The urban landscape of the national capital is witnessing a transformation around an ancient historic site — the Mehrauli Archeological Complex — dating back to the pre-Islamic Delhi, when Delhi was ruled by the Hindu kings and later by the Muslim slaves or “mamluk” sultans of north African, Turkish and Afghan origin. Culture is flowing out from the soul of Mughal Delhi to find new homes in the “low brow” historic suburbia.
Mehrauli, located on the south-western edge of Lutyen’s Delhi (the political capital complex of New Delhi), is close to Gurgaon, one of the capital’s new satellite township in state of Haryana and the Vasant Kunj residential neighbourhood on the Delhi-Haryana border.
The complex that spreads out like a wide fan covering more than 500 acres of the Qutab Minar, the Meherauli Archeological Park and adjacent neighbourhoods, was said to have been founded by king Mihir Bhoja of the Gujjar-Pratihara dynasty. The name Mehrauli derives from Mihirauli or the home of the Mihir kings.
The villages that once made up the old township of Mehrauli — one of the seven ancient cities of Delhi — with their heritage skyline of mosques, tombs, step-wells, community baths, landscaped gardens and smaller monuments — have made way to high-end fashion, design and art boutiques breathing new life to history. The old has moved on in sync with the time to accommodate the contemporary— and regenerate the capital’s heritage in new sustainable ways.
In the heart of this historical catharsis is the Lado Sarai Arts Village, barely 2 km from the archeological complex of Mehrauli. An ancient village ruled by a Hindu Tomar king and subsequently by an Afghan chieftain, Lado Sarai, which spills into Mehrauli’s core of cultural commerce, is home to at least 20 art galleries, design vends and artifacts stores that promote contemporary Indian arts with a global slant— drawing the world into its essential drift of Indo-Islamic historical syncretism and arts.
This kilometer-long stretch of dusty mixed-used urban heritage zone hosting old buildings, remains of historical sites, grocery and hardware stores have opened their “closed spaces” — unexplored so far — to swish art houses in whitewashes, glass and fashionable neon billboards screaming “haute art”.
It is quaint at the first glance. The pockmarked asphalt road to the village —in dire need of repairs — is nothing short of suburban. Half a kilometer into the crowded bazaar like street, the landscape begins to morph. The display windows and shop fronts change from the humdrum “Sharma & Sons Hardware Store” to hip spaces with names like “Exhibit 320”, “Latitude 28”, “Art District XIII”, “Art Positive”, “Wonderwall”, “Studio Art”, “Art Motif”, “Must Art Gallery:, “Threshhold Art Gallery”, “Galerie Art Eterne” and “Creativity Art Gallery’, “Anant Art Gallery”, “Art Bull”, “Art Konsult” — and several more which stand like spiffy colonial cousins of the everyday businesses that crowd the approach to Ladosarai from Qutab Minar.
The boutiques often strike the intrepid visitor as children turned out in their Sunday best for a party in a street that once embarrassed them.
The makeover of Ladosarai dates back to 2009 when it drew its first arts entrepreneur, Mamta Singhania, who built the “Anant Art Gallery”, paving the way for a rush. Twenty off spaces have opened their doors since then.
Every three months, the art lane hosts a gala, Ladosarai Art Nite, preferably on a weekend, from 6 pm to 9.30 pm, when at least six of the 20 galleries open new shows simultaneously in a wine-and–cheese hopping itinerary. The idea is to celebrate the spirit of beauty, life and new business on the street that has rendered an alternative twist to history — almost like the Paris and the Madrid Art Walks that meander across museums, souks and boutique art houses. The initiative has linked tourism to arts and related business of design and fashion that thrives in the neighbouring Qutab Crescent shopping district, Qila- One Style Mile ( a style and entertainment destination) and the Ambavatta mall — in an ancient heritage site, where the mainstay has been historical tourism traditionally.
Visitors move from one gallery to another to check out the fare on offer — and in the process raise the awareness bar about art with discussions, curated viewings, criticisms and sundry conversations around aesthetics. The Art Nite — modeled on similar events in Mumbai and Bengaluru — is the brainchild of gallerist Bhavna Kakar, who manages Latitude 28, together with a handful of other gallery owners on the street.
“The presence of nearly 20 galleries on one street was raising the competition between the art houses. We got together one day and decided to start an art night — a common opening night. The street has a life of its own and we wanted to add a touch of glamour to it by setting aside a day to toast the spirit of the street,” Bhavna Kakar told this writer. The Art Nite began on a modest scale in 2011.
The common opening night has changed the environment of cut-throat competition among the gallerists to foster mutual respect— and new friendships, the gallery owner explained.
On April 12, 2014, Lado Sarai hosted a special Art Nite to mark the opening of a new gallery, “Art District XIII”— an upscale display house set up by art mentor Kapil. Six of the galleries opened their spaces to draw visitors to the village; but not all the shows were new. The highlight of the Art Nite on April 12 was “Art District” which threw its door open to people with an exhibition, “Built in Translation II” by Australian artist Paul Davies. The studio gallery, however, pushed Anish Kapoor, as a bait to draw visitors to the space.
The eye-catching piece that attracted several lay visitors to the new gallery was Anish Kapoor’s art work, “Absolut Anish”, a sculptural multi-dimensional installation that Kapoor has made for the Absolut Vodka brand.
