For Malleshwaram, Girija hopes to represent locals of Malleshwaram, and show how they tie into the traditional/chaotic/ rich tapestry of this beautiful locality. This piece explores the changing time and growing welcome through the hidden back lanes of Malleshwaram, known as conservancy lanes.
Geechugalu: Tell us a bit about yourself, and your art practice involving conservancy lanes at Malleshwaram.
Girija: I am Girija, I’m from Chennai, but I’ve been settled in Bangalore for 15 years now and I’m an artist doing full time murals and art works for the past six years. I applied to be a part of the Geechugalu’s team of artists, when I saw that they were planning to work in Malleshwaram. Malleshwaram has been very close to my heart, and when you visit it, you will be visiting really old Bangalore like 15 years back. So I went ahead and applied, and it was very interesting to see that they had conservancy lanes as mural sites. Conservancy lanes exist in few parts of Bangalore, and it has a very long tradition of being used by conservancy workers. So that in itself held a meaning for me, I work in the areas of social justice and feminism, it was a perfect site for me to explore those ideas.
My past projects mainly include working on murals and large scale paintings, so I’ve been attracted to larger than life artworks from college. I have been working in the themes of spirituality, feminism, mythology and social justice. Most of my works revolve around mythology, especially in swapping gender roles. I consider myself a feminist, and I’ve worked on projects like Mahila Bharat, and painted Mahabharata characters as women to basically shift people’s perspectives around gender and stereotypical roles. Recently, I have been working on a project called Decca, which is about the ten avatars of Vishnu, but with a spin to show a Feminist anthropology, wherein I’m trying to document the contribution of women throughout civilisation in the form of the ten avatars; Ama divers of Japan, basket weavers of Botswana and so on. I’ve been painting a lot of history through the female lens, as an attempt to recognise the contribution of women in society. Since mythology is relatively common, and somewhat comfortable, it’s easy for us to serve these ideas in a very palatable manner amongst the masses, that’s why I chose mythology for my artwork. We grew up as children with all these stories in mythology. So once you have a common frame of reference, it is easier to deliberate.
Geechugalu: Being an artist in the street art movement, are there any precursors to mural making that you would like to share with an aspiring artist community?
Girija: Murals are basically the earliest form of art-making, the earliest findings of cave paintings are essentially murals, so even before we had sound and music, there was mural art. And I think it’s very natural that in any kind of graffiti, you see people scribbling their names on walls, so it’s a natural inclination of humans to mark their insignia in a place. Not literally a signature, but some kind of a mark that caters to their uniqueness and individuality.
But I think mural making is an important art form which everyone should promote, with more artists taking it up. Street art especially, is very important because it’s the most democratic form of art where everyone can consume your art, speak on your art or ignore your art if they want to.
So I love street art, and I think it must be very specific to the place that you are painting it in. Unlike the signatures that some people scribble on walls outside, street art should be something that everyone can connect to, that’s my philosophy towards murals. When I went to conservancy lanes, I had a few initial ideas that I had proposed on Malleshwaram, about some temple, pillars, and a temple’s sculpturesque paintings.
But when I actually saw the houses in conservancy lanes, my idea completely changed and it became something about social justice and about the ‘welcome’ from the backdoors. I think we have to be fluent enough in our ideas to do complete justice to the place where we are painting. We have to respect the street, the venue of our artwork.
Geechugalu: What were some of the factors that kindled your process and inspiration behind your piece?
Girija: Conservancy lanes were quite important for me to showcase what they were used for. They were used as backdoor entrances, servant quarters and servant entrances and so on. So I really wanted to showcase that through my piece, but I also wanted it to be a very formal welcome or a positive influence on people who are looking at the murals.
I didn’t want it to counteract or throw a negative light, but instead I wanted it to be celebratory, which also makes you think a little bit on why the artist has painted it this way. When I painted these people turning their backs towards the roads, one starts to think about where they are facing, which is inside these houses. Inside the houses, are these privileged spaces which are reserved for people from the upper castes of society. So that is the play of social inequality in that place, is what I felt when I stood near the back door. It all surfaced after I made a couple of visits in those lanes and we set foot on certain door entrances to acquire mural permissions along with community volunteers. We were rejected in some houses, accepted in some. I think all of these experiences of being welcomed and not-so welcomed, also formed this idea.
Geechugalu: Had there been any challenges that came up in executing a mural piece in a public space in a state of pandemic?
