India's street life pulsates with colour in Sameer Kulavoor's paintings

The artist highlights the human stories in his home city of Mumbai

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Pulsating with colour and character, the works of Sameer Kulavoor focus on the heart of street life: people. Whether it is a portrait of a vendor selling neon plastic baskets or paintings with an eagle-eye view of a bustling crowd, the artist from Mumbai captures the mood and movement of urban life in India.

Kulavoor had his start in graphic design around the period of the dot-com bubble. At the time, he produced motion graphics for web firms before deciding to attend the Sir JJ School of Art to pursue his own artistic practice.

Since then his creations have taken on various forms, from illustrations and zines to murals and paintings. His latest series of paintings This Is Not A Still Life was chosen as the facade design for the most recent India Art Fair in Delhi, which ended on Sunday, February 2, and covered the tents that housed the gallery booths. In these works, Kulavoor depicts the relationship between people, infrastructure and everyday objects, playing with scale and luminescent neon colours.

“I wanted to explore the 'verticality' of things and the chronology of construction,” he says when we meet inside the booth of Tarq, a Mumbai gallery that exhibited his works at the fair. He explains that the series began with looking at how his home city’s architecture has changed over the years, as building materials shifted from rock pillars to cement and glass.

On the grounds of India Art Fair, where Sameer Kulavoor's work has been used as the facade design. Courtesy India Art Fair 2020
On the grounds of India Art Fair, where Sameer Kulavoor's work has been used as the facade design. Courtesy India Art Fair 2020

Growing up in the suburbs of Mumbai in the 1980s and 1990s, Kulavoor witnessed the transformation of the natural environment as the city became increasingly commercialised. “I remember going to school through okra fields,” he says. “Then in the 1990s… the government opened up the economy and in a span of five years, the landscape completely changed. Big brands started coming in and setting up shop. Being exposed to this rapid change as a kid made me question: ‘What’s going on?’ and try to find a reason why things were changing.”

He reflects on these changes in an earlier painting series A Man of the Crowd, for which he had a solo exhibition at Tarq in 2018. Like in This Is Not A Still Life, Kulavoor renders street life without necessarily illustrating cityscapes. Instead, he offers an aerial view of urban crowds amid a concrete-gray backdrop. These scattered figures play out the drama and humdrum of quotidian existence – a man being searched by a police officer, another dropping his phone, a woman hurrying along with a basket, while another feeds pigeons.

Sameer Kulavoor's 'A Man in the Crowd'. Courtesy TARQ
Sameer Kulavoor's 'A Man in the Crowd'. Courtesy TARQ

When producing these works, Kulavoor would draw from observations in his own life and neighbourhood. “I would draw a figure I would see in the morning. If I noticed someone near my building, I would remember that then go back to the studio and paint him,” he says. “I was trying to look at the city just by looking at the people. The roads aren’t important. What’s important are the activities, and if I can tell a story with just humans interacting.”

His studio in Mumbai provides the perfect vantage point for these scenes. Situated next to a vada pav food stall and flour mill, it faces out on the street, so Kulavoor is never short of potential subjects. “I can’t stay away from Mumbai for too long. I need that constant bombardment. I see something, I take it in and paint it.”

Sharing his most recent work on Instagram, the artist has turned his attention to the streets of Delhi. Collaborating with musician Ankur Tewari, Kulavoor has created an album artwork to accompany Tewari's latest song Woh Hum Nahin (This Is Not Us), an anthem of resistance for the country's anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement. "It's a way of showing solidarity with anyone working towards this cause," he says about the work. The song will be played during planned in protests in Delhi on February 4 and 5.

In the last few months, cities across India and neighbourhoods in the country's capital have become sites of resistance, as protesters continue to voice their opposition to the controversial CAA, which they see as discriminatory against Muslims.

In January, Kulavoor visited a sit-in protest in the South Delhi district of Shaheen Bagh, where Tewari performed. The work illustrates a scene from this night, with protesters beaming light from their smartphones on to the singer. He remembers the sense of community fostered by the protesters, who set up daycare areas for children to stay while their parents joined the crowds. He explains that it is a different reality from how these movements are portrayed in the media, as violent and disruptive. “People should see for themselves what the protests are about, and show empathy and support,” he says.

As Delhi gears up for assembly elections on Saturday, February 8, the artist says he has noticed the increase of “alarming” and divisive Islamophobic rhetoric in the media and from the ruling party BJP. “It’s really important to counter that,” Kulavoor says. “If we don’t, who will?”