In the streets of Mumbai, a group of twenty-somethings is transforming their city into a work of art – one wall at a time.
In a city where Bollywood stars are worshipped like gods, Ranjit Dahiya’s painting was destined to attract attention.
At more than three metres tall, his homage to Indian film megastar Amitabh Bachan – complete with a red shirt and sunbeams blazing from his back – dwarfs passers by. Locals stop to look up. Others just come to see it.
The striking work is part of ‘The Wall Project’, a creative collective that in three short years has brought Mumbai’s streets to life.
As urban legend has it, the project started with a white wall and a feeling of ‘something had to be done’.
“My building was surrounded by a blank wall and I just wanted to make it colourful,” explains founder Dhanya Pilo.
“I asked my landlord if I could paint it. He’s from one of India’s first rock bands. So he’s pretty cool and he was like, ‘Okay, do it’.”
Dhanya and her friends were soon hooked. They approached homeowners along Chapel Road, a narrow, crumbling backstreet in Mumbai’s north, and asked permission to accost their walls.
“This whole area has this old world charm. It’s a place where people connect to each other very easily, through music and art. You walk past a house and they are blasting music and you think, ‘Cool, that’s Elvis, I love that song’,” Wall Project devotees Parag Gandhi and Nisha Jacob remark.
“It’s very unique to find people who will give you their house wall to paint and say, ‘Don’t worry, just do whatever you want’.”
The freedom experienced here, both legally and creatively, has turned Chapel Road into a street artist’s paradise. Zebras charge through the streets, claws rip out of walls and mermaids swim along concrete. Foreign graffiti artists are now visiting Mumbai to add to the street’s canvas.
But for The Wall Project team, the success of Chapel Road wasn’t enough. Their mission – to connect Mumbaiites with their city – needed to be achieved on a much grander scale.
Tulsi Pipe Road was begging for their attention.
Thousands of commuters travel the 2.7 kilometre stretch of highway each day, while hundreds of the city’s homeless hug the long, grey concrete wall that runs along it.
“If you weren’t depressed about going to work in the morning already, that wall would have brought it on,” Parag laughs.
“We wanted to turn it into something that would make people smile.”
Through the help of the city’s government and social networking sites, the project formed an army of 350 people to makeover the wall late last year.
Dubbed ‘The Great Wall of Mumbai’, it soon became the voice of the city.
“It’s not just artists that come and paint. There are also bankers and financers,” Parag says.
“So there’s 1,000 people and 1,000 different ways of seeing things.”
Volunteers painted their views on everything from HIV and terrorism to women’s status in India. Others paid tribute to Michael Jackson and The Beatles.
At the foot of a train station, the Hindi alphabet lines the wall, providing a 24-hour free education programme for the city’s illiterate.
The success of The Wall Project has recently inspired artists in the Indian city’s of Pune and Bangalore to also pick up their brushes.
Dhanya is hoping the project can go global and inspire others to paint their cities.
“At Tulsi Pipe Road there are some concepts that are really cool. Someone had drawn a beggar with a bowl and it says, ‘I don’t want coins but give me change’,” Dhanya explains.
“That’s what the project is all about.”