One of the more unusual places to view art is inside a milk booth. Arnika Ahldag’s video work When Futurity Collapses into Contemporaneity plays in one such space, showing a conversation between transgender rights activist Meera Parida and urban planner Antiran Chakrabarty. As Parida applies make-up on Chakrabarty, they discuss the problems with the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the Smart Cities Mission of the Indian government. On shelves around the screen are quarter-folded manifestos, Alternative Proposals to Future Bhubaneswar, replete with photographs of different places in Old Town and accompanying text, promising a utopian future.

The milk booth is just one of 26 locations in Bhubaneswar’s Old Town that are part of the inaugural Bhubaneswar Art Trail. This interactive public art project features the works of 24 artists from India and abroad, including well-known names like Sudarshan Shetty, Sharmila Samant, Gigi Scaria and Arunkumar HG in a 1.3-km trail through the city. Organised by the Utsha Foundation for Contemporary Art, in collaboration with Odisha Tourism, the Bhubaneswar Development Authority, the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation and the Bhubaneswar Smart City Limited, the Trail is a glimpse of what public-private partnerships in the cultural sphere can look like. The idea behind it was to weave together multiple narratives that depict the collective history, identity and culture of the capital city of Odisha.

'When Futurity Collapses into Contemporaneity', by Arnika Ahldag.
'When Futurity Collapses into Contemporaneity', by Arnika Ahldag.

Explaining the importance of art to bureaucrats is no small feat, as the event curators Jagannath Panda, artist and co-founder of Utsha Foundation, and Premjish Achari, scholar and writer, discovered. Indeed, were it not for Bhubaneswar’s selection for development as a Smart City and the Odisha government’s concomitant interest in boosting the city’s profile, this sort of ambitious project might not have been possible at all – government agencies financed the artists’ month-long stay as well as their works, all of which had to be made on site.

As one winds through the narrow streets of the town, the somewhat opaque tagline of the project, “Navigation is Offline”, begins to make sense. Centuries-old temples sit cheek-by-jowl with new houses, alleys widen onto the Bindu Sagar lakefront and artworks pop up in unexpected places, such as road-facing walls and inside people’s homes. Navigating from one end of the route to the other involves encounters with the past and present of Bhubaneswar, as well as larger questions about the politics of heritage, community and urban infrastructure that the city embodies.

Encouraging dialogue

Some of the artists addressed this discourse around development being promoted by the state, reiterating critiques of it as being exclusionary and indifferent to the needs of marginalised citizens, including homeless people and residents of slums. Though Bhubaneswar was ranked among the top 20 best performing smart cities in the world in March in a global survey, its weak infrastructure was glaringly exposed a few months later. In July, floods havocked the city and exposed its vulnerable sewage systems, a situation worsened by rampant illegal constructions.

Veejayant Kumar Dash’s Paka Kambala, Pota Chhata… comprises a video featuring footage of the Old Town’s streets accompanied by the voices of local residents questioning, complaining and sharing their concerns. The video is placed against the backdrop of a huge blanket decorated with eyes and flowers, with an umbrella propped on a corner and a chair right under it. These motifs and the title allude to a folktale in which a master utters the words “Spread the blanket and open the umbrella”, to his curious servant, before responding to his queries. Dash plans to move the work to different locations every few days, and invite people to sit on the chair and speak their mind, facilitating a public dialogue.

Veejayant Kumar Dash’s 'Paka Kambala, Pota Chhata...'.
Veejayant Kumar Dash’s 'Paka Kambala, Pota Chhata...'.

While the work may be referring to the inability of citizens to demand answers from their elected leaders, the hierarchical aspect of a master-servant relationship is hard to ignore in the context of the religious geography of the Old Town. Curating an art trail in a caste-riven, gendered space such as that configured by temple complexes is beset with difficulties. Primary among these was persuading the priests of the math trust committees to allow artworks to be placed inside their premises. Bhubaneswar Art Trail “is an attempt is to map and unravel the Brahmanical social relations institutionalised by temples acting as the epicentre of life,” said Achari. “Understanding the history of caste segregation, societal hierarchies, mobility and access to resources could reveal a lot about the contemporary nature of the Old Town.”

New York-based Markus Baenziger’s inconspicuous mobile of large leaf-like shapes, titled Traces, swings from a tree atop a math roof, and tantalises viewers on the street below with occasional appearances. In another part of Old Town, Pratap Jena and Smrutikant Rout’s giant bamboo conch floats on the polluted water of Bindusagar Lake, lit up at night so that it glows like a beacon.

Markus Baenziger’s 'Traces'.
Markus Baenziger’s 'Traces'.

Role of public art

Not all attempts to intervene were successful: the team of Bhubaneswar Art Trail had to give up on at least one location because of property disputes involving encroachment on temple land. Nor were they all temporary – one part of Sharmila Samant’s The Heated Debate involved carving pointed questions into the old laterite walls lining a road. The city will have to live with them.

Judging by the popularity of Sayantan Maitra’s Duck Above, Fish Below, this is a work that the local residents might not mind having to live with (although it will be dismantled once the Trail is over). A bamboo installation in the Guajhara temple compound made up of a bridge that extends halfway into a pond and culminating in a bench framed by a large archway, it has become a spot for socialising. It urges viewers to reflect on art’s relationship with civic infrastructure, as well as its responsibility to revise and reorder entrenched sociopolitical arrangements. In a climate of rising communal tensions and backlash against oppressed groups asserting themselves, claims to shared public spaces and traditionally inaccessible sites have become ever more fraught. At such a moment, an event like Bhubaneswar Art Trail presents an opportunity to rethink the role of public art in interrupting hegemonic narratives, creating new communities and improving amenities.

Sayantan Maitra’s 'Duck Above, Fish Below'.
Sayantan Maitra’s 'Duck Above, Fish Below'.

The Bhubaneswar Art Trail gave art students from around Bhubaneswar the chance to work with established artists like Samant and Scaria. The volunteers, welcoming visitors and reeling off information about the works they had been assigned to show, are college students and working professionals. One of the volunteers, Amlan Nayak, recounts how Teja Gavankar’s clay and bamboo installation titled Parivartan – an attempt to render in architectural terms Bhubaneswar’s identity crisis of being both temple town and Smart City – collapsed before the opening. “The entire locality shared her grief,” said Nayak. “Kids wrote letters to her, reassuring her that they would find a way to show the work.” The work remains as it is, with photographs from before the collapse placed on the bamboo enclosure, a reference to what it was supposed to have been.

Though uneven in terms of the quality of works, the Trail serves a similar purpose for Bhubaneswar, presenting a vision different from the one being hailed currently. As Achari said, “We have to conceptualise a new model of old cities, one which is not based on a merely decorative idea of what a heritage city should be. Through BAT we aspire to engender a city with art etched into the fine-grain detail of the public infrastructure.” But won’t the town revert to the status quo once the Trail is over? “The BAT may end [soon], but the infrastructural changes and the spirit of community-based civic interventions it has initiated are going to stay.”

All images courtesy the Bhubaneswar Art Trail

The Bhubaneswar Art Trail is on till December 18.