The writing is on the wall Street art for social Change in Mumbai

By Tom Higgins

“Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don't come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they're having a piss.” Banksy, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall

Street art is commonly seen as vandalism in most countries, and India is no exception. Though some see it as a form of vandalism, others view street art as the voice of the public.

Project MAD is but one example of a group trying to change the face of Mumbai. The student-run project is an initiative that aims to improve the appearance of public spaces in Mumbia.

19-year-old Raashi Raghunath is the founder of Project MAD, and said the project is a creative way to generate social change and restore beauty to the streets of Mumbai.

“After finishing high school I wanted to do something, and I had always wanted to be a social worker” Ms Raghunath said.

“It’s very easy to say you want to be a social worker -- but there is a difference between knowing what is involved, and actually being able do something meaningful and impactful within your capabilities” she said.

From left to right: Raashi Raghunath, Tamim Sangrar, Aditi Monde and Shlomoh Samuel. Source: Project MAD

Ms Raghunath said the idea of the project started when she noticed many talented artists at her college had been reduced to painting on t-shirts, shoes, and canvases.

“There was no permanency [for these artists], there was no real respect for their talents,” she said.

“I thought they deserved much more, and were capable of much more,”

The streets of Mumbai have a reputation for being extremely dirty, with garbage, filth and grime covering a lot of walls.

“The dirtiness of the streets can be suffocating, and it is something I feel very strongly about,” Ms Raghunath said.

“Though I am not an artist myself, I wanted to do something about it,”

“I just put two and two together. I saw a supply-and-demand scenario, and I mobilized [the artists] to do something.”

Ms Raghunath’s passion for social work was a driving force in the early days of MAD. After working out the logistics for their first mural painting; she acquired the money, the paint, and permission from the local government to paint a public space.

“Our first project in 2014 drew in over 60 people, and it was beautiful,” she said.

“Everyone that came had so much fun, and it was so magical and productive that we didn’t want it to stop, and we have been painting ever since.”

Since 2014 Project MAD have painted 12 walls in Mumbai, and have attracted social activists and artists alike. MAD’s original purpose was to increase the aesthetics of the streets of Mumbai; it has since evolved to promote messages on social change.

“When you have a tool as powerful as public murals, you can’t keep quiet on social issues. You can’t just let it be about aesthetics, you’ve got to use the tool to its maximum potential” Ms Raghunath said.

“We were very careful in picking our social causes – we didn’t want to just have token causes like ‘save the trees’ or ‘save water’ because that drives no agency to someone who views the murals,” she said.

“We wanted our causes to have some relevance to passersby,”

“We have had an ongoing project called ‘HIV/AIDS through art’, and we worked with the Mumbai Districts AIDS Control Society, where we have this 200-foot-long wall to paint. The only condition was we had to paint messages that were related to AIDS,”

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“At first I thought ‘oh my God, this is going to be impossible and lame’, but we did a lot of research, educated the teams. We told them to go and do some more research, find a myth that they want busted, and express it through art, and the artists really enjoyed that.

Ms Raghunath said the material readily available about HIV and AIDS insinuates it only happens to the poor, and the imagery used doesn’t compliment the message.

“By using multiple different styles like expressionism, or minimalism, even comic strips to talk about AIDS and HIV and how it could happen to anyone, and it can happen from anything, like getting a tattoo for example.”

MAD are not the only ones to use street art for social change. 22-year-old Jheel Goradia is a multimedia and graphic designer from Mumbai, and the mastermind behind the ‘Break the Silence’ campaign.

Break the Silence was a campaign that launched in 2015 that aimed at addressing the treatment of women. Unlike Project MAD, Ms Goradia’s focus was purely on changing attitudes rather than increasing the aesthetics of Mumbai.

A report from the Thomson Reuters Foundation published in 2011 suggested India is the worst country among the G20 nations in which to be a woman. Gender specialists claim India’s women are abused, discriminated against, and even killed on an incomparable scale to the other 19 nations.

Ms Goradia suggests there has been little improvement to these attitudes since the initial report.

“A lot was going on in India during the time when I decided to start this campaign, especially crime against women,” Ms Goradia said.

“Crimes like domestic violence; the very fact that women cannot raise their voice here in fear of the society,”

Ms Goradia saw an opportunity to use her creativity as a vehicle to deliver a message to the public.

“I was 4 when my mother gave me my first set of colors and I haven’t stopped since. I wanted to use my skills to create something that would express a woman’s angst” she said.

Using illustrated posters and paste, Ms Goradia would seek out public spaces to display her work, some of which still stand today. But getting permission to do so from governing bodies was not a priority.

“These are famous Bollywood posters that I illustrated for my project. Since Bollywood is worshipped here and is also taken well by my target audience, what’s better than your favorite celebrity influencing you positively?”

The posters, , have been plastered around the suburbs of Juhu, Andheri and Bandra in Mumbai. Though street art is seen as vandalism in Mumbai, there has been no complaints.

“Now, more and more people have been practicing street art and it has been appreciated by at least the new generation”

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