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In India, wanting to become an artist is a strange career choice so, once you’ve committed to it, expect weird things to happen.
You would be surprised to know that hardly any art school graduates go on to become professional artists in India. I have been an artist in India for over two decades and have completed more than 800 murals worldwide.
Looking back, I see myself today as the artist I always wanted to be. My early experiences as an artist taught me, and something which I tell all the junior artists who have just started their career, that never think that if you’re fortunate enough that you would be taken up by a commercial gallery, don’t get too excited. People think it’s the artists who have an “artistic temperament”, but it’s actually the gallery-owners.
In India we artists don’t look for inspiration, inspiration comes looking for us, the large number of different cultures, knitted together in such a close and perfect manner, make India’s diversity one of the wonders of the world. I find it the perfect place for an artist to work and live. As an artist, I think the most important role we play is to empower through participatory creative practice.
For the last 12 years, I have been working with children and women living in the slums of India and mainly Mumbai. Socially engaged art aligns itself to a social betterment like community arts, but is also concerned with the systems that sustain community oppression. I teach art to underprivileged children living in slums and villages, some of them didn’t know what a crayon was.
As I visited some of my students living in a slum situated in a Mumbai suburb, I realised that something more had to be done. The homes were around eight-feet by ten-feet and had over six members of a family living there. I understood that the main problem for people living here was food, shelter and clothing.
The next day I called my students and told them to meet me outside their homes at 7:30 in the morning. People looked at me as if I was mentally disturbed to be coming to someone’s house at 07:30 am with six buckets of paint, brush and roller. I started painting the house, ceiling with the help of my students who lived there. We finished painting the house before afternoon and incorporated a small wall mural as well.
Seeing this, the neighbours asked for my help and I did the same for them as well, and before you know it the complete slum was painted. It started with that first house which I wanted to set an example with thus the name of my initiative “MISAAL MUMBAI” – Example Mumbai (meaning, lead by example). Till date, I have painted over 15,000 homes and more than 32 slums.
I realised that it’s not just paint that’s going to solve the problems, so we started a cleanliness drive; waterproofing their homes, workshops on sanitation and hygiene along with art camps for children living there.
Today we have free medical camps in the slums we work in along with vocational training centres for women. I operate within an institutional setting whose policy is holistic, and has strategies about how and what needs to be done to achieve social work goals through creativity – it may be different from other social workers and there may be a plethora of perspectives of how to achieve goals, but till now Misaal Mumbai seems to be working well.
It is only via this creative mode that true and ethical social betterment is possible.
I have sold out shows and have exhibited at most reputed galleries worldwide. I have been invited by the President of India at the Rashtrapati Bhavan gallery to exhibit my works. My work is collected by government, museums and created several public art projects. But my endeavour is not to be a great artist, if an artist can put a little of themselves into their art, then just maybe, they truly are a great artist.
For me, I found that what gave me satisfaction most was when children looked forward to my company and being with me. Over the last 12 years, I have been working with underprivileged children teaching them art and helping them adjust to society and realising their dreams.
As an artist, I keep working on my individual collection for my upcoming shows in 2018 and 2019, along with commission work for public spaces, corporate houses and collectors.
Art means a lot to me, but it’s no longer everything. Today it’s all about the people I work for, empowering women living in the slums giving them ambition and strength; courage and resilience. It’s all about “paying it forward.”