Letter from New Delhi

Artists deconstruct city's frenzied preparations for Commonwealth Games

By Rama Lakshmi
Sunday, August 1, 2010

NEW DELHI -- A heap of construction dust, traffic signs, bricks and concrete slabs rarely excites well-heeled art aficionados here. But curators and artists called this display, in a white cube of an art gallery in the heart of New Delhi, a critical commentary on the capital's construction frenzy.

For the past two years, this congested city has undergone an extravagant makeover in preparation for the Commonwealth Games, a mega sporting event in which 71 nations and territories of the former British Empire will compete. New roads, colorful sidewalks, hotels, stadiums and an airport terminal are being built. Medieval monuments are getting a fresh coat of paint, new signs and bright lighting.

But the games have generated a debate among lawmakers, the media, activists and sports figures, with many applauding New Delhi's rush to become a world-class supercity but some questioning spending millions of dollars on a sporting event when the nation still has so much poverty.

Even the monsoon was dragged into the discourse -- with some lawmakers thrilled about boosted agricultural output and others bemoaning that the rains will stall the last-minute scramble to finish construction.

Now artists have entered the debate.

At a gallery this week, 16 artists unveiled works that reflect on the city as it breathlessly builds anew.

Titled "The Transforming State," the two-month residency program at the Religare Arts.i gallery enlisted Indian and international artists and included discussions on the city's history, its neglected water channels, the felling of hundreds of trees and the games.

One set of sculptures comments on the ongoing reconstruction of the British-built, circular shopping and office complex called Connaught Place. As workers make the colonnade shiny and new ahead of the games, Jitesh Malik, 39, has sculpted broken fragments of graying columns, peppered with colored stains.

"The white-columned colonial architecture was built to impose order on the city during the British rule. Over the years, it yellowed, grayed and changed with use. It had the look of a natural, inhabited place," said Malik, adjusting his retro-spectacles. "I find it odd that they are now restoring it to its original whiteness for the games."

In one installation, streaming video showed construction sites through a floor-to-ceiling maze of hundreds of white friendship wristbands.

"We asked the artists to reflect on what these changes mean," said Sumakshi Singh, a mentor for the program. "Who are we becoming? Who is this change for? . . . Art can enter the debate in a language that is subtle and subversive."

Rebecca Brown, an artist based in New York, hung pieces of colorful saris and scarves from wooden ladders, resembling construction sites where workers also eat and sleep. Another American, Rebecca Carter of Texas, took words from construction-site signs -- "Diversion," "Stop," "Keep Distance" and "Attention" -- and wove them in glittering, colorful threads on a wall.

"The whole city is a work in progress. We are told to bear with the mess for the sake of the beauty that will come during the games. Now that mess has come into the art gallery," Umesh Kumar, who attended the program's preview, said with a wry smile. "The artists have spoken, but their message does not bring much comfort."

A government commission recently issued a report critical of the city's new construction. Human rights activists say thousands of slums have been demolished, and they warn that the games are creating deep social divisions.

But artist Nidhi Khurana said the city has, after all, changed a thousand times in history.

She painted a large mural that looked like an aerial map of the capital, interspersed with her musings -- construction signs, monuments, auto rickshaws and grocery lists. In some places, she used the kidney-shaped 1857 map of the old city and in another a 1961 map.

"We have to accept change," she said. "Change is always a mixed bag, why pronounce moral judgments?"

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