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India’s Junk Artists (and Where to Find Them on the Web)

Junk art is a sphere in which India’s garbage challenge and its tradition of jugaad (improvisation) merge, with sometimes jaw-dropping results.

Krzysztof Iwanek
India’s Junk Artists (and Where to Find Them on the Web)

Sculptures at Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Giridhar Appaji Nag Y

Two of India’s most popular tourist sites – the Taj Mahal and Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh – are poles apart in various ways. The story of the former is well-known, but the latter may need a brief introduction. When land and local villages were being cleared for the construction of the modern city of Chandigarh in the 1950s, a local roads inspector, Nek Chand, was aghast to see the number of leftovers being discarded and destined to be wasted. A humble man who did not go through much schooling and was self-trained as an artist, Nek Chand thus started to collect the garbage and make original works out of it. His effort eventually ended with the establishment of a public garden hosting his art.

The Taj Mahal, by comparison, was a vast, insanely costly project: A tremendous effort by hundreds of people, a demonstration of imperial power employing the most expensive resources and best artisans, all caused by a grieving monarch’s personal wish to construct a mausoleum for his deceased wife. Nek Chand’s Rock Garden, in turn, was at first an unknown personal initiative and an example of improvisation, an attempt to reuse resources at a very low cost, rather than spend new ones. But it can be argued that while the Taj Mahal represents a certain architectural and religious legacy in India – and the Rock Garden does not – the latter also does not stand alone in the country’s recent history.

There are actually quite a few Indian artists nowadays who focus on reusing waste. What follows here is not an exhaustive list of such individuals. Writing this under the shadow of a global pandemic and frequent lockdowns, I will try to pick some of those whose work can best be enjoyed viathe internet. While I will start with some of the more famous names, I will move on to give more coverage to those who are not as well known in international circles.

Only Happy When It Rains Garbage

Sakshi Gupta is one of India’s better-known junk artists; she focuses on using industrial waste and her work can be browsed on her website. Another globally recognized name is Gopal Namjoshi, whose website can be accessed here. Then there is Manish Nai who, perhaps less commonly, uses such material as old clothes (some of which can be seen on the Kavi Gupta gallery site). Anjali Patel Mehta build her fame in fashion by creating attire from various waste materials, including even fishing nets and carpet waste (the website of her studio can be accessed through here).

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Junk art festivals are also being held in India, some of which have been reviewed by Rishabh Dev for the Times of India. These include, for instance, the Kachra Mahotsav in Raipur, Chhatisgarh (kachra means “rubbish” in Hindi). Moreover, Bengaluru’s Echoes of Earth music festival has developed a junk art exhibition as its extension (scroll down the event’s website to see some of the hosted works).

Haribaabu Naatesan was recently mentioned in the media for creating a 1,500 kilogram figure of a metal lion, a symbol of the Make in India campaign, from automobile scrap (it now stands on P. Demello Road in Mumbai). But the artist has been working with scrap metal for many years and some of his works that I find to be particularly beautiful are his smaller scrap-metal animals: you can browse his gallery here. In 2019, Jovita Aranha profiled Naatesan’s work for Better India – the text is here and it comes with photographs that include the sculptor’s unbelievable crowning achievement: a life-size Volkswagen beetle.

Then there is Saptarshi Das who often works with resin: many of his items are collected plants or insects entrapped in resin. A part of his collection can be found on the website of the Delhi-based Gallery Ragini. Christina Banerjee comes from the United States but has been based in India since 2013 and should be thus counted among India’s community of junk artists. She is both a painter and a sculptor and the latter part of her artwork makes use of waste such as wires; you can browse it on her personal website.

Artists With and Without Websites

There are also many artists whose galleries are unavailable on the internet (or who do not have them at all) but whose work I would like to share. A group of 60 people created a whole park of scrap metal-made representations of famous monuments in a landfill zone hidden in the Sarai Kale Khan area of Delhi. These large works include both domestic icons (such as the Taj Mahal) and foreign ones (such as the Statue of Liberty), including a 70-foot-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower. I was somehow unable to locate any website or official picture gallery of these, but the junk-made edifice was covered both in Indian and international media: for instance, Bilay Kuchay prepared a good coverage for TRT World, complete with photographs. Yet another exhibition of junk art (if smaller in size compared to the one displayed at Sarai Kale Khan) was opened in 2018 in Delhi’s Soami Nagar district (as described by Vibha Sharma for the Hindustan Times).

I was similarly unable to find the website of an open air museum of junk art that opened in 2018 in Bhubaneswar, the state capital of Odisha, but this event was widely covered in the press, including here. In this case, some of the contributions were also by foreign artists. While traveling through the hyperlink above be sure to have a look at a giant sculpture of an elephant made by Pruthiraj Sahoo, assembled entirely from bicycle parts.

Neither was I able to find the website of an open air collection of junk art located in Chennai’s Zone 13 and created by the Government Industrial Training Institute in Guindy. Luckily, it was covered by Laasya Shekhar for Citizen Matters, complete with a wealth of photos. This work was created by a team led by a sculptor, Srinivas Padakandla. Visit the hyperlink above to witness marvels including a giant man’s head made from the dead corpse of an autorickshaw.

Sanjib Basak from Assam recently made headlines after he created an image of the goddess Durga from medical waste, such as packages with expired pills (this was covered by Saumya Agrawal for Times of India, together with the photographs of his work). Basak also set a Guinness Word Record last year by forming the image of the same deity from electrical wires (you can see the result of his effort here; it weighed a total of 166 kilograms).

Another of the more recent works came from perhaps unexpected quarters. A team of women from the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry led by Jyotika Kapoor created seven murals from electronic waste in Bengaluru (you can see a recording of one of them here; the story has been covered by Sudeshna Dutta for the Bangalore Mirror and Theres Sudeep for the Deccan Herald).

India is among the countries where the problem of waste and its disposal is most acute. But it is also a country whose people are known for their skill of jugaad (pron. jugaar) – improvisation, adapting to circumstances to create solutions from what we have, not what we would like to have. Perhaps this, together with the rising awareness of the problem, is one reason that junk art has become so popular in India?