“Without money, we’d all be rich!” “Live free.” “Fall in love, not in line!” “And, I think to myself, what a wonderful world!” These and other food-for-thought quotes can be found scribbled across concrete surfaces of the world.

Art expresses itself through various media, including concrete as canvas. In cities, we see many examples ~ be it Metro pillars “adorned” with mosaic tiles that amalgamate together to portray a larger message; child-like art, splashed with bright colours, on metal sheets cordoning off construction sites; graffiti on a broken down building façade; or simple messages spray painted to convey an ideology, affiliation, a promotion or anything under the sun.

Over the years, street art has seen a metamorphosis into a craft ~ that is not just a scribble here or there, or an image perceived as a scar on the cityscape, but an impact to reckon with ~ a medium of creativity, expression, reflection and “movement”.

A message in art

Working as a duo since 2010, Lek (French) and Sowat (American) have travelled around the world to create large scale art works, including murals, installations and exhibitions, among others. They both share a common taste for urban explorations, pushing the limits of traditional graffiti.

Says Sowat, “Today, street art engulfs a number of styles: typography, graffiti, stencilling, calligraphy, murals, abstract, installation … the list goes on. In fact, street art and social media have amalgamated to give birth to a new form of art: social media art, besides Internet art.

All this is indicative of the evolution this art form has witnessed over the decades, not only in Europe and the US, but across the world. We have been twice to India; the palette of styles the country exhibits in this medium is mind- blowing, despite the fact that this art form has only been a recent development in the country.

“Besides, the popularity and acceptance street art has been receiving in India is heart-warming. My last visit to India also saw the visit of the President and First Lady of France. In fact, the latter even posed in front of one of the murals we painted with Indian artist Hanif Kureshi, in Lodhi Colony, in the Capital.

Our experience in India, which was facilitated bythe French Institute and St + Art, an organisation working tirelessly to promote this art form in India, along with diverse international partners, saw us not only project a part of our country, but also interact with locals, and understand, first-hand, the culture of our host country, thereby encouraging an elegant and subtle form of public diplomacy.”

Guido van Helten is an Australian artist and muralist, whose work has progressed in line with an interest in travel, photography, and an analysis of human stories, sociology and architecture. He participated in the St+Art festival, Mumbai, last year, where he worked at the Sassoon dock, and in Dharavi. Later, he also participated at the same festival in Goa.

From the underlying tone of rebellion in the 1970s that graffiti depicted, Van Helten feels that street art has, indeed, developed into a full-fledged movement of sorts. Recalling his experience in India, the artist emphasizes on the social impact the medium has, especially since he worked with a group called Slum Gods, who specialise in the break-dance/hip- hop form of dance.

“It was amazing to interact with these youth, be a part of their strive to be achievers, understand their hard work and intense efforts towards mastering their craft, and using their journeys as inspiration for my art, thereby portraying a social message too,” said the artist.

“In addition to this enriching exchange of experiences, the transformation of the spaces was an inspiration in itself. It made one wonder, how colours, design, architecture, expressions and effort all come together to work their magic.”

Learning through art

An interesting off-shoot of street art is that it serves the purpose of providing creative and interactive didactic tools. The word “panchi”, or bird, bears many connotations and is, hence, open to many perceptions ~ freedom being the foremost.

Panchi, a remedial school located in Ghazipur, commenced operations in May, 2015, with 80 children from neighbouring families, whose main profession is rag-picking. Today, the school hosts almost 170 children, across the age group of 4-16 years, in three different batches throughout the day.

It is interesting to note how the staircase that leads to the school on the first floor, as well as the walls of the room, which serves as a classroom for three simultaneous batches of students, depict interesting learning aids: the painting of one half of a butterfly invites students to use their skills of symmetry to draw or paint the other half; a story telling board invites children to read stories with the following pillars in mind: setting, characters, problem, happening and solutions; another painting on the wall titled “Word Search” is self-explanatory; and the very hungry caterpillar invites the kids to write what type of food item they have had and when, thereby encouraging vocabulary and its retention. It is encouraging to see the children, on their own, use these simple wall paintings that serve as catalysts to enhance confidence and expression.

Rubina Bembi, Head, CSR, IL and FS Education and Technology Services Ltd said Panchi was envisaged to provide a welcoming environment for children, who are all first generation learners.

The wall paintings used are inspired by the concept of Building as Learning Aid or BaLA, also an acronym for a girl. Stating that this is an innovative way of looking at a student’s connect with the school, Bembi pointed out that the paintings provide children many opportunities to develop curiosity, creativity, communication and academic skills, confidence, cooperation, competence, care and concern.

“In the three years of intervention we have found that the wall paintings have contributed to teaching and learning, and have also helped the children develop a positive disposition towards Panchi as a stimulating and enjoyable place,” she added.

An important aspect of education is a conducive learning environment. In some village schools, lack of adequate sanitation and drinking water facilities, broken boundary walls, dilapidated classrooms and unlevelled grounds are de-motivators for students. Anjali Makhija, Director, Strengthening Village Level Institutions, Sehgal Foundation, elaborated on an interesting aspect of the Foundation’s work: Making a school feel like one.

“An important part of renovation is the transformation of what we have in a creative and cost-effective way, and an important component thereof is the structure of the school,” said Makhija.

“How can we make the entrance of the school attractive? Can the walls be used as didactic tools inviting students to read and explore? Is it possible to portray the essential components of their curriculum in areas of frequent presence for the sake of recall? Could a lively palette of shades lift spirits? Is it possible to talk about subjects like hygiene pictorially? All these artistic initiatives, which compliment learning aids, help increase enrolment and reduce drop-out rates. The idea is to transform lives, one school at a time, one step at a time.”

Art is open to perception and is, hence, independent of boundaries. In today’s world, the importance of freedom has gained impetus. So what better way than facilitate this important right through the medium of art, irrespective of what it may be. As Miuccia Prada the famous fashion designer once said, “For me, art is about learning and about living with people. It is alive.”