How Delhi's streets are being transformed one spray can at a time

Story highlights

  • St+Art India is a non-profit organization on a mission to democratize art in India
  • Street art only emerged as an art form in India in the past few years
  • Endorsed by the government, the festival collaborates with artists from around the world

(CNN)The honking cars form a constant stream of background noise, blaring continuously to the beat of the jostling crowds. The air is thick with the smell of street food snacks, each vendor having its own magnetic pull.

But look above all of the hustle on this narrow street at Delhi's Hauz Khas Village (HKV) and you're greeted with a painted triptych of sorts -- three large-scale black and white portraits of an old Indian woman, her wise eyes staring directly at you.
This is just one of the many pieces of street art that are now dotted around Delhi's Lodhi District, turning dilapidated, neglected space into lively backdrops to the city's fast-paced lifestyle. The streets between Khanna Market and Mehar Chand Market are transforming into India's first public art district.

    Art for the public

    All of this is the brainchild of St+art India, a non-profit organization on a mission to democratize art in a nation currently starved of it.
    A piece by artists Colectivo Licudo and AlfAlfa transformed a garbage collection center
    "Over the years, [art in India] has become all about investment, about commodity trade. There are museums but they are not very active in terms of programming. There are galleries but the invitation is not open to all. It's only accessible to a certain kind of person, a certain kind of economic status," says Arjun Bahl, co-founder and festival director. "We want to get art for the masses."
    Since its launch in 2014, the St+art festival has invited a variety of both local and international artists to help the medium bleed out onto the winding streets of Delhi and Mumbai.
    This year the group has also collaborated with India's largest shipping container company -- Concor -- to paint over 100 shipping containers. They currently stand as a free exhibition at the Inland Container Depot but will eventually turn into traveling art.
    "It's going to solve one of our aims -- to try and take art to everyone. What's better than having art on a container that's going all over India?"

    An ethical street art organization

    Beyond the art, the organization is bursting with bigger ambitions.
    This year, the festival is collaborating with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's national 'Swachh Bharat' (Clean India) campaign. The policy was one of the first initiatives the Prime Minister pushed through when he was elected into office, rallying the nation to pick up after themselves and maintain hygiene standards.
    So far, the campaign has pulled in support from big Bollywood celebrities and now, in a modern twist, is also leaning on the arts and design community.
    "They see that street art can be used for beautifying and encouraging people to keep their surroundings clean," says Bahl. "It has led to a sense of ownership and that leads to a sense of preservation of the work."
    Additionally, St+art India is working with local, indigenous artists to keep traditional art forms alive. For example, a project titled HandPaintedType, run by St+art India's creative director and co-founder Hanif Kureshi, is working with sign and billboard painters who are losing their jobs to digital printing.
    The project helps the painters to digitize their font types which can then be downloaded and used around the world. "Today a painter from Uttar Pradesh -- Kafeel -- his fonts are being used globally, from Heineken to Starbucks. So we gave him an alternate revenue stream," Bahl told CNN.
    For most of the world, all of this Good Samaritan work seems to run contrary to what is usually perceived as street art. Fortunately, in India, street art is too young to be pigeonholed in any way, having only emerged in the last five to eight years, allowing the group to create their own definition of the art form.

    Go big or go home

    St+art India's first edition of the festival created quite a splash, quickly catapulting the group onto the national and global radar.
    They invited German artist Hendrik Beikirch to paint the tallest mural of Mahatma Gandhi in India on the wall of the Delhi Police Headquarters, which sits smack bang in central Delhi.
    "Once you work with the police at that scale, and that project becomes a landmark, it's a gateway to many things," says Bahl.
    One such opportunity has been massive support from Asian Paints, one of India's largest paint manufacturers, in the form of free paint, funding and technical resources.

    "My mother loves it"

    To Bahl, it's the response from the people and their interaction with the works that is the driving force for the group.
    He recalls the story of a nine-year-old child who got in touch to find out more about the movement for his school project.
    "That was really important because you can see that people are reacting to it, people are enjoying it."
    "Everyone loves it -- my grandmother loves it, my mother loves it, my aunt loves it, my little son loves it. It's great visual treatment. People want it," says Bahl.