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Bonjour, Chandigarh: Franco-Indian street art in Sector 17 ‘embraces’ Corbusier, with a twist

French connection: Artists collaborate as part of a Franco-Indian govt project to ‘tell cities their own stories’ through art that is ‘for the people’

punjab Updated: Feb 25, 2018 13:10 IST
Aarish Chhabra
Aarish Chhabra
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Chandigarh,Sector 17,street art
In a photo clicked using a drone, 'bonjour' (or 'good day' in French) as artwork and 'Chandigarh' written in Hindi by a human chain as part of a project of street art at the Sector-17 bus terminus in Chandigarh on Friday. (Photo courtesy Pranav Gohil/Street+art India Foundation)

Commuters at the Sector-17 bus stand wondered what was under their feet, and asked the young volunteers if the paint was dry. “Bonjour!” replied one of the artists at work, giggling. The commuters walked on, amused. Bonjour is the word written in a giant street artwork on a raised platform at the Sector-17 bus stand and attracting eyeballs for a week now. “It is French for ‘namaste’ (or ‘greetings’),” helped Sowat.

Sowat, a self-taught artist, along with fellow Frenchman Fred Visualek and Indian artist Hanif Kureshi created this mural as part of Bonjour India, a partnership between India and France, further strengthening the French connection of the city built by Swiss-born French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier.

They were also to write Chandigarh in Gurmukhi (Punjabi) first, but the UT administration kept the file in abeyance. “We were told they wanted to decide on which script to use for writing the city’s name here – Devanagari (Hindi) and Latin (English) were options too,” said Hanif. “But we worked a way around.”

Tracing with human chain

Since the two Frenchmen had to leave, they traced the word in Devanagari and made a human chain on it to complete the mural on Friday evening. “We would have changed the script, written it in Latin (English), but the communication never came,” smiled Hanif. UT tourism director Jitender Yadav did not respond to HT’s calls and messages on Saturday.

“Yet, on the bright side, it was amazing to have people participate in the human chain. Something like this won’t be easy in, say, Paris,” said Sowat. “It truly turned the art towards the people – our true aim!”

The mural — combined with the temporary installation of red and yellow plastic bands joining pillars in the corridor — is part of the four-month project that covered 33 cities across 20 states and union territories. The aim is to “tell each city its own story,” said Bertrand de Hartingh, the project’s general curator and counsellor for cultural affairs at the French Embassy.

Artwork at ISBT, Sector 17, Chandigarh on Friday. ( Ravi Kumar/HT )
Artwork at ISBT, Sector 17, Chandigarh on Friday. ( Ravi Kumar/HT )

Hanif Kureshi, Sowat and Lek at the site. ( HT Photo )

What’s the work?

“The mural has three parts – typography in a font created by Hanif, abstract freehand scribbles by Sowat, and defined strokes by Lek,” explained local artist Gagandeep Singh Sandhu, who along with students of his alma mater Government College of Art and Chandigarh College of Architecture worked with the trio who previously collaborated in Delhi in 2016.

“We decided on writing words since the bus stand is an interactive space. We wrote ‘bonjour’ owing to the French heritage connection of the city, thanks to Le Corbusier. In fact, Chandigarh is one place that almost everyone there knows about. It’s somewhat of a legendary story,” said Sowat, “We chose Gurmukhi to write ‘Chandigarh’ in discussion with Hanif over a video call last month as it is a beautiful local script.”

About the design, he added, “Since Chandigarh is about grids and patterns, we utilised the concrete slabs on the ground as part of the work, putting each letter into a grid. “After all, the idea of graffiti or street art,” he said, “is to also use or respect what already exists while of course painting your own thought on it.”

“The abstract strokes and pattern around the letters also lift the typography. The style of the strokes is our way of engaging with Chandigarh’s architecture,” he further explained, citing Jackson Pollock, an abstract modern art legend, among inspirations for him and Lek, who are known as Da Mental Vaporz. Lek, a trained architect, is counted among the first generation of Parisian graffiti artists.

About the plastic band installation in the corridor, when asked if it’s to disrupt the pattern, he said, “Disrupt is a strong word! That’s our embrace to Le Corbusier, adding our art to what he made. Even the colours we have used are in keeping with his preference of primary colours.”

An installation at the ISBT in Sector 17, Chandigarh, on Friday. ( Ravi Kumar/HT )
Installation signifying ‘embrace to Le Corbusier’ at the Sector-17 ISBT. ( Photo courtesy Pranav Gohil/St+art India Foundation )

Corbusier and democracy

Speaking for Lek, who did not speak English, Sowat said about Corbusier and Chandigarh, “This city needs to also evolve beyond what’s been built; interact with other expressions of art. Our work should be seen like that.” He added, “I feel the spaces Le Corbusier created – the vast expanses, the stark facades, the long benches – were for people to take over. But, somehow, they ended up becoming and feeling quite the opposite.”

Hanif, one of the five founders of St+art India Foundation, chimed in, “So, our aim here was to turn our art towards the people, make it democratic and accessible by embedding it in the city.”

“But it’s actually interesting how Latin script and a French word were permitted, but the decision on a local language was kept pending for too long,” Sowat remarked on the complex language politics of Chandigarh, “We are happy, though, leaving our work here for the people.”

Lek at work at the site. ( Photo courtesy Gagandeep Singh )

First Published: Feb 24, 2018 19:24 IST