Kannagi Nagar, off Old Mahabalipuram Road, is Chennai’s first art district. St+art, a not-for-profit that wants to democratise art by bringing art out of galleries and into public spaces, along with Asian Paints and the Greater Chennai Corporation, has made this public art project possible over the last couple of months. Residents of the area have all faced the trauma of resettlement – either after the tsunami, or the Chennai floods of 2015, or as part of eviction drives of settlements around Chennai’s rivers. Over the years, the area has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. In December 2017, The Newsminute ran an article about how those resettled in Kannagi Nagar were unable to find jobs, as they are stuck in a neighbourhood with a tainted reputation. Over the last few weeks, however, a different Kannagi Nagar has emerged from the shadows. Perhaps the change, at this point is only cosmetic, this is all window-dressing, you could argue, but the residents themselves seem to be welcoming this splash of colour and the buzz of outsiders coming in.
photojournalist Dani Charles walked the streets of Kannagi Nagar, made friends with artists and locals, was reminded of his ooru, and of course, took several frame-worthy photos. Join Dani as he takes a deep dive into life in the new art district.
S Simraj, who’s lived in Kannagi Nagar for five years, said, “They’ve made my streets beautiful. I want to thank these artists. People used to look at Kannagi Nagar with nothing but contempt. Now, there is no one in the city who does not know of Kannagi Nagar. Even people who haven’t been here, have heard of us. Where the streets were home to fights, now there’s football and carrom games. Vera level la aiduchu ippo. We have been quite shocked (in a good way) by these murals. When we first saw the alphabet on the wall, before the mural was done, we thought, ‘what is this, we could have drawn better ourselves’. But when we saw the final mural we were speechless.” Artists use symbols and letters to denote various sections of the mural, which when connected becomes the final artwork.
Chennai-based artist A-Kill’s mural ‘Sisters’, an adaptation of a photo of two sisters he took. According to St+art, “He made a conscious artistic choice to put the two smiling sisters on a huge scale so as to greet visitors (and inhabitants) of the area with their warmth”.
Team Aravani Art Project. Poornima Sukumar (Founder-Director), Sadhna Prasad (Art Director), Roshnee Kumar (Lead Artist), Ghana NB (Lead Artist) with the mural ‘Endrendum Penmai’. (More below)
(From left) Draupadi, Kavya (from Kovilambakkam), Rathi, Nila (from Chennai’s Perumbakkam), Lavanya (from Pudukottai), and Rakshika Raj (from Chengalpattu). Nila says, “I run PHARM – People Health Action And Research Management Foundation, and we work to help trans women find education and employment opportunities, and for their healthcare.” The Aravani Art Project is a women and trans women arts collective ‘which involves a collaborative public art/ wall art project to raise voice and awareness of the friendship between trans women and women in public spaces’. “The Aravani Art Project connected me with St+art India. We also work with different organisations…” Nila speaks eloquently and passionately about her work and these murals. The mural the team has worked on represents women and trans women together. It also reflects the mood of the women in Kannagi Nagar; come dusk they sit around in the open areas. Some of them string together flowers, some talk on the phone, they exchange stories… “We want women and trans women to come together. We want them to achieve great things,” she says.
In the evenings, women sit outside their homes or in street corners and chat about their day, or play games. It instantly reminded me of the Endrendum Penmai mural. When I saw this, I realised I don’t see this in my neighbourhood now. Most things, even the petty shops, reminded me of my native town, and my childhood.
Chennai artist Joyston Vaz’s mural, The Game, located aptly across a park. A tribute to maze games – going from Point A to B – imagined underwater. The painting is also a homage to fisherfolk. “The base of the mural is inspired by the colours of an oil spill, and follows a cyberpunk colour scheme which gives the piece a futuristic look,” according to St+art.
The kids’ pieces from workshops in essay writing, photography, painting etc conducted by volunteers were displayed on the day of the inauguration. Thrilled to find their names and handwriting up on the big board.
VIP Visitors. Minister SP Velumani, former MP J Jayavardhan and Chennai Police Commissioner AK Viswanathan among others at the inauguration of the murals. The Minister announced at the inauguration that an agreement had been entered into with St+art and that more government buildings will soon play host to art.
Games at twilight.
Meet R Ravichandar of Kannagi Nagar. At first, I thought he was from St+art India. Turns out he bought his own painting supplies inspired by the project and was painting his home.
Several international artists who were here to paint murals interacted with the children. They held workshops over weekends and taught the kids techniques; how to paint, how to trace. The Chennai Photo Biennale taught kids how to take good photos. These kids asked me, “Zoom lens laam vachi irupingala anna?” (Do you have zoom lens?) They then helped me set up my tripod. They knew what a focus point was! I was really happy to see how much they knew. When I was their age, I used to think people were inside TV sets, acting(!) We took photos of each other.
More photos from the Kannagi Nagar photoshoot