In Reviving a New Delhi Park, Artist Makes Community Her Focal Point

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

NEW DELHI -- A year ago, contemporary artist Sreejata Roy had a dream: revive a dirty and desolate park deep in a working-class neighborhood in this evolving city. She did not want to create art within the trash-filled heaps, but to make the park itself into a work of art.

Art, though, was the last thing on the minds of the residents of the Dakshinpuri neighborhood, the majority of them street sweepers. Women were suspicious and men were hostile. There was an illegal gym in one corner of the park, and at night the area was a haven for drunks and drug users. Some thought Roy's project was a ploy to grab land, and others thought she would report them to the police.

"Nobody understood what an artist was doing there," recalled Roy, 40. "I was threatened and asked to leave."

But in the past year, Roy has blurred the line between art and activism as she organized trash collection, chased municipal clerks and confronted intimidating local thugs to bring her vision to reality.

In the process, Roy has also pushed the possibilities of public art here as New Delhi reinvents itself as a gleaming 21st-century capital city. She now wants to make the park not only a place for recreation but also an artistic archive of local history and pride.

"For me, art is not a beautiful thing created in studio solitude. It has to belong in the community," she said. "Our city is changing with the constant construction of malls, multiplexes, Metro and overpasses. But communities are becoming more and more invisible in this frenzy of development. This park will make the people visible again."

The project is funded by the not-for-profit Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art, which promotes innovative efforts to make art accessible to those who do not have the luxury of going to museums. In New Delhi's transformation, public art is largely missing from the cityscape.

"We want to encourage public art projects that engage directly with people to create a day-to-day experience with art," said Parul Vadehra, spokeswoman for the foundation. "When they have an artwork in their midst, the residents automatically take pride in their neighborhood, stop littering and reclaim shared public space."

In the past year, Roy has gathered local lore in the narrow alleyways shaded by a maze of overhanging electrical wires, and talked to shy women standing behind colorful, floral saris flapping on clotheslines. Her first artwork was to design a banner campaign asking people not to throw trash in the park. Then she swooped down with children carrying large brooms to clean up.

She turned a wall in the park into a large canvas for community art. The children painted it blue and turned it into a blog-like canvas for their drawings and musings. She will pave the park with stone tiles bearing the names of corner stores and byways.

But collaborative public art means Roy often has to agree to ideas she does not believe in. She wants greenery, but residents want barbed wire to keep out strangers. She wants people to mingle and come together in the park. But the women want to have a fenced, segregated section in the park. "We want a space where we feel safe, away from the men. A women's corner," said Chandan Kaur, 50, who sells candies on a pushcart.

And Roy's work just got messier last month. The city broke down the illegal gym but, in the process, tore down the park's blue wall as well.

"The wall was an invitation to everyone to speak their minds," said Tina Negi, 13. "We wrote about the park, drew scenes of women resting under the banyan tree, children playing on swings and sliders. Now we feel empty without the wall."

The men who lost their gym now have taken over the park in the evenings and chase everyone away.

"It is not an easy project. There is politics everywhere," said Roy, whose work ends in October. "But that is what it takes to create an artwork that truly belongs to the people."

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