A couple of months back, I’d written a feature story on the street artists of Mumbai as a part of a college project. It is a little long but I thought it would be interesting to share it with you guys. Here it is :
“Could you please come back in 2 minutes? I’m almost done setting my paintings up for display,” requested Mr. Saudagar Adul Gani, one of the 12 street artists that have made the broad foot path adjoining the iconic Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, India, their workstation. I quickly apologized for getting in his way and asked him to take his time while I decided to stroll down the lane. As I walked down further, I saw some more artists arranging their artworks against the wired fence that marks the Gallery’s boundary while the others already had their work spread out and were busy filling blank sheets of paper with their vivid imaginations.
Taking a closer look at the pieces of art, I couldn’t help but imagine what the value of some of these would be had they been placed in a swanky art gallery in a upmarket corner of the city where fancy art connoisseurs would’ve stared at them for hours and ridiculously rich art collectors would’ve pulled out their swords to bid the highest of amounts to add that extra elegance to their living rooms. “I don’t do it for the money that is there in this field, which isn’t a lot unless you’re in that space where you make lakhs out of just one painting. I do it for the satisfaction that comes from within, a sense of tranquillity that no other field has been able to offer me.” said Dhammapal Chandra Kirdak.
He has been at this very spot for the past 12 years and has quit well-paying jobs just to pursue his passion . Looking at some of his sketches, I was shocked to learn that he’d never received any professional training but learnt all of it by aping his elder brother who is also an artist and mainly by understanding what the market’s demands are. “ I used to be into landscape paintings but after coming into the business I realised everyone’s doing the same thing – landscapes. I had to stand out somehow and for that I developed my own style of sketching using pens.”
Uncertainty and nagging instability
Art, unlike other fields where you can climb the ladder by ticking the right boxes and taking measured steps, is as uncertain as it gets. Some taste success as soon as they get into the business, some lack recognition after years of toiling away. Call it sheer luck, fate, circumstances or just plain availability of resources. Either way, these street artists, like just about every other artist in a creative field, have accepted uncertainty as a part of their trade. 73 year old Saudagar Abdul Gani Mohammed Ismail has been in the business for over three decades now. He has been an art teacher for about 40 years and has taught close to 2 lakh kids, or so he vaguely recalls.
Having done his post graduation from the prestigious JJ School of Art, Gani has held about 60 shows around the world till date out of which 6 have been in Jehangir Art Gallery itself. He has made about 12,000 odd paintings in his lifetime and has had people of different nationalities buy his paintings. But I could sense a hint dejection even in such a seasoned artist’s voice when he was asked about how stable and secure this field has been.
“I have worked with a lot of people in the fashion industry and have given a lot of mine time there, but there have been people who have blatantly taken away all the credit and have been successful in minting money while I would be left there fending for myself with just Rs. 100 or 200 an hour. I’ve felt cheated a number of times. Had I not taken up teaching, I wouldn’t have had the means to survive at all and pursue my passion as a painter. In today’s day and age, it is very difficult to sell a painting. Even when you put up shows today, you need atleast 2-3 lakhs to just rent the space in a gallery. Plus there is uncertainty over the returns.” he said in a small voice.
He goes on to narrate an incident that led to him choosing this one spot along the pavement next to Jehangir Art Gallery. “The last show that I did, back in 2008, was right here in Jehangir Art Gallery. The share market had just collapsed and to add to that, there were terrorist attacks at Taj and CST later that shook the city. I had my show around the same time. The reception was dismal. The only ones that did come were a couple of foreigners who bought around 6 watercolours worth a thousand each. That show tanked terribly and since then I’ve been sitting outside”
“I would get through days on just Vada Pav.”
As someone has rightly said – If you give up at the first sign of struggle, you aren’t ready to be successful yet. For some, the struggle phase is shortlived but for the others the phase could stretch for a good part of their lives. Who you are as a person shines through the way you deal with the obstacles that life throws your way. Either way, the one that is eminent is – struggle.
“When I first started off, I’d make about 10 rupees per day. That would be my only income throughout the day. I would get through days just on Vada pav or ussal pav. Then as months and years went by, the income went on increasing, not substantially, but compared to the peanuts I had been making, it was pretty good. I worked in the film industry as well for a couple of years. I’ve worked on the sets of Khuda Gavah, Mehdi and some more films as assistant art director , looking after the set designing and similar things.” said Ganraj Dashrath Chaudhary.
Chaudhary, 40, hails from the city of Nanded which is a part of the Marathwada region in the state of Maharashtra, India. He goes on to explain how it has never been easy for him. “My family still lives in Nanded and they were strictly against my decision of becoming a painter or even an artist of any sort. I had to abandon my studies, run away from home to come to Mumbai to see my dreams turn into reality. But now that it has been about 20 years that I’ve been pursuing this career in Mumbai, 12 since I started doing it outside Jehangir, they’ve come to accept the fact that this is who I am. Art has not just become a part of my lifestyle but a part of me.”, he adds with a wide grin.
KALA GHODA – The Focal Point Of Art
The place that a person chooses to set up shop becomes one of the factors that can make or break his career. So why this spot? “The area around Kalaghoda has art in its air. Kala Ghoda has become the epicenter of art in Mumbai and whenever people think of art, Kala ghoda is the place that flashes in front for their eyes. Then there’s the Gallery, you have museums around and this spot is a major tourist attraction.” said Dhammapal Kirdak.
“I doubt if a group a artists decide to go elsewhere in the city and do the same thing, they would receive the same degree of respect as we do here because of this lane’s proximity to the gallery and the museum. The ones that visit this region have an eye for art and appreciate it. Had it been the Gateway of India or any other popular spot, people would, more often than not, have counted us among the hawkers and not acknowledged us as artists.” he added.
“There is no competition in art, but there is definitely a streak of competition in business.”
No field is devoid of competition and having about 10 other people in such close proximity, doing the same thing would definitely not be a situation you would want to find yourself in. “There can never be competition in terms of what an artist does as compared to someone else. As we have some 10 -12 artists here, even if you get about a 100 of them and let them display their work, people will come and buy whatever they like and find appealing. There is no competition in art but there is definitely a streak of competition in business.” said Dhammapal.
He continues to say that in the name of art, some people around here have been trying to turn it into a thriving business. It has become more of a business now. Some artists sell anything under the tag of art just to stay ahead of the pack in terms of the money they’re making. “Then there are some who do it because of the inner satisfaction that they receive and have very little to do with the market and its games. What matters to people like me is how many people smile as they pass by looking at my creations.” he added.
Even though most of them look like they’ve seen better days in life, the glimmer in their eyes when they spoke about what they do was more than enough to establish that they’re in a happy space. Most of them said even though they don’t make much, they make enough to keep their house running and they’re satisfied with that. The love for what they do shines through. Some of them, like Mr. Gani, have also pushed their kids towards becoming artists even after knowing what the field entails. It is heart-warming to see such passion across generations at one single place, a place where most wouldn’t expect it to be – a pavement .