Juggling Delhi’s junk to conjure art from waste
The Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav Park at ITO will be Delhi’s third waste-to-art park -- a theme first implemented at the Waste to Wonder Park in 2019
Eyes covered with black protective goggles, hands stained with gypsum, 35-year-old artist Kahar Mrunal scavenges through the heap of scrap looking for parts of an automotive engine that has been rusting for years. Returning from the carefully gathered metal fragments at a scrapyard, which doubles as a workshop, he also picks up old pipes. Mrunal is recreating a Colt Model 1903 pocket pistol -- the gun that was used by Indian revolutionary Chandrashekhar Azad -- which will be a part of a life-sized metal sculpture of the freedom fighter.
Located behind the quaint, 5-acre Waste to Wonder Park at Rajiv Gandhi Smriti Van near Sarai Kale Khan, the municipal workshop is buzzing with activity. Heaps of nut and bolts, engines, used ceiling fans, truck chassis and moulds lie spread across tin sheds even as dozens of artists such as Mrunal mould them into sculptures of leaders of the Indian freedom struggle.
The Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav Park at ITO will be Delhi’s third waste-to-art park -- a theme first implemented at the Waste to Wonder Park in 2019, which features the Seven Wonders of the World. The second facility, Bharat Darshan Park, opened in 2021, and features replicas of 21 monuments from across India, all created using metal scraps.
At the municipal workshop, welder Afroz Khan says nothing goes to waste. Teams of artists and welders are making the waistcoat of the Sardar Patel sculpture using bicycle chains welded on top of each other, while hundreds of nuts welded together form the torso of the Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s statue, which is covered by a coat modelled from waste metallic sign boards.
Krunal Kahar (35), Murnal’s elder brother, explains that once a theme is finalised, drawings are made to fix the geometry of the sculpture. “For instance, if a replica of the Meenakshi temple (in Madurai) is being made, we try to find out the real dimensions of the structure. Architecture software is used to tone down the dimensions in the same ratio to arrive at a practically replicable size,” he adds.
The theme park at ITO will host both two-dimensional metallic murals featuring historical figures such as Chanakya, as well as giant three-dimensional statues, including a 25-ft high Bharat Mata statue.
Putting the artworks together
The right kind of scrap is sourced from two dozen municipal junkyards and stores located across the city, with artists and welders sifting through broken vehicles, signboards, rusting structures, etc. “One of the 12 artists is always searching for the right type of material, handling the shopping wish list of colleagues,” Kahar says.
A senior municipal official overseeing the theme park project says the core of a sculpture begins from putting together a basic skeleton. “The height and dimensions of limbs and torso are made out of street light poles and chassis of trucks and vehicles. These are very strong materials and can bear load,” the official says.
Yoginder Aggarwal, a sculptor from Delhi, says they first make a clay model and then prepare a mould by putting a layer of a Plaster of Paris over it. “The mould is then lined with small metal pieces to develop the shape such as limbs. To add finer facial features, the artists create a separate mould,” he explains.
Just a few metres down the tin shed hosting torsos of freedom fighters, under the canopy of a peepal tree that was planted by the North Korean forest minister in 1993, according to a board installed near the tree, a group of artists is busy collecting engine parts.
Krunal says that besides streetlight poles, discarded end-of-life vehicles are the most-sought-after items. “Every single part of the engine is used. The vehicle’s body is molten and used for making faces of the character,” he adds, pointing to several clay, fibre and metallic faces lined up near the forgery.
“A mixture of fermented jaggery is put on a layer on top of heated sand and the paste is then used to press the fibre mould to create a facial impression. Then molten metal is poured over it with the overall process taking several days to finish,” he says. Only four artists among the group specialise in making a face. Artists get freedom to choose the type of material they wish to use to develop the structure, he says.
While the clay statues and finer work is undertaken by artists, the 120 welders play a crucial role in giving a form and shape to their plans. Most of these welder-cum-mechanics come from UP, Bihar and Baroda, and have learned the craft on the job. Bhura Giri 22, a welder from UP’s Sambhal, deployed to cannibalise the frames of garden benches, says that he has been working as a welder for the last four years.
“I made a bow-and-arrow for tribal fighters using old iron angles and rods. This seems an entirely new line of work. Hopefully, we will get more such projects after acquiring the skill,” Giri says. At the back-end of the workshop, right beside a 25-ft high Bharat Mata statue, lies the unloading point of scrap material, mangled vehicles, old carts, bicycles, swings, wheels and even scrapped excavators. What seems junk to a lay person, these sculptors see a purpose and shape in every item.
Engine parts go for ornamentation, development of Azad’s pistol, and a waistband for a Shivaji sculpture; flat metallic surfaces and sign-boards are good for developing clothes and outer surface; old LPG cylinders are used to make pillows in for the throne of Shivaji; and chains are used for decorative purposes and even for bows and arrows.
The figures are developed at the Sarai Kale Khan workshop and transported to Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, where the park is coming up. The park, which is in the final stage of development, will feature 11 galleries and 120 installations recreated all using scrap material, civic officials say.
Unlike the previous two projects, the artists have tried to diversify in terms of the material that is used to create sculptures for the facility at ITO. “We have used glass to develop the outer surface of Gandhiji’s statue and metallic bottle caps for decoration, something that was not used in the parks at Sarai Kale Khan and Punjabi Bagh,” says Roshan Pandit, 29, an artist.
When not engaged in massive theme parks, the artists’ work towards their own personal projects. Shivam Upadhyay, 27, a graduate from Jamia in sculpture making, is busy developing the two-dimensional murals. “Apart from the well-known figures, the park will feature several others who are not as popular. It will be an educational experience,” he adds.
“Apart from the theme park project, the workshop is also building art-installations to be used in public spaces ranging from a unicorn which will be installed to feature India as an emerging superpower to Indian classical dance forms and mudras to showcase Indian culture,” a Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) official says.
The two operational waste-to-art parks in the city utilised around 500 tonnes of scrap to develop art installations. The one at ITO will consume another 200 tonne metal scrap. To be sure, these parks offer an educational opportunity to raise awareness about recycling but they reflect only a small fraction of more than 11,000 tonnes of waste generated daily in the capital.
Atin Biswas, a waste management expert and programme director of municipal solid waste sector in Centre for Science and Environment, argues that more emphasis should be given on alternatives rather than making amusement parks. “Instead of building such amusement parks, we should focus on setting up facilities where alternatives can be featured and popularised such as jute bags. Delhi generates 11,400 metric tonnes of waste daily. If we have a plastic bottle, we can reuse it in 100 different ways but will it solve the overall problem of waste management? Such amusement parks can be tried but I remain sceptical about their utility as a vehicle for raising awareness,” Biswas said.
The first two parks have been very popular with high footfalls leading to recovery of the cost. The Waste to Wonder park at Sarai Kale Khan has had 2.4 million visitors till March 2023, with a ticket sales revenue of ₹13 crore. The Bharat Darshan Park at Punjabi Bagh has hosted 0.62 million visitors earning ₹7 crore in ticket sales.
Dr Victor R Shinde, the lead technical expert (water and environment) at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, said the high footfall at these waste-to-art theme parks are testimony to the fact that there is clear demand for open air public spaces with blue-green infrastructure. “People want more such open green spaces with recreational value. The authorities should be working towards meeting this demand but it must be underlined that the ‘green part’ is not ignored in these development projects. Integrating the right proportion of green space while developing the galleries around the parks should remain in focus.”