October 15

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Painting the Walls in Mumbai



“My friends drool over guys. They drool over cars,” said Dhanya Pilo as we walked along Chapel Road in her neighborhood. “I drool over walls.”

Meeting Dhanya and writing about her Walls Project are the primary reasons I am in Mumbai. It is an interesting story. Last year, Dhanya had just finished an internship working with a well-known fashion photographer. The work was exhausting and Dhanya was looking for “something physical” to do. Something that might, as she says “relieve her mind and eyes” and recharge her creativity. She asked her landlord if she could paint one of the walls in the compound. He agreed and Dhanya, along with some of her friends spent the day turning the bland concrete slab into a colorful mural.

This inspired an idea. Dhanya knew that there were no shortage of walls in her neighborhood that could benefit by a few licks of colour. She scouted out potential locations, sought permission from property owners, and engaged the help of the neighborhood’s artistic young people. The streetscape in Dhanya’s small corner of Bandra was was brightened by sudden splashes of colour and design, and Dhanya had found a project that had a long term vision.

Dhanya told me about the moment she knew that her idea became a Project. She had found an abandoned house in a field near where some young boys practiced volleyball. The house used to belong to a famous Indian film star, but was now crumbling. Dhanya asked the neighbors if they thought it would be okay if her friends painted the old walls. The moment they consented Dhanya summoned her friends with her mobile phone. ‘Bring paints,’ she texted them, ‘and bring your cars.’ It was night, and the artists needed to shine the headlights on the walls in order to paint.

Once the cars started arriving and the painting began, residents from all the nearby buildings came out to see what was going on. Someone called the police, but when the officers saw Dhanya and her friends weren’t vandals , they let the artists be. Now Dhanya is a neighborhood celebrity. Residents in the neighborhood call out to her to compliment her on the work, and offer up their own walls to be painted. A group of graffiti artists from France showed up in Bandra and helped paint a couple of murals. Now Dhanya cannot look at a building without thinking of it as a potential canvas.

After receiving some press for the Walls Project, Dhanya got a message from an NGO working in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s largest red-light district. The organization wanted to Dhanya to ‘import’ her project into their neighborhood and involve the sex-workers in bringing some sense of whimsy to the brothel walls.
This is what I am most interested in: the painting of Kamathipura’s walls. I want to write about what the murals might mean in such a neighborhood. And what the walls themselves represent to the people who live there. For those women working in the brothels, does it matter that the walls around them are painted with flowers? If so, why? What can art accomplish there?

Unfortunately, I may not get a chance to find out. I had hoped that the Kamathipura project would have begun around the same time I arrived in Mumbai. (It was a bit of a gamble, I know). But project has still not started and will not begin for at least another week. I’m afraid I will be gone before then. My time in India and Pakistan is short, and the Indo-Bangladeshi Barrier beckons. I also need to get into Pakistan before December or my visa will expire. Writing about the walls in Kamathipura might have to wait for another time.

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