Kumbh Mela transforms Prayag city into a giant outdoor art gallery…

Allahabad has a new name Prayag. The city also has a new look.

From the railway station to the civil lines, from Arail village to the Sangam area, about 300 murals have brightened the city’s landscape. Even the trees on the Arail road have been painted in bold, barking colours. Kumbh 2019 is less than a fortnight away and Allahabad already looks like an open-air art gallery.

The murals are largely Hindu mythological in content. Scenes of samudra manthan mentioned in the Puranas have been recreated. In times when building a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya is among the hottest political topics, Ram, Sita and Hanuman are well-represented on the city’s walls. One of them, in flaming red and bold yellow, just says “Jai Shri Ram”. Medieval saints such as Kabir and Sankaracharya also find a place. So do scenes from the common pilgrim’s life: women praying at the ghats, for instance. Buildings have been symmetrically painted to create the feel of a temple in some murals.

The painted trees depict a wide variety of animals. Looking at them a child can be taught to spot a penguin, a zebra, a giraffe, and more. Some are just geometric representations. The angry Hanuman is one of the paintings. The initiative is inventive but it does raise the question whether the paint would end up hurting the trees. “Tree-friendly painting material was used to ensure that their health is not damaged,” says Ashish Kumar Goyal, commissioner, Allahabad.

DM (Kumbh Mela) Vijay Kiran Anand says the idea of ‘Paint My City’ was to ensure community participation. “It was meant to conserve heritage and beautify the city as well as highlight Union government campaigns such as Namami Gange,” he says. Among the flagship programmes of the Narendra Modi government, the project had the ambitious objective of reducing pollution of the river and help its rejuvenation. Quite a few murals carry the Namami Gange logo.

The painting over of Allahabad has generally resonated positively in the city. Interior designer Satyendra Pratap Singh is one of those who appreciates the city’s new look. “The religious paintings give a sense of what Allahabad is, a punya bhoomi. The whole city looks like an ashram,” he says. Harishankar Patel, who runs a sweetshop in Arail village, says the street art has transformed his village even though fretful pigs run amok on a garbage heap next door.

Several organisations, such as Delhi Street Art, took part in the project. “About 100 painters with street art experience from my team alone were involved in the job from October to December. Five of them came from foreign countries such as the UK, Russia and US,” says Yogesh Saini, founder, Delhi Street Art.

However, social scientist Badri Narayan bemoans the lack of representation given to all communities in the murals. “Allahabad was also a seat of Sufi knowledge but that aspect of the city doesn’t find any representation. It would have been nice if poets like Akbar Allahabadi and Firaq Gorakhpuri (real name: Raghupati Sahay) were given space,” says Narayan, director, Gobind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute. Renowned litterateur Harivansh Rai Bachchan is among those who does.

Novelist Neelum Saran Gour says the city has three co-existing and interlinked narratives: Indic, Islamicate and European. “However, the walls and the trees show only one of the three. The freedom struggle, to which the city was central and integral, is missing,” she says.

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