Girija: There were the usual challenges of social distancing and masking up. Painting in the hot sun with masks on is really hard for a long time, so physically that was a little challenging, but there were these wonderful volunteers who were helping us throughout.
Some of the challenges I faced were in some of the lanes which were somewhat hidden from the main street crowd, there were people standing and staring, there were some untoward advances and the typical street dangers that you have. I think as an artist you kind of learn to accept these, you’re also putting yourself out there on the street along with your art. In terms of the pandemic, there was a real scare when a lot of bikes used to come really close to my site and a lot of people were parking there and having their conversations.
But other than that, it was a very enriching experience because a lot of people used to come and watch the mural regularly to watch the progress and ask questions which was really encouraging to me. I think that’s an interesting part of street art for me.
Geechugalu: Are there any nuggets with the locals that you would like to share, which resulted in some kind of positive reinforcement?
Girija: There was this old couple from Malleshwaram who go for their evening walks every day. They both used to watch the progress every day, they’d come and stand quietly, watch me paint for some time, give a gentle smile and go back. It was really reassuring that they came every day. It became an unspoken relationship.
There were also two kids with a small puppy, who used to visit every two-three hours with their dog named Gopi, in the pretence that the dog needed walking. I think Gopi really liked the mural as well and became a friend to the entire team.
Geechugalu: Describe a significant event that occurred as part of your public art experience.
Girija: – I think what is significant not just for me, but for all the artists, is when we initially approached all these people for donating their walls, some of them were really apprehensive of giving their walls. But as soon as the colour started appearing on the walls, and the murals started taking shape, like Spandana’s sparrows and Chandana’s Sampige, a lot of people from other lanes, crossroads would approach us and ask us to come and paint on their walls. I think that was very significant, it shows the change in the mindset.
I think that was great, and this coverage on ‘Svagata’ and Bengaluru Moving in Malleshwaram Hogona is going to promote such artists, bring in a change in the mindset of people, and promote art in all their streets. I think that is a welcoming change that I expect to happen.
Even in my mural piece, there had been an idea behind painting three very good looking people. These girls and women in my mural are basically all alone in the conservancy lane. So anyone can come and tag those walls, paint something over it, spray paint them or even write offensive things. So we should wait and watch and see how these women are treated. That in itself will be a commentary on how women are treated.
Geechugalu: Were there any underlying issues, either societal or interpersonal, that surfaced as a result of your public art experience?
Girija: Interpersonal experiences, I think, are less about the artists and more about the art, so the experiences people will have with the artwork is what’s needed to be seen now, more than the artists themselves. Once I’ve painted it and I’ve left the place, it is a public property. Street art is the most public of all, you don’t have to pay to go and look at the artwork unlike in galleries, so I really love street art because it is democratic and each person can potentially develop a relationship with the artwork.
Street art, to me, is the purest form of expression which I think is basically legal vandalism where we are taking charge and taking over a space.
Let’s talk about this way, so if you’re taking and occupying a flat space somewhere without it’s concerning legalities, you’d probably be arrested right? I cannot go and take someone’s land. But by painting a public wall, you’re literally doing the same thing, so basically it’s vandalism. You’re kind of marking your impression; it can be something for the common good or it can be something purely egoistical, wherein one can spray paint their own insignia, their political affiliation, their god’s name or something really cynical. So art doesn’t have a good or bad, there is no black or white in it, everything could be art and there is no judgement in it, is what I feel.
So I think street art is a very interesting play of making things non-commercial; there is no money associated with the viewing, in consumption or in ownership of it. Even the artists cannot say that their work is theirs, because once they’ve painted the artwork, it’s public. There will be rain, there will be damage or somebody spitting paan on it, it’s part of the art itself, who is to say that it’s ours, it is not even in the ownership of the artists, which is why I love street art.
I think street art is very raw in nature, nobody can consume nature for money, nobody can own nature, nobody can individualise nature or claim ownership over a forest, I think its an urban forest, you can call street art an urban forest.
Geechugalu: Was there a moment when you felt vulnerable or found difficulties during this project? Are there any other places you’ve painted at where you felt similarly? Is there any specific way you dealt with it or wished you would have?
Girija: There were some untoward advances from some people coming and approaching and asking for my number for unrelated reasons so you do feel vulnerable, but it is part of becoming a street artist. In fact, this is why I do feminist artworks, a woman painting in a public space is viewed very differently from a man painting in a public space. And that itself, is a part of an art experience, the journey of making an artwork as a woman, is also an artwork in itself.
