After a jam-packed month of arts-based social projects in slum communities in Delhi and Mumbai through the Shanti Arts for Action project, it was time for new adventures through a program organized by the Meridian International Center, based in Washington, DC. The program began in South Bombay’s Sitara Studio, where my wife, Karla-Jayne Thomas (aka CJ), and I joined forces with local artist Krishna Sharma to facilitate the creation of a 40-foot canvas mural designed and painted with a group of 25 local students, to be displayed at one of India’s most prominent art festivals, Kala Ghoda.
Together with our project partners from the US Consulate in Mumbai and local organizations Develop Matrix and Safe Cities, we met for the first time on a Saturday to plan the mural with the students. After some ice-breakers and introductions, we had a group discussion about gender-based issues. The participants had a lot to say and it was clear to me that these were topics that they had thought a great deal about and related to their daily experience in an intense way. They brought up issues of harassment, domestic violence, forced marriages, patriarchy in Indian society and shared personal stories of how gender inequality and sexism affected their lives. We then turned these ideas into images, with each student creating a sketch, which we then used to create a cohesive mural design. By the end of the day, we had a solid concept!
The left side of the mural is dedicated to the daily struggle for equality, and features a dark, intense color scheme. The female character’s hand is being tied down as she struggles to become free. Throughout her long hair and hand, the students wrote messages and images related to this theme. The right side focuses on a celebration of women and girls, and of the achievements that have been made toward gender equality. Participants created patterns that celebrate a diversity of females: school girls and grandmothers; professionals and house- keepers; party girls and creative types. The hand on this side has broken free and is covered with images of female accomplishment. Both sides feature male faces as well, as the students felt strongly that gender equality is an issue that affects everyone and that men had an important role to play in counteracting the forces of sexism and inequality.
From Monday through Thursday, groups of students joined us throughout the day to paint, adding their personal voices to the mural. I can’t express enough how impressed I was with their dedication, talent and energy that they poured into the project! We often had long discussions about all kinds of things, from serious to silly, and I learned a great deal from them. It was also a pleasure to collaborate with the bright young female artist Krishna, who added so much to the project. By the end of the week, Krishna, the students, CJ and I had become a tight-knit team. We didn’t want the project to end!
On Friday we completed some finishing touches and then the giant canvas was rolled up and moved to the festival grounds, where we unveiled it for the public on Saturday, the opening day of Kala Ghoda. It was a huge hit! Art fans crowded the mural to take in all the incredible details that the participants had painted throughout the piece. Everyone took photos and asked us questions. All the students came for the opening, and we had a good-bye circle in which we reflected on our shared experience. We were proud of our accomplishment, but sad that our time together had come to an end. Thanks to everyone involved for making this project such a huge success! –Joel Bergner