Blowing away Bombay’s art scene

India’s lack of exhibition space hasn’t deterred two young photographers, who’ve discovered that city walls make the perfect gallery.

Photographs by Pär Olsson

Kapil Das and Akshay Mahajan stand at the centre of a dirt field, surveying their exhibition space. At the left stands the decrepit shell of a concrete building, filled with rubble. While on the right a marauding cow stares at a handful of cops who are threatening to shut the whole thing down.

It’s May 22 in India’s financial capital, Mumbai, and the opening of ‘BlowUp Bombay’ – a one-day exhibition which aims to invigorate the country’s photography scene by inviting amateur and professional shutterbugs to display their work. All they need is a handful of cheap A3 prints, double-sided tape and an original idea.

“The photographers’ pictures don’t need to be very technically strong, but they need to say something unique and new,” BlowUp Bombay’s co-creator, Mahajan explains.

Blind boys tackle India’s photographic scene

BlowUp Bombay is the most recent attempt by Das (30) and Mahajan (24) to open up India’s exclusive photography scene. Mahajan, a freelance photojournalist, says there is a shortage of new and original talent coming out of India.

“There are not so many immerging photographers because there is no mentoring, there are no schools and there is no interaction between photographers,” Mahajan observes. “Most exhibition spaces are very small and you need to be established or have a lot of money to exhibit.”

In July 2009, Mahajan and Das tackled the problem by creating – an online community that encourages immerging photographers to share and discuss their work.

“India has a great cinematic culture and is usually rich in the visual narrative but there hasn’t been a lot of photographers that have been able to create that visual language,” says Das.

The website promotes storytelling by showcasing unique photo essays. Since its establishment, more than 40 artists have joined, exploring subjects ranging from the ongoing conflict in Kashmir to a young couple’s intimate relationship.

Bringing art out in the open

By August 2009, however, Mahajan and Das were eager to take Blindboys out of the virtual world and into India’s public spaces. Their first BlowUp event was staged in India’s I.T hub, Bangalore. This was followed by the collaborative event ‘Wideyed’ in Newcastle, England, as well as an unplanned, guerilla art show on the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris.

Events are promoted through social networking sites, such as Facebook, so photographers only pay for printing costs – making it accessible for young artists. BlowUp’s street tradition also allows people access to art who wouldn’t otherwise go to a gallery.

When BlowUp visited India’s capital Delhi in November last year, Das estimates more than 50,000 people saw the exhibition. Garbage collectors, beggars and street children where among the spectators.

“When it’s out in the street it’s very different – surprising things start to happen. Works get stolen and people say hilarious things,” Das recalls.

“You hear people judge a work not by the way it looks technically but by saying, ‘That guy in the photograph is hot’.”

Guerilla art

BlowUp’s guerilla style is crucial to its success.

Das and Mahajan do not apply for official permission before staging an exhibit, rather they ask residents and shop owners for access to their walls. Although this can lead to confusion with local police, the pair says it prevents creative interference, avoids India’s notorious red tape and nurtures strong community involvement.

“In Delhi a paanwala [bettle nut vendor] adopted whatever exhibition was based on his wall,” Mahajan recalls. “If pictures fell off, he would stick them back up. He would talk to people about the pictures as if he was a tour guide.”

Blowing away expectations in Bombay

At 3pm on the day of BlowUp Bombay, volunteers and photographers trickle into the winding alleys of the suburb Bandra, just north of the city. Photographs are pinned up in an abandoned building and surrounding walls.

It’s not long before the unusual activity lures onlookers. Local children point at photographs of camels roaming through the Mongolian desert, while nearby, one photographer’s nostalgic take on the trusty Indian bicycle is attracting a crowd.

More than 1,000 prints from various photographers tell an array of stories – from the bittersweet experience of moving house to farmer suicides in rural India.

In the midst of the activity, 26-year-old Baya Agarwal carefully pins up her photo essay ‘Small Town Diary’ on bamboo screens. Agarwal has captured the life of a rural town in Orissa, snapping scenes from the local fish market to an old woman applying makeup.

“I lived in a small town and I wanted to show what life is like, how people here live like they are in the 17th Century,” Agarwal explains.

‘Small Town Diary’ is a labour of love, taking Argarwal three months to complete. Due to the high costs of gallery shows, however, Argarwal has not exhibited her work. She says BlowUp Bombay provided the perfect opportunity.

Taking art home and looking to the future

As the sun goes down across Bombay and the exhibition comes to a close, hundreds of spectators begin to scramble for prints, ripping their favourite works off the walls. For the artists whose prints are taken it’s an affirmation that their work has struck a chord.

For Mahajan and Das, the ultimate endorsement of Blindboy’s photographic street experiment will happen when people start staging their own BlowUp events.

“People ask, ‘When are you coming to Pune? When are you coming to Kolkata?’” Das comments. “It would be nice if we could let it go viral and people just took the initiative and organised something like this themselves.”

“It’s not so difficult to do.”

Published in Spana! Magazine – an online art publication for Riksutställningar Swedish Travelling Exhibitions – on July 5, 2010


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