So I think vulnerabilities are there in every arena, art itself is vulnerable, you create and you’re offering your creation to the world without knowing how it’ll be received, so vulnerability rests with the artist and in the art. We should focus more on what it is that we put on the wall; my relationship is with the wall, not with the people who are looking at me while I’m painting it. I tend to focus more on that, so in a way I’ve stepped away from all these other relationships and other problems that are going on behind my back, but the walls are a witness to all that happens, each day.
Vulnerabilities are common, I think as women we have to be brave, so the next generation doesn’t have to struggle in order to claim their space. The more vocal we are about it, the stronger we get in dealing with our vulnerabilities, we are opening up more spaces for more women artists and them claiming the space.
All those incidents happening are basically a part of the art experience, so I wouldn’t have avoided or dealt with anything. Art is to be curious, it’s to see what the public is reacting to and how they’re reacting to me. Unless it’s extremely dangerous, I think it’s okay. As an artist I observe everything around me, and mirror it until it probably appears in some other artwork. It’s material, according to me.
Geechugalu: What were some of your highs/lows or places where you felt that everything came together?
Girija: A low point sort of took place for me in terms of technique. For my second image of the girl, it was hard to get some proportions right, and I kind of spent a day trying to change everything. It made me question a lot of things including my own process, with doubts on whether it would make sense to people. But then finally I made a volunteer named Pooja pose for me, who I must thank. She was generous enough to stand and pose for me so I could get it right.
Eventually, I think the highest point was the placement of the drainage pipe, and how I was able to incorporate it into the mural which gave it a whole different meaning. I think the place accepted the mural, and I believe in synchronicity, so I feel that it was a synchronicity where the drainage pipe suddenly figured into my mural and it came together perfectly.
I think it was always a team too from the beginning, so I felt that I had a strong team backing for doing this work, be it the discussions or going around along with them to ask for permissions, and all the volunteers who kept coming to us with water, with help, with paints and everything. We were a team and I really felt committed through each of the murals that were being painted along with me. We used to visit each other’s murals once or twice a day, and talk about it, go back and it felt like a paint jam, where a bunch of artists would sit and paint together.
Everyone had the same purpose, which was to make the place more beautiful and more conducive for people to walk in, so from the beginning it was a total team work with volunteers. I also had a friend assist me who lives in Malleshwaram with her husband, around 1 km away from the place where I painted at. It was really interesting to paint with all the other artists at the same time, so I think there was a good sense of teamwork all throughout, which resulted in things coming together smoothly.
Geechugalu: Do you carry any personal connection with Malleshwaram? If yes, then what have been some of your fondest memories in the space?
Girija: Malleshwaram is full of people who have migrated from Tamil Nadu, especially in that area there are a lot of Tamil speaking but Karnataka settled people, so there are a lot of homes where they speak my mother tongue which is Tamil. In fact during those permission seeking explorations, we were talking to some of the folks in Tamil as well, and there were a lot of temples and old retired Tamil people in the community, similar to the one that I grew up with in Tamil Nadu. I think I’ve always felt very comfortable like at home in Malleshwaram, it’s like going back to my childhood place with a lot of temples and people visiting them, amazing food with many markets and flowers. So I’m very fond of Malleshwaram, and I have my best friend living there, so I visit it often.
This project has brought out the beauty of Malleshwaram in a much more democratic way. Earlier, I observed auditoriums and halls where Carnatic music happened, with little cultural fests that are reserved for the elites or the upper castes in some way.
But such public projects will help Malleshwaram to be appreciated by everyone, by being open for all strata of the society and I think that’s what we should aim towards, more democratic art. Art inspires art, and there will be more narratives, or more stories that form with these paintings in the background. It will engage the space with more relatable human stories, and I think it will become the most sought after public space in Bangalore, hopefully.
Geechugalu: How was your experience with Bengaluru Moving x Geechugalu at Malleshwaram?
Girija: Absolutely fantastic experience! I’m really happy that everyone who has organised this is so young. I’m quite old compared to them, so I’m really happy to look at this new generation of artists, reclaiming these public spaces. Most importantly, I like Geechugalu because they have in this project, and even in their previous explorations given space to local artists, which I think is essential for street art.
Like I said, street art is ultimately very local, you may bring in artists from other countries who bring in their own ideas and perspectives, but to promote local artists in this movement is doing complete justice to the local space, and that is what I like about this project.