Meet the artist who painted across national capital for G20

Express News Service

Yogesh Saini has earned the right to be sniffy about street art. His team’s street and graffiti art were the quietest, yet most vivid, adverts for the two-day G-20 meet that wrapped up in Delhi on September 10. It was Saini’s Delhi Street Art (DSA), an art collective, that first spread G-20’s message where eyes do not go or the public may not reach. Through murals under the flyover, beside garbage dumps, at underpasses around the city.

DSA was approached by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi last year in October to do a quick mural as the G-20 logo had just been released—they had one up in three days, representing participating countries at Nehru Place. At the Moolchand Flyover, the team painted a peacock in full strut, tail-up. Today, it is a whitewashed wall. What, however, has got Saini upset is the work that the DSA curated with the support of the Dutch Embassy, for which a Dutch artist of Indian heritage was invited to come over to Delhi to paint a self-portrait next to a roaring tiger at Nizamuddin. “What they have now in its place is an amateurish drawing of a NASA space shuttle and they are calling it Chandrayaan! It doesn’t happen often but our work does get erased. It’s a pain a street artist has to get used to. This is because agencies supervising public art change hands and everyone wants to put their own stamp on it, or put up something new,” he says.

Saini doesn’t dwell on it though, he has other fish to fry. Speaking to TMS from Prayagraj, where he has gone for work—in 2022, DSA was commissioned by Prayagraj Mela Pradhikaran, the body that organises the Kumbh Mela, to lead the painting of over 200 walls across the city as part of the ‘Paint My City’ campaign—Saini points out that September is a good month for the group. Preparations are on in full swing in Delhi to celebrate its 10th anniversary with watercolour and printmaking workshops and artist meets to celebrate what they they have “achieved as a team”.

Saini was born in a village in Punjab in 1959. He finished his schooling and college in Delhi after which he went to the US to pursue a Masters in Business Administration. He went on to work in the corporate world and, thereafter, launched a few startups in Silicon Valley before returning to India around 2012 when he rediscovered his passion for painting. 

Public Art, Community Service

“But I never wanted to be a painter in a gallery. I was always into pop art. For me the important thing was keeping the art public so that the public could have access,” he says. The DSA team is made up of hundreds of volunteers; the core is a team of 15 artists. From a village near Shimla, to Panaji, to a police station in Gurugram and a children’s cancer hospital in Chennai, work comes to the group from everywhere. As does praise. NK Singh of Prayagraj sent a note of appreciation to the group on the choice of poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan as a mural in the city’s Pension Colony. In the video recording, a garbage dump and strays show up. It mustn’t have been easy to do art here, observes Singh.   

How does DSA fund its operations? “We are self-funded, we get work from corporates, municipal corporations, RWAs, government bodies. The revenues generated, fund our social initiatives at slums, schools, night shelters, prisons,” says Saini. These are the places where the team’s work has had the most impact. “In these communities, our involvement has, I believe, helped in more ways than one. In the prisons, for instance, the skill training we give will help them when they move out of prison and go on to lead independent lives outside,” he says. 

In 2019, on the request of MP Parvesh Sahib Singh Verma, DSA took up a beautification project in Raghubir Nagar, an area developed as a resettlement colony in the 1980s, involving local kids, housewives, college-goers. “Both the graffiti and street art we do is permission and invitation based,” Saini adds. As it was for the G-20 art. Over designs and execution, the DSA has autonomy—the paintings of scientists, a vegetable vendor and a bookseller at the South Ex underpass and Madhubani art on Metro pillars outside Dilli Haat were conceived by the DSA—but they did get them approved by the Delhi Tourism and Transport Development Corporation just a couple of weeks before G-20.

Changing the Scene

The DSA journey in Delhi began in 2013 when street art was a fairly established phenomenon in the Western world but in India it was in its infancy. “There were just pockets here and there where a visiting artist would be given a wall. The last decade has seen a sea change of which we have been a part and we’ve seen that evolution—from a time when artists weren’t even sure whether it was okay to do this in a public space, in a certain scale or size, or people, who thought of painting only in terms of studio or canvas, weren’t sure whether to join in,” explains Saini.

At times, he has also felt as if the physical act of spraying or painting a wall has been akin to a performance, or theatre, where both their skills and their mistakes were often fair game. “Either we got immediate criticism or praise or someone or the other would hang around to say: ‘Why paint it this way and not that way?’, ‘Is it not a waste of time when people use walls as public urinals?’” What is new now, he observes, is that street art has caught the fancy of municipal bodies, schools, government and non-government bodies, and that “more and more requests are coming in from smart cities and smaller towns”. And that means the team will soon be all over the walls.

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