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Chennai’s Kannagi Nagar becomes India’s fifth art district sporting murals by 16 artists

It is a bright, sunny Sunday. A boisterous group of children in Kannagi Nagar hops on a refurbished cycle cart, christened ‘Neelam’ —— painted only hours ago in shades of blue — and sets off on a celebratory ride.

The cart, filled with freshly opened cans of pain and brushes of all sizes, clatters with its noisy passengers to an abandoned concrete foundation with grey pillars. The little aspiring artists station themselves in front of each of the pillars, ready to go. Before long, quick, if admittedly amateur, strokes of red, yellow, blue and red fill the otherwise dull vertical facades — transforming them into a colourful collage.

For the past few weeks, Chennai’s Kannagi Nagar, home to 80,000 people, has been abuzz with activity. Large red cranes with umbrellas, cans of paint, artists in harnesses have occupied parallel roads, lined with identical multi-storied apartments. One of India’s largest resettlements, the area includes people rehabilitated from three river beds — Cooum, Adyar and the Buckingham Canal — as well as a few slums in the city.

By March, Kannagi Nagar will be India’s fifth art district, with 16 of its walls sporting large scale murals by national and international artists.

To actualise this, St+art India Foundation which is also behind the Lodhi art district in Delhi, has collaborated with Asian Paints, Greater Chennai Corporation and Chennai Smart City Limited, as well as foreign consulates, to bring art to these streets and engage with the community.

By converting the location into an open air museum, St+art aims to reimagine what a space for arts and culture could be like and later activate it by hosting events and festivals.

Karan Kaul, assistant curator, St+art India Foundation, says, “St+art came together in 2014 as a platform to promote street art in India, because alternate platforms for contemporary art did not exist. We wanted to take contemporary art out of the gallery spaces to the streets.” The team is currently functioning out of an abandoned police station in Kannagi Nagar.

After multiple site visits across the city, Kannagi Nagar was chosen for its diverse population, and detachment from the city’s urban fabric. “It has also been, let’s say, a very neglected place in the city. The idea is to energize the physical ecosystem of the space as well,” says Karan.

Hues of hope

At first, the mural that welcomes one into Kannagi Nagar titled The New Door, appears to be a medley of gradients. However, on walking closer, one realises that each block of colour has been patterned with a different motif. Spanish muralist Antonyo Marest’s quick strokes lent to only three days of work.

The mural is a burst of colour. Geometrical shapes filled with yellows, reds and blues are inspired by the colours of India, he says.

Opposite a new police station stand two mammoth walls, dotted by windows and corridors. Two smiles in monotone, awash with innocent joy, occupy one.

A-Kill, the creator, is lending it finishing touches — spraying grey strokes diagonally as he speaks. “I work with nothing but the environment around me, which is why the portraits.” A Chennai-based muralist, A-Kill uses a technique of doodling onto the wall, to understand the scale and superimposes his mural on the doodles. On this wall, the doodle included names of the children in the locality. “While I was doodling, a little girl came and asked us if we could include her name.” This helped A-Kill and his assisting artist Jayalakshmi, engage with the children. Not surprisingly, the subjects of his mural are also children; inspired from his street photography.

The second wall portrays a woman with a powerful gaze, the marine world within the grasp of her palm. In vibrant colours of green, orange and blue, its bold and defining strokes pay tribute to the fisherfolk of Chennai, especially the women, says its creator Delhi-based Osheen Shiva.

“The sea and the people of Chennai have a symbiotic relationship. Especially the women, who also look after the business side of the activity,” continues Osheen adding that the letters in Tamil, done by artist Raghupathy, translates to ‘providers and protectors’.

Adjacent to these, is Australian artist Bronte Naylor’s wall. As she stands atop the crane, under an umbrella, a woman from the apartment passes her tea from one of the windows. “I have also made friends with baby goats here,” she laughs.

Her mural-in-the-making is inspired by scenes from Koyambedu flower market. “What I witnessed there was a warm, community feeling. There are lots of microbusinesses and active purchasing, which translates to a rich, active culture,” says the artist, who will adapt a photograph she clicked at the market over the next few days.

A little away from this network of walls, stands the first completed work by Bengaluru-based Kashmira Sarode. Titled Harbouring Hope, Kashmira’s mural is dedicated to the inhabitants of the area who had to move after the devastating tsunami of 2004. She presents a mother-daughter duo, amidst waves, looking upwards, surrounded by iris flowers — emblematic of hope.

For the community

At any given point, a crowd of curious spectators surround the artists. The streets are lively in the evenings, when children come running after school to track the progress of each painting, and maybe even display some skills of their own.

But what does the art mean to them? Karan says, “Though environment is an overarching discussion in this, the onus is not just to do with the idea of keeping one’s surroundings clean, but also to get more intuitive and conscious of what you are surrounded by.”

One of the themes of the project is to understand the idea of migration, and what it really means to regenerate an identity and look at what the city is, as a collective unit.

Karan continues, “We are looking at this project to examine how urban art can regenerate a space completely by changing its mood. And most importantly, by changing the connotations that people from outside have about this neighbourhood.”

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