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Mural Mania

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on May 23, 2021

ILLUSTRATION: MANJULA PADMANABHAN

This week, at the gallery where I’m a member, work has begun on yet another New Activity: Outdoor art. The idea was developed by Emma. The two of us have been lone co-conspirators on two previous projects. For this one, however, we’re joined by five more members.

Some years ago, a friend took me around New Delhi to see the sudden blooming of outdoor art on the city’s walls. Lodhi Colony is especially enriched. There were many inventive and beautifully executed murals. One wasn’t painted at all but instead used sunlight as a partner-in-art. Huge white letters placed at right angles to the plain white wall cast shadows all through the day. The effect was simple and charming, spelling out a medley of familiar words. Some of the letters had fallen out or been bent out of shape, producing a random almost-poem.

For our mural in Elsewhere, we have three wooden balconies. One is four-foot square and the other two are four-by-eight feet. The plan is for each of the seven muralists to paint on sheets of plywood, taking turns to do different murals every month. Simple as this plan sounds, it’s taken a lot of preparation. For instance, I created image-templates for the artwork. They looked quite smart: Neat white rectangles super-imposed onto photographs of the gallery’s balconies. But the visuals didn’t match the measurements! One of the muralists made a mock-up that was entirely the wrong shape because of my mistake and had to start from scratch.

One of our team — I’ll call him SD — is the most amazing sculptor. He’s a big guy who uses a chainsaw on great chunks of wood the way the rest of us might use a hot knife in butter. He has access to plywood sheets and paint at reasonable prices, so he’s brought in the raw materials. He stashed them at the Gallery’s back room, having asked permission from the landlord.

Today, Emma and I get into our painting gear — old clothes — and prepare to prime the wood. We put down drop cloths to protect the walls and floor, then lay the plywood sheets flat on two lightweight saw-horses. We finish priming the small square sheet and have just started on one of the bigger ones when a pleasant-faced man leans in through the door. “Uhh... what’s going on here?” he asks. Thinking he’s a curious bystander, I say in a smart-alecky way, “Mural painting!”

But uh-oh! He’s the landlord. “Yeah,” he says, “I was told about storing materials. But this —” indicating the entire crime scene “— takes it to a whole new level!” I immediately start gabbling incoherently about “but we got permission!” while Emma tries to convince him it’s only a temporary mess.

He withdraws, looking moody. Emma and I collapse in quivering heaps, feeling like schoolgirls who’ve been discovered smoking in Chapel. Then we complete the priming, clear up and go home for the day.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on May 23, 2021

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