Lodhi Colony, a middle-class neighborhood in central Delhi, has long been emblematic only for its own ordinariness. I remember it as leafy and littered, with betel juice stains -- the effluence of paan-chewing passersby -- splashed across the whitewashed walls of its housing blocks. As a child I would visit the local market, crammed with tailor shops humming with sewing machines. My mother would be busy getting measured for a saree blouse, while I sat on the curb outside looking up at crows flying high in the hot white skies.
The "colony," as neighborhoods are known in Delhi, primarily accommodated mid-level bureaucrats from the Central Public Works Department. It formed the rump of Lutyens' Delhi, the city district dominated by the British colonial architectural style made famous by Sir Edwin Lutyens between the 1920s and 1940s, which created a space neither grand nor congested. The area has now become the unlikely setting for the hippest and arguably the most revolutionary public space in the Indian capital. It could also serve as a model for urban regeneration efforts across Asia.
This metamorphosis began in 2015 when a newly formed street art collective, St+art, discovered the locality. "We were initially just attracted by the walls: They were large, without major obstructions like billboards. Walls are canvases for us," Giulia Ambrogi, an Italian art historian and St+art curator, told me as we walked down the neighborhood's streets one recent afternoon.
Ambrogi founded St+art in 2014 along with four Indians from various backgrounds ranging from photography to graphic design. What they had in common was a passion for dragging art out of the stuffy, elitist confines of galleries and museums and onto the streets. "We wanted art, and beauty, to be available for all without regard to social distinctions. A public space rather than a gated community."
Ambrogi's description of St+art's goals resonated. In the decades since India's economic reforms were instituted in 1991, I have watched the cities aggressively develop privatized cocoons of extreme wealth that are cordoned off from the surrounding filth, cacophony and squalor by means of air conditioning, mood lighting and double-glazed glass.
"Development" in India meant that it's now possible to buy Gucci bags at tony malls. And yet, it was difficult to find spaces where one could walk in aural peace, unmolested by stray dogs and road-raging drivers. This made St+art's attempts at developing a public space that cut across the invisible but formidable lines of religion, class, gender and caste that divide Delhi, not just praiseworthy, but momentous.
In 2016, following a year of negotiations with the CPWD and other public institutions, including the Delhi Urban Art Commission, St+art was able to commission 22 murals to decorate the apartment blocks of Lodhi Colony. By 2019, 53 home fronts featured artwork by artists from 25 countries around the world.
Luminescent backdrops of mango yellow and lime green replaced betel nut stains and peeling political posters. A herd of elephants appeared trumpeting across the face of one set of apartments, the trees on the pavement before the mural, adding a three-dimensional twist. Painted shawls hung off the flat roof of another home. A group of crows seemingly fly into the arch of a third residence. Socially relevant themes like gender empowerment and environmental protection were interwoven into the works.
The shelf-life of the murals is expected to be about seven or eight years. Pollution, monsoon downpours and electioneers eager to paste up campaign posters are the main threats to the artworks. But, unusually for India, there has been no casual vandalism. "You don't find anyone urinating or spitting on the walls now, because people see them as something beautiful that belongs to them as much as anyone else," explained Ambrogi.
As we walk through the neighborhood, a micro-story unfolds before every painting. A trio of teenagers videos each other performing hip hop routines in front of an artwork by Singaporean artist, Yip Yew Chong. Yip's work is an interpretation of daily life around the neighborhood; a collage featuring a sweet-stall vendor, balloon seller, kettle of masala chai and a cow. A few blocks away, a mustachioed-father posed for a photograph with his son against the backdrop of a mural by Japanese artist Yoh Nagaoa showing a giant hand holding up a blue rose.
Lodhi Colony has become a wonderland not only because of the magical murals that have erupted across its surfaces, but also because of slum children and Louboutin-shod society ladies rubbing shoulders as they ogle the art. For me, just getting wealthy fashionistas to walk on the streets of Delhi is enough to qualify it as a wonderland.
Pallavi Aiyar is a Tokyo-based author.