.

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!

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.

Inkbrushnme responded to maze-like habitation of the village, where the buildings and people live in such dense quarters that you often can’t find the sun when standing on the lanes. He painted surya- the sun god, a light-bearer as an answer to this situation.

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.

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
Metamorphosis Harsh Raman 1

'Metamorphises' by Harsh Raman// Indian artist Harsh Raman's wall generated a lot of audience and discussion. His theme of a monster man breaking out of the wall with its fluorescent colors is extremely provocative.

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.

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.

Foe Shahpur Jat Start Delhi 2014 1

A collaborative mural by artists FOE & Alias located in the spine of Shahpur Jat. Their theme address the duality of life- freedom and captivity. This captivated prisoner presents a contrast to Foe’s lively kite-flying kids. It was done in collaboration with German artist- Alias, whose work like Foe’s talks about the fragility of human life.

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

Andy Yen Shahpur Jat Start Delhi 2014 1

Andy Yen from Taiwan worked on his piece at the heart of the village. His fluid style is not confined to any rigid boundaries. Often depicting body organs flowing in colour, his work tends to merge with the background and becomes a canvas in itself.

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!

German artist Bond was walking around Shahpur Jat looking for walls when he met a kid whose uncle ran a primary school in the village and was offered a wall there. Since it was a school, Bond decided to use the opportunity to paint the alphabet set in his own style.

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.

Alina Sj Startdelhi 2014 1

Alina (Italy) painted this piece on the wall of a jewellery store in a busy part of the village. A crowd would often assemble to watch as she painted, to the joy of the shop owners who really liked Alina's style. It also went well with their clientele (mostly women) so it even made great “marketing sense" (as quoted by the owner of the shop).

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.

The Indian graffiti writer DAKU paints the local dumpster with his version of the Louis Vuitton wallpaper with the wordplay 'DA-KU' 'KU-DA' where 'Kuda' is a Hindi word for garbage. This dumpster travels across Delhi to makes people realise the beauty in the ugliness of life.

Ano at Sulabh toilet at Shahpur Jat. ANO (Taiwan) spent a good few hours, first cleaning this public toilet from the outside, before painting his ravens's on it. ANO's piece in Shahpujat depicts a pixelated dynamite explosion through the crows. This has been done on the wall of a community dumpster. He awed a lot of kids around the site and gathered large crowds. A photo session followed right after!

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.

Tones (Taiwan) is a prolific graffiti writer of the traditional New York Style. His specificity is to make letters dance through connections, funk and flow while respecting the New York school codes. Another specific feature of his work is to brighten letters up by fusing comic book illustrations, with use of vibrant colours. Here he picks up characters from the Indian streets, a turban man and an auto which are inherently typical of New Delhi.

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).

(Photo Credits: Akshat Nauriyal, Dhruv Kalra, Harshwardhan Kadam, Kiran, Mridula Garg, Pranav Mahajan, Ricky)

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