Gallery mentor Kapil described the space as yet another “platform” for artists to display their work. “The whole idea was to create infrastructure. This country needs more arts infrastructure because it has none to show off,” Kapil told this writer.
Davies’ exhibition reflected the inclusive spirit of arts that India has been revelling in for the last decade. The artist, who used stencil, photographs and acrylic colours to plot contours of “plush western homes” inspired by architectural designs around the world in impressionistic imprints – that resembled photographic images — did not locate his architecture in specific geography.
“My homes straddle the world. It is like translating living spaces around the globe on the canvas. Some of the homes are from Los Angeles and Paris, the swimming pools are from Palm Springs and the trees from South Africa. There are no people and no human forms. They are designed to generate their own responses with recognizable images, but are ambiguous enough to make the viewer wonder what is about to happen. It triggers a sense of mystery,” Davies explained his art.
This global response to art on Lado Sarai found an echo in Wonderwall, the street’s lone photography salon. An exhibition, “Tale of Three Cities”, at Wonderwall hosted a selection of photo-essays from New York, London and Paris shot by Ajay Rajgharia, Amit Mehra, Dinesh Khanna, Leena Kejriwal, Prarthana Modi and Saadiya Kocher.
“I chose photographs from these three cities (New York, London and Paris) because they are most memorable on travellers’ consciousness— in public memory. London has a different charm, New York has a different appeal and Paris is different from London and New York. But all travellers, especially people like us and those who visit art galleries, swear by these three cities when they go abroad,” Rajgharia, who manages Wonderwall, said.
“The destinations are easy to relate to,” he said. Rajgharia’s collection is priced between Rs 12,500 and Rs. 150,000.
Rajgharia says the Art Nite has translated into footfall but “business comes from those on the mailing list”. “Most people drop into Lado Sarai in the evening on their way to dinner over weekends,” he said. Consequently, the viewership is not always geared to commerce or buying. A boutique group of eateries in the Qutab Enclave is a draw for the exploding tribe of gourmands in the national capital — who spend their weekends pampering their fine dining palette. Art is the perfect apertif for the capital’s swish crowd who are becoming more artistically-discerning over the years.
The Lado Sarai Art Nite on April 12 was a resonance of the movements in global contemporary art, depicting the diversity of content, concepts, the wide range of material, places and cultures from which the artists assimilated. The colourful photographs at Wonderwall were in tune with Davies “international homescapes at Art District Gallery which tried to show the synergy between built and natural environments. Art Positive looked at geometry and the relevance of architectural iconography in art with “Homing”— a curated show by Deeksha Nath, which explored man’s desire to “live” in their fantasy homes. It commented on the construction, transformation and conflicts surrounding the animate living quarters inhabited by man.
“Latitude 28” connected to the international theme with “Contested Spaces II”— a daylong video screening by a cast of international artists like Claudia Joskowicz, Kartik Sood, Morgan Wong, Rodrigo Braga, Sebastian Diaz Morales and Tintin Wulia, who played with space, images and their abstract connections. “Exhibit 320” brought a group of artists from central-south Asia and Africa to interpret traditional art motifs from the heritage turfs within the purview of the contemporary in a curated exhibition, “Past Traditions”.
One of the perks of the Art Nite for the lay art lover is the presence of artists, celebrities, connoisseurs and intellectuals— in a kind of star “dekko” exercise. Curator, critic, theorist and noted poet Ranjit Hoskote observed over sips of wine and “kebabs” that “events such as these (Art Nite) reinvigorated neighbourhoods”.
“In a neighbourhood like Lado Sarai, it stands out as a positive signal that the art scene is back in action. It is a sign of renewed vibrancy,” Hoskote said. The curator, a native of Mumbai, said the arts quarters of South Mumbai (around the Kala Ghoda art district) with nearly 10 galleries opened together “on one Thursday a month in a ‘Long Night’” like the Art Nite at Lado Sarai.
The expensive real estate is the biggest problem that the fashion, design and the art world faces, Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India and the vice-president of Li & Fung Group, told this writer.
“Prices of real estate in commercial segments of Lado Sarai and Qutab Cresent – off the business pulse of Delhi’s main commercial districts like Connaught Place, South Extension, Saket and the malls in south Delhi — were still affordable in comparison…This is a space where art, fashion and design are gradually coming together,” he said.
Sethi pointed to a change in the traditional landscape of Delhi. The focus was shifting from the Haus Khas village in south Delhi — once pampered as the swanky and ethnic arts souk of New Delhi in the 1980s-1990s to “the relatively back-of-beyond areas like Lado Sarai and Mehrauli because the capital was expanding beyond New Delhi. “Haus Khas is more of an eating and entertainment area now,” Sethi regretted.
“The Art District XIII Gallery (which has built as asphalt road inside the studio space for visitors to walk on) could be anywhere in the world – even in UK. How does location (Lado Sarai and UK) matter?” Sethi said.
Sethi’s “optimism” was echoed by ace fashion designer-turned art photographer JJ.Valaya, who is represented by gallerist Peter Nagi of Nature Morte Gallery. “We have been culturally more advance. This whole movement of arts to the fringe areas like Lado Sarai is wonderful. What would life be without arts?” Valaya said. The designer-photographer, who is working on a new collection of photographs— which he describes as an attempt at scaling up — will not mind displaying at Lado Sarai.
Lado Sarai certainly gets its celebrity endorsement as “Delhi’s emerging arts hub”. “It is the hottest zone to watch out for,” Sunil Sethi sums up.