Visiting Chennai's Kannagi Nagar, a year after it was given 'art district' status

While some of the residents are appreciative of the art on the walls, it is to be noted that the some houses in the area still don't have taps.
Kannagi Nagar
Kannagi Nagar
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Around this time last year, Chennai’s Kannagi Nagar, a resettlement colony in the city, was under the spotlight as the city’s 'first art district'. The project was spearheaded by St+art India Foundation, co-founded by Italian contemporary art curator Giulia Ambrogi, based on an invitation from Dr Alby John Varghese, the Regional Deputy Commissioner (South) of Greater Chennai Corporation.

India has a handful of other art districts, including cities like Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai. What constitutes an art district? In addition to taking art to them, organisers also host festivals and cultural programmes involving the local community. In Chennai, the initiative was done jointly in collaboration with Asian Paints, Greater Chennai Corporation and Chennai Smart City Limited.

While Chennai has many other public murals, the latest being the panoramic wall mural at Indira Nagar MRTS (280-metre-long facade), Kannagi Nagar is its first art district. About 16 murals were painted in all, following which the neighbourhood was covered by the media, YouTube channels and the likes.

A year later, how has becoming an art district impacted Chennai’s Kannagi Nagar? One February afternoon, when the sun isn't too harsh, we walk down the streets of Kannagi Nagar, joining a few women who are heading back home from work. We point to the wall art on one of the buildings and ask them what they think about it. “It makes the place look nice. You can see the difference on other roads in Kannagi Nagar, where the walls don’t have such art. This, here, is nice to see,” one of them says, pointing to her right, towards the bright yellow wall with the painting of a woman and a young child, looking up at a giant red flower. “But I’m not sure what the paintings mean or why they did it. It’s just nice to see,” she adds while continuing to walk ahead.

The woman’s views are echoed by others we speak to in the neighbourhood. While some find it fascinating to see their area being featured on TV, they admit not knowing why it was done in the first place. Kannagi Nagar is one of Chennai’s earliest and largest resettlement colonies. Following the 2004 tsunami, fishermen who were living along the coast in different parts of the city were forced to move here.

Residents of the neighbourhood face several civic and social issues on a daily basis and have been forced to put up with these problems for nearly two decades now. One of the ideas behind this initiative, says Dr Alby John, was to change the perception about the area. “It is an urban rejuvenation project and it’s not just painting facades. It is important how we see our locality. It all has to do with perception,” he says. Dr Alby adds, “Kannagi Nagar is a microcosm of Chennai. People from across the city are living here. And they have their own share of problems, in terms of infrastructure, livelihood, crime, social issues, alcoholism, drugs, crime against women… But what this initiative aims to do is to change the way its residents and the whole of Chennai view Kannagi Nagar. We wanted a change in mindset and that is now seen,” he says.

20-year-old Praveen who lives in Kannagi Nagar says that he does not see anything more to the walls than the colours. "But," he adds, pointing to a facade with murals featuring kolam and goli soda bottles, "This wall, for instance, was painted by trans women and that was good to see. We saw that they involved children from the area for one of the walls."

The festival’s curator, Giulia tells TNM, “Kannagi Nagar is evidently a very poorly connected neighbourhood. We wanted to change that and the perception the rest of the city has on this neighbourhood. We worked with members from the community. In order to understand the neighbourhood, we organised community programmes in association with organisations such as Chennai Photo Biennale and Urban Design Initiative. Our aim is to make Kannagi Nagar a part of the city. It cannot be ignored.”

A few residents are indeed enthusiastic about the idea. 23-year-old Tamizh, also a resident of the neighbourhood, says, “One of the good things about this project is the exposure it has given to the children here. Some day, one of them may want to become an artist.”

Vanessa Peter, independent researcher at the Chennai-based Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), has her reservations about such beautification projects. However, she says, “Surely it has done some facelifting. Usually, after resettlement, the people and the neighbourhood tend to be ignored. The second advantage is that it has attracted a lot of attention to the area. Third is that concepts like environment and art are never taken to the deprived communities. But in this case, it has changed it to a large extent, especially with involvement from the community.”

Arul Sahayam, Founder of SPAN (Society for People’s Animation), a social organisation that closely works with a section of residents in Kannagi Nagar, says, “Surely it is refreshing for people to come back to colourful murals in their neighbourhood, especially after a hard day’s work. It definitely has an impact."

“But due to corona, we could not take it to the streets, involve all the children from the neighbourhood. That was the only drawback," he notes.

He further adds that a group of residents worked closely with the St+art team while planning for the project. “Members from our 16 street parliament teams (comprising 640 households coming under SPAN’s purview) discussed with the team, we had a proper strategic plan in place. All this was around December 2019.” Street parliament by SPAN works like a real parliament, with members (residents from 640 households) in charge of specific responsibilities right from civic issues to cultrual programmes. They convene once every week to discuss various issues that concern them.

“And through art,” Giulia says, “We wanted to make people rediscover it.” This will be a continued effort, with the team going back every year with activities. Dr Alby says that this year, another four to five facades will be painted.  “We are using local artists this year and we are planning to do roof art as well. The aim is to maintain continued efforts. We will also have cultural programmes planned for this year but on a lesser scale owing to the pandemic.”

2020 being the year the coronavirus pandemic brought life to a standstill, it is difficult to gauge any kind of results from this art district initiative. But, according to Dr Alby, it helped GCC establish a rapport with residents in the area. “It helped us abundantly. Right after the inauguration of it, the pandemic struck. But we saw mass compliance from the people. This was possible because we made inroads, identified leaders in the community. The women we interacted with would help with outreach activities. We had access to the community so it helped us during the initial months of the pandemic,” he explains.

But the facelift that the art district status has given Kannagi Nagar should not just stop with beautification, points out Vanessa.

“There are larger issues. For instance, Kannagi Nagar lacks one of the main indicators of development —  some houses still do not have water taps inside. The entire area needs better pipeline. What does this show? There is nothing wrong with the art district but there are many issues that need to be addressed first, right from the quality of the houses,” she says. 

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