A few years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see a different side to the very modern Singapore. My very knowledgeable and personable guides, who often work with the Singapore Tourism Board, Josephine Wee and her husband Wee Toon Hee, took me around the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood. It is definitely a hipster hotspot, with quirky bookstores (Woods in the Books was delightful), trendy bakeries (the almond-encrusted croissants at Tiong Bahru Bakery and the pandan chiffon cakes at the more old-school ones should be considered national treasures!) and plenty of bespoke boutiques and vinyl-vending music shops. But it also has a number of traditional shophouses, meat-soup cafes and buildings from the 1930s that blend Art Deco with nautical and airplane themes.
But more than anything, what appealed to me was the public art. Sometimes, I’d turn a corner and just stand there gawking, gobsmacked by the beauty of the scene unfolding before me. I don’t know why, but a very realistic mural of a tea shop or a grocer is SO much more captivating than the real thing! Perhaps it’s because you marvel at how beautifully the artist has captured all the details — the expressions and body language of the humans, the shapes and hues of the merchandise, the hopeful hypnotic eyes of the friendly animals.
There are many murals around Tiong Bahru. I especially loved the one depicting the multi-cultural marketplace titled Pasar and the one which depicts the neighbourhood men relaxing, drinking kopi and eating kaya-toast at the old Bird Song Corner. This used to be a real place where people brought their pet birds to participate in singing contests. It doesn’t exist today, but the mural keeps the soul of the tradition alive without continuing the practice of caging birds. I checked the signature on this one and noted the name of the talented artist and looked him up on Instagram. Yip Yew Chong (@yipyewchong) had an incredible body of work and I was hooked.
Back home, I looked at the city’s many bare walls and wondered if, one day, they too could be a sight for sore eyes. One of my American guests had once appreciated that our streets were free of graffiti, which is looked upon as a nuisance factor in many countries. While I privately thought that it was a pity it was so, it also made sense because our couldn’t possibly afford expensive paint cans to spray their angst on walls.
But public art is a different thing. Like in Melbourne’s Hosier Lane, where the graffiti is so amazing, it’s celebrated as a tourist attraction. I found it very compelling, as the art often made a strong statement as well as impressed with its vibrant styles. My experience in Rush Lane in Toronto’s China Town too was similar. Popularly known as Graffiti Alley, it’s a mix of messages and mesmerising artwork.
In Mumbai, murals or graffiti were not part of the sub-culture or conversation for a long time, despite having a thriving art scene and even a dedicated Arts Festival. That lone multi-coloured horse at Kala Ghoda and a few bylanes of Bandra were a start though. The massive cinema-themed murals made sense in Mumbai, the city of celluloid dreams, but I always thought that there could be more. So much more.
This wish started to come true. Slowly, I was glimpsing more public art. And not just the kind done by amateurs, but works of grace and gift. Driving down P D’Mello road, I suddenly spotted the flash of a flamingo’s wings. And then another. The decrepit warehouses in Sewri and Cotton Green seemed like the perfect backdrop for this hidden beauty.
And then came the magnificent mural of the fisherwoman on a bike signed ‘Fearless’, which was one of the most gorgeous and inspiring paintings I had ever seen. Some research showed that this was a creation of The Fearless Collective, founded by artist Shilo Shiv Suleman in response to the horrific Delhi gang rape in 2012. Shilo and a core group of volunteers — artists, activists, photographers and filmmakers — use art to speak out against gender violence and attempt to (re)define fear, femininity and what it means to be fearless.
The hand-drawn mural by artist Sameer Kulavoor on the exterior walls of Radhi Parekh’s Artisans in Kala Ghoda a few years later made quite an impact too. It depicts hands holding various tools of the trade, thus celebrating ‘maker culture’, just right for its location. And then there’s that adorable cat.
The Sassoon Dock Art Project too came to life in 2017, with 30 international artists coming together to create murals and installations that celebrated the historic dock in Colaba in an ‘art for all’ mission led by the St+art Foundation and Asian Paints. At a special dinner organised in the surprising location of the Sassoon Dock Gatehouse to commemorate this art uprising, I was seated next to a quiet gentleman, who turned out to be the incredibly talented artist Hanif Qureshi. We got talking about the mural movement.
Ever since then, the St+art Foundation’s work has held my fancy. They have been creating works of wondrous proportions and palettes for every palate across the country. Collaborating with international and Indian artists, they have taken art out from the snooty wine-and-cheese ivory towers of the art galleries and made it accessible to anyone who has the time to stand and stare, stop and savour.
St+art’s new and incredible Lodhi Art District in Delhi is on my must-visit list. And not just because my favourite muralist, the self-taught Yip Yew Chong from Singapore, has come and created some really lifelike artwork in these lanes. Almost 50 street artists from across the world have been invited to unleash their creativity on the walls of this open-air art gallery that pictures can barely do justice to.
Meanwhile, during this lockdown, while Mumbaikars stayed indoors, the city walls have played blank canvas to numerous artists. The 10,000 sq ft Wall of Gratitude created at the RPG House in Worli by Kulavoor to thank our doctors, nurses, policemen, media persons, delivery guys and other Covid warriors, was the brainchild of industrialist and art aficionado Harsh Goenka. Because art needs its patrons to survive, of course.
In many places, Asian Paints has sponsored the beautification. In a few places, residents’ associations have supported the public art. Undersea creatures at Sassoon Dock and Worli Sea Face, sparrows and parrots in the lanes snaking uphill from Breach Candy and down the road at Lower Parel. Gloriously coloured monuments and wild animals at Jogeshwari. Wonderful renditions of the BMC building and other colonial architecture in black and white on the walls near the Cooperage gardens.
This may not be high art. It is neither abstract, nor stylish, nor does it make you ponder existential questions. But it is certainly pleasing. And if in some remote corner of our busy minds and hearts, we can make place for a little artistic pleasure that’s there just for the sake of it, that’s a step closer towards enjoying the entire human experience.
(The columnist is Associate Editor, TravelDine, and a bespoke Mumbai tour specialist. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @priyapathiyan and @thehungryhappyhippy on Facebook. She blogs on thehungryhappyhippy.com)