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Shubhra Chaturvedi on Urban Semiotics

Shubhra Chaturvedi is Delhi artist and an abstractionist who loves to dream!



What do you see?

What comes to our mind when we think of art? Maybe MonaLisa hanging in Louvre, or maybe the billion dollar painting by Picasso or back home say by Hussain hanging in a rich man’s house, maybe the Taj Mahal or the temple art in Khajurao or churches in Italy, the Sistine Chapel the list could go on. Art means different things to different people. However, the one thing that is common in all art form is how it engages with the audience, the viewer. That to my mind is also the biggest differentiator between Public Art and Art which hangs in private homes and museums.

Art is a means of self expression. While there is no denying that the artist speaks to the world through the medium, however when art is on a smaller scale for private viewing, it is largely artists narrative which has been appreciated and bought by an individual or a museum or a collective. Artist when painting mostly doesn’t think who is going to buy this work. Public art on the other hand is also about who is going to absorb or consume this work. Therefore this parameter should always be the key aspect when designing and working on art which is in a public space.

I am fortunate that I got a chance to experience this aspect of art. From 2010 till now I got an opportunity to create art for the various stations of the Delhi Metro. Along with fellow artist (Vibhor Taneja and Vishwesh Sant), I have conceptualised, designed and executed art works for 5 metro stations so far. The experience of making art for an urban space, at that scale, with different materials for varied target groups was not only challenging but an eye opener. Before the first project I had never gone out of my studio and done anything of this nature.

The first works I did along with Vibhor Taneja was at the Central Secretariat, Metro Station, which is at the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi. Before working on the concept, we studied the station and the importance of it on the metro line. We figured that it was an intersection where people got off to board another train at another line. We also studied the demographics of the place, the offices and buildings around the station, what would the commuters be like, who among those would be the daily passersby and who would be occasional one off people. After figuring these basics out, we set down to putting our ideas on paper. Our focus was on two things, one what do we want to say at such a platform and two who are we saying it to? Our focus was also to keep the work simple and eye catching because in a place like a metro station no one has time, they are running from one point to another. How then can we make them stop for a split second and see what we created and bring a smile on their face?

The artwork in a public space like a metro station is viewed by varied kinds of people, a tourist, a worker, a vendor, a business man and a student of an elite college alike. The visual language has to be powerful and yet simple so that all can understand it. That is the beauty of public art, it brings out art from elite spaces to the masses. Everyone can enjoy, reflect and try and make sense of it. It is also an opportunity for the artist to say that which could go out to a larger section of the society. So in one of our works “You are Here” at the Central Secretariat metro Station we thank the Delhi Metro for making our lives so easy, like time travel one enters the tunnel in New Delhi and in minutes comes out in the Old Delhi, the Delhi where our heritage still thrives in the mosques and the forts and the bazaars. In another work at the Janpath Station, we have brought out how the common man and along with the monuments in the vicinity of the station all come together to give the city its characters. Recognizable forms, big scale and colour all make the viewer stop and see the work. Taking a selfie in front of a work is a new thing. At the work in Indiria Gandhi Domestic Airport Metro Station, we gave the audience a tour of Delhi. If anyone comes to Delhi for the first time, what is it that they will find here. Calling it “Delhi Hues”, this was also our chance to make people stop in their everyday rush and see and recognise what a great and rich city they live in. To engage with the academic community, our work at the Jamia Milia Islamia Metro Station, “Khwabon ka Karvan”, gives tribute to the education system and how dreams get nurtured in an academic place and that the dreams do come full circle. The art work is lively and colourful as should be in a place like a university metro station.

Fortunately our client, the Delhi Metro, never interfered in the creative process, once they approved the idea. However, in public art the concept and reality can be far from each other and this we learnt the hard way. Most stations we worked on are underground and are only lit artificially. In our enthusiasm, the first set of works we created were back lit, side lit and we created drama with light to ensure that it catches the viewer attention. It did catch attention for sure but with time the lights went out and were not replaced or sometimes the people forgot to switch on the lights and without light the art work hardly appealed. We learnt our lesson for the future projects, which is to provide as much as you can with ambient lights and zero maintenance. In public spaces, art is not treated with the same care as in a museum and hence the art work has to be sturdy, strong and it has to look out for itself.

However it is not just enough to visually represent your ideas, we understood at the very beginning that a note along with the work always makes people stop and read what the artwork is all about and what the artists were thinking. We also recognised that the note has to be in language of the masses, so after making the mistake of having our concept note only in English in the first two works, we rectified the mistake by having our notes in both English and Hindi for our future works.

Art for public spaces like any art starts from a sketch, then on to the computer and then from there to another software where the scale and the spacing is worked out and then to a workshop where the forms take shape in the desired materials. As artists, we were aware of the fact that the work is in an urban public setting and hence the choice of material is very critical. The material has to be weather proof and has to be durable and largely incombustible. Therefore we decided to work with metal, fibre glass, paints and stones most of the time.

An idea in the head goes through a journey of paper, computer, workshop, CNC machines, hammers and drills and paints and sprays and screws and bolts and then after several months takes birth. When we sit down to ideate, think and visualise what we want to see out there and then when at the time of installation we see our little forms grow big and get up on the wall the feeling is akin to a parent seeing a child graduate.

Believe me there is nothing more satisfying for an artist, but even better is when in front of your work, strangers stop and take a picture and then post it on social media or when you meet someone you don’t know and they say yes we have seen your work at the so and so station. That feeling is overwhelming and the moment is priceless.

© Shubhra Chaturvedi October 16, 2020


(Shubhra Chaturvedi is Delhi based. A painter, an installation artist, a sculptor, a photographer and an experimenter, constantly gathering experiences and expressing them to tell stories through art. An abstractionist who loves to dream!)


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