New Delhi Public Art Festival Raises Questions About Growth

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 21, 2008

NEW DELHI, Dec. 20 -- For the past 10 days, residents of India's bustling capital have found large and often strange-looking objects along their daily paths: a giant steel bucket mounted on a wooden stand, a tree hanging from a crane, a gasoline can made of white tiles, and stretched nylon resembling the long wing of a bird caught between buildings.

"They say this is art, but I do not see anything special in a bucket," said Virendra Singh, a stocky policeman on guard near the steel bucket, the creation of celebrated contemporary artist Subodh Gupta. "We all have one in our bathrooms to store water."

Then he turned to look at the exhibit again. "But this is indeed a very, very big bucket," he said. "Maybe there is something more to it."

A volunteer unraveled the mystery. "This is going to be the most valuable vessel of the future because our city is running out of water," he told Singh. "The artist is telling the city to conserve water."

Singh was one of the countless New Delhi residents who experienced contemporary public art for the first time, thanks to a festival that has not only raised questions about accepted definitions of art, but also highlighted the challenges in preserving India's ecological heritage amid rapid urban development.

About 25 artists spread their larger-than-life art installations across the city's 16th-century quarters, shopping arcades, parks, business districts and traffic roundabouts. The installations were along sites located on a grid created for the city's latest object of pride: the gleaming new Metro rail, which in the past five years has become a potent symbol of the choked capital's efforts to transform itself for the 21st century.

"Public space is shrinking in this city, and we are trying to reclaim and reengage with it through art," said Pooja Sood, curator of the public art extravaganza, which ends Sunday. "We broke through prevailing social, cultural and political barriers to bring contemporary art out of the elitist, white-cube galleries."

In the past decade, New Delhi has witnessed an unprecedented boom in the construction of high-rises, overpasses, malls and multiplexes at the expense of countless trees and old buildings. Conspicuous consumption and changing lifestyles are depleting the city's underground water supply and slowly edging the once-sacred Yamuna River out of people's consciousness.

"The installations ask a question, 'Where are you in this debate about environment versus progress?' And many people have looked at the installations and asked, 'Is this art?' " Sood said. "This is the beginning of a conversation between art and the city."

The art went up as the city was debating the fallout of the deadly attacks in Mumbai last month. After a series of bomb scares, security at the displays was doubled. The installations, with expensive DVDs, projectors, plasma TV and lights, were put in places crowded with henna artists, homeless beggars, shoe-polishers, map-sellers and stray dogs.

On a busy street near one site, a rickshaw driver stared at the installation of a crane lifting a whole tree.

"That is like my life in this city. I feel uprooted," he said.

His friend said: "The terrorists are making us dance like that. We are hanging in the air because of them."

Near the old Jantar Mantar observatory in the heart of the city, another art installation around a tree pays homage to social movements to protect land and rivers from industrialization. The day the installation opened, at least 4,000 rural postal workers marched past it demanding higher wages.

"There is a daily risk of water cannons, tear gas and violent clash with the police here. But that is what my exhibition is trying to commemorate," said artist and filmmaker Amar Kanwar.

Artist Ravi Agarwal's installation -- a tightly stretched white nylon cloth resembling a bird's wing caught between buildings -- seeks to draw attention to the near-extinction of vultures over the past two decades.

"We ask people to think about constructing a modern city and the accompanying extinction and loss," said Agarwal, 50.

But New Delhi's first tryst with public art unlocked conversations not only about ecological concerns, but also about the restless aspirations of a booming economy.

On a recent afternoon, a docent took a group of art-lovers around a public exhibit that portrayed the city's ubiquitous cultural stereotypes of corrupt politicians, land sharks and unscrupulous businessmen.

A group of young men resting in the shade of the exhibit disagreed vehemently with the docent.

"Why are you talking nonsense?" asked Sunny Sharma, 25, who runs a company that owns a fleet of trucks. "Everybody has the right to earn money; every poor man dreams of becoming rich."

Siddha Mahajan, 21, the docent, responded, "But this is the artist's expression."

"I don't know about art or artists," Sharma argued back. "But stop calling all the rich, successful people 'evil vampires.' It is because of them that India is booming today."

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