IIT Gandhinagar draws a line as students sketch Phoolan graffiti


A graffiti camp that was promoted as an opportunity for creative expression turned out to be too hot for IIT Gandhinagar to handle. The Institute has now erased all the walls, around a dozen, painted over two nights by about 15-20 students, with professional artists from National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) mentoring them. The ART@IITGN, the campus’ art wing, had organised the event in the first week of November.

All was fine until one of the mentors, an “Ambedkarite Budhhist”, used the space that was allotted to her for graffiti of Bhimrao Ambedkar, and some others created graffiti of Savitribai Phule and Phoolan Devi, all icons of lower caste assertion in India. All other paintings were pre-approved by the authorities, except for the Phule and Phoolan Devi ones, as this segment was earmarked for impromptu graffiti. Campus WhatsApp groups began buzzing over the political undertones of the Phule graffiti and by the time a portrait of Phoolan Devi with a gun in her hand began to take shape, the administration intervened to stop it. All graffiti has now been painted over, and the walls now sport a silent, fresh white look. 

While Dalit students on the campus say that the institute had a pattern of “restricting” certain forms of expression on campus and that even some student bodies were responsible for this, the Student Senate leaders who protested the portrait of Phoolan Devi said it was not approved and had to go. The Director, Registrar and Administration, of IIT Gandhinagar, have not responded to The Hindu’s requests for a comment. 

The communications officer of the institute released a statement late on Sunday night insisting that the graffiti was never meant to be permanent. “The Art initiative of the campus intends to engage students in performing and practising different forms of art to cultivate creative thinking. The two wall paintings, along with other graffiti paintings, were a part of this initiative. There is no intention to ‘permanently install’ artworks as part of this initiative. Reuse of different parts of the campus for this purpose is imperative. As a result, walls are re-prepared from time to time for other activities. IITGN is an equal opportunity academic institution that respects inclusive views and icons from diverse backgrounds. A number of diverse initiatives and student groups are active within the community for various activities with mutual respect for diverse beliefs and cultures,” she said. 

Phoolan Devi, an icon for the marginalised classes, took up guns against upper caste Hindus to avenge her gang rape in 1981 in Behmai village, Kanpur Dehat, Uttar Pradesh, and surrendered two years later. She was elected to Parliament in 1996 on a Samajwadi Party ticket two years after her release. She was killed in 2001 by an upper-caste man, Sher Singh Rana, who claimed he wanted to avenge the Behmai massacre.

Mitesh Solanki, an MA student at IITGN, and coordinator of the graffiti camp, said that almost all the artwork were pre-decided and approved by the curator on campus. When Rohini Bhadarge, a pop artist, Ambedkarite, and fine art student from Thane was called to guide and assist the students, she was given a wall to herself and another was given to a team for impromptu sessions – where the portraits of Ambedkar, Phule and Phoolan Devi came up. 

“My piece was initially meant to be just his portrait but I was told that this would be making it too political and was asked to add some text, or books, or a message,” the 24-year-old Thane-based artist said, adding the real problems started when the Phoolan Devi painting started to materialise.

As the sketch was completed, showing Phoolan Devi holding a gun, students present at the workshop said they were stopped by a project staffer associated with ART@IITGN who said, “It was fine until the gun appeared in her hand. This could promote violence.”

Mr. Solanki, who is also a member of the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, said earlier, an event associated with Phule was stopped by the administration. “Beginning of this year, we were supposed to do a play during the birth anniversary of Phule but were stopped citing Covid protocols when at the same time, faculty were celebrating a retirement without following any protocol.”

The graffiti camp was held over two nights in the first week of November. ART@IITGN posted images of the works on their official Instagram page. But as the campus started to empty out in December, some who stayed back started noticing that the paintings, about a dozen, had been painted over. 

The Student Senate, whose members were being accused by the artists of “pressing” for action against the paintings, too did not speak on this issue. 

Student Senate General Secretary Nikharv Shah said, “I cannot talk about this. Please speak to our Communications Officer.”

However, multiple students from the Senate said their opposition was to paintings not being approved and not to the politics of it. One of them said, “It was a matter of procedure. They did not take appropriate permissions and students were overwhelmed with so many paintings.”

Another student part of the Senate Student WhatsApp group where the first questions were raised about the paintings, said he was speaking on behalf of the Student Senate but “unofficially”, “After careful consideration, the administration decided that the graffiti must be removed. They decided to display the drawings for all these weeks to respect the art and efforts made by everyone involved. This decision is not a reflection of the efforts of the students or the art itself, but rather a matter of following proper protocols and ensuring that institutional norms are upheld.”

However, Mr. Solanki asked, “It was an official institute exercise. They paid for the paint, paid a commission to Ms. Bhadarge. How could they remove it?” He added that even the walls for the impromptu paintings – one of Dr. Ambedkar by Ms. Bhadarge and another of Phoolan Devi by a team – had been pre-approved.

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