Neeta Vali was power-walking on a hot May morning along with her husband in New Delhi’s favourite spot for constitutionals – Lodi Gardens. Dressed in cotton T-shirt and track pants, the 54-year-old halted as she saw something new on her route. It seemed like a menhir with tusks impaling the top, placed next to a board listing the various birds that might be seen in the gardens.
“We stopped and looked at it, but could hardly make sense of it,” said Vali. “But then we don’t know anything about modern or contemporary art. I think you need to be knowledgeable about these things in order to appreciate them.”
The nearly 10-foot high sculpture was created by Vinod Patel, a stone sculptor from Gujarat, at a camp held in the Capital by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation and Lalit Kala Akademi. Apart from Patel, eight sculptors from across the country participated in the camp in April, as part of India’s Smart City initiative. Their aim: to create art to enhance and make-over the urban landscape of New Delhi. The nine sculptors were given access to black stone from Rajasthan and complete creative freedom. Patel’s work is one of three sculptures placed in Lodi Gardens. The other two, by Andhra Pradesh’s B Srinivas Reddy and Gujarat’s Deepak Rasaily, have been met with equal confusion.
Upali Bose is a student of psychology at Delhi University and Lodi Gardens is a favourite haunt of her friends and her. The 19-year-old, who describes herself as a “health freak”, also goes for a run every day in the gardens. “These came up a few weeks ago,” said Bose, pointing to Rasaily’s Mountain and Cloud. “I’ve noticed the others too. But, without any information, I can only see it as a block of stone. I feel the authorities need to explain what these are.”
Like Lodi Gardens, artworks installed in Nehru Park and Connaught Place under the project also carry no signboard or placard educating passers-by about them.
“We are working on that,” explained Ravinder Singh, an NDMC official involved in the project. “We have requested Lalit Kala Akademi to send us information about the artworks and the artists, so that we can get placards made to accompany each sculpture.”
But Singh had a grouse too – some of the sculptures installed under the art initiative had been defaced. Brimming with anger, Singh pronounces that the people of Delhi don’t “deserve beautiful art”.
“They have destroyed the sculptures placed in Connaught place,” said Singh. “It’s very frustrating. I feel like those hot days spent at the camp with the artists, the talent and beautiful art that was realised through this project was a complete waste of time.”
Bhupat Dudi’s sculpture The Mirror at Connaught Place’s Palika Bazaar sought to encourage the public to look at themselves. A large pair of spectacles with mirrors for lenses, the artwork was vandalised within weeks of its installation. One of the mirrors on the lenses now lies shattered and the base on which the spectacles are perched acts as a bench for tired shoppers and vendors selling their wares.
However, according to art critic and curator Alka Pande, this is an unfair way to look at the situation: “You can’t just put in some money, make trendy art and then expect people to engage with it.”
Pande has been involved in several public art projects and is currently heading India Habitat Centre’s Art in Public Spaces initiative. She laments that public art has always been treated as an orphan in India. “We are not an art-appreciating community. There needs to be education at the school level. But, sadly our school system is such that art (fine or otherwise) is considered a subject for the unintelligent.”
Two more sculptures at the Palika Bazaar footpath have doubled as benches. At least one of them is meant to be sat on. The creation by Karnataka’s S Gopinath, titled Inherent Conversations, invites people to sit and talk to each other. But there aren’t any conversations happening.
Ankush Goyal sits on the bench to wipe the sweat off his face and fix his hair. He is scheduled to meet his girlfriend and doesn’t want to look tired. “This is art?” asked Goyal incredulously. “But how? If you put things like these in the middle of a public place without any indication that this is art, then how is one supposed to know this is art?”
Pande says the placement of the sculptures in a busy market requires planning. “If shoppers, tired and hot, see a place to sit on, then why won’t they? Saying that they don’t deserve art is not right. Art is something that exists for most people within a white cubed space. Removed from the general public. In such a scenario putting a seemingly unidentified stone sculpture in the middle of the market is like putting a hothouse plant in the middle of the dessert.”
However, Radha Mahendru, programme manager and curator of Khoj Studios, believes that public art needs to be left open to interpretation by those who come across it, trained or otherwise. “People should be free to accept or reject the art being displayed in public spaces,” she said. “Putting excessive signs explaining the art might as well be placing the structure within a museum. It’s unfortunate that some of these structures have been vandalised and it would be great if people would generally respect such installations, but then that holds true for all public property.”
In an article in The Tribune, Surbhi Modi, organiser of Publica, a public arts festival held in Mumbai and Delhi in February, spoke about how artworks in public spaces have to be site specific and need to keep its audience in mind. “The choice of material, too, must be dictated by the final environment.” Modi felt the model that will work best is public-private partnership. “The role of government can’t be undermined but can’t be over-stressed either. For the government often puts wrong people on the job.”
Ashiq (no last name), a 20-year-old who sells watches on the footpath outside Palika Bazaar, observes that the sculptures have been used on many occasions by vendors to display their wares. “They spread a tarpaulin on it and decorated it with whatever they were selling, hiding parts of the sculpture.” He says that NDMC officials had conducted inspections a few times, only to find that the sculptures had been moved. “But even NDMC cannot possibly keep a check on all the vendors all the time. This is our daily work. Even if chased away, we will have to return to conduct our business.”