A wall of the tallest building in Sonagachi in Kolkata, bears a painting of a woman’s face. It covers over half of the mammoth wall, the background done up in bright yellow and orange.
Community artist Poornima Sukumar and her team worked on it in February this year for the St+Art India Street Art Festival. The festival, organised by the St+art India Foundation, is part of the smart city mission and aims at enriching public spaces. Poornima was also part of the festival that recently concluded in Coimbatore. It will soon travel to Mumbai, Delhi, Goa and Hyderabad, collaborating with various other community artists.
The painting in Sonagachi, explains Poornima, stands for “respecting a soul, rather than disrespecting someone’s profession”. Every wall that the 31-year-old has painted across the country, stands for something, enhancing the locality in a certain way.
Scaling tall buildings on scaffoldings to paint on them, is hardly typical work for a Fine Arts student, one would think. But Poornima, who’s been travelling from the time she was 18, decided, that she would never display her work in galleries, where “only rich people would buy” them. She wanted art to serve a purpose, and belong to everyone. She says she was always fond of painting on large surfaces, and combined with her love for travel, realised the two were interconnected. When she was still in college, Poornima hopped on random buses that took her to places unknown. She liked the thrill of discovering something new and even took a truck ride from Hyderabad to Kashmir in 2014 to collect woollen clothes for the Kashmir flood displaced.
The trip took an artistic turn, with Poornima painting walls in 14 cities along the way, including Nagpur, Bhopal, Indore, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Delhi, Agra, and Ludhiana. Her love for painting on walls grew and Poornima says she also “developed a style”.
For Poornima, the best thing about street art is that it “belongs to everyone”. She says that although she may be the creator, she is “disconnected from it”. Which is how she learned that it’s okay if someone urinates on it, for instance.
The district library building in Coimbatore, the Tsunami Quarters in Chennai, an old theatre in Pune, the houses at Dharavi in Mumbai, the Metro station in Jaipur… Poornima and her team have etched timeless stories on many such everyday spaces.
As part of the Aravani Art Project that Poornima founded in 2016, she involves transgender people in her work, showing their world in a better light. The project, with the tagline ‘Creating consciousness and well-being through art’, uses art to reclaim the streets that are part of the lives of transgenders. Poornima says that grabbing paint brushes, and scaling buildings, instils confidence in them. “It helps with their visibility and encourages them. They understand that they are capable of doing something other than what they usually do.”
Poornima constantly gets questions about being a solo woman traveller. “I tell them that it’s no different from a man’s experience.” Another question, that annoys her no end, is about her climbing scaffoldings to paint walls. “People tell me I look like a man doing this.” Her response? “Why shouldn’t I do this?”