Women have so many dreams and aspirations but rarely do they emerge so colorful, bold and tall for the world to see and appreciate in Technicolor. Swayam, an organization in Kolkata, which envisions a non-discriminatory, violence-free and gender equal society has just unveiled a mural of Women’s Dreams on its South facing wall. Four floors high, the mural is visually commanding, and maintains the integrity of the women who formulated their imaginings.

Anuradha, who has seen public art all over the world, had dreamed of creating such a mural in Kolkata to capture the dreams of women survivors and become a symbol of their empowerment. She, too, has realized her dream as the mural was unveiled on December 17th in a public ceremony with songs of freedom.

This mural marks a dramatic and colorful finale to the end of Swayam’s annual 16 Days of Activism campaign to end violence against women. During the last 16 days its colorful mobile van that opens up to host performances travelled across the city and its outskirts to draw attention to sexual harassment, reflecting the wider public debate sparked by #Me Too. There were street theater performances, community awareness programs as well as a public talk on Sexual Harassment from the perspective of students, the media and artists. Among the striking community interventions was a Rap song developed by girls living in the Metiabruz neighborhood, a predominantly Muslim area. Dressed in black t-shirts and pants with white hats they rapped about the daily harassment women face.

Humnay takleef aati hain

Humnay gussa aati hain

No means No

No! No!

The development of the mural was an interactive process that unfolded over several months. The project started with the holding of five community workshops for women survivors. The women came together in Metiabruz and Hazra where Swayam is located. While mostly Muslim women grouped in Metiabruz, in the Hazra workshop women from all parts of the city and its suburbs came together to participate in this effort. In the facilitated workshops the women were encouraged to articulate their dreams and aspirations with a focus on the kind of jobs they had would have pursued had they not contended with social and economic barriers.

The women expressed their ambitions through paintings, writing prose and poetry and through craft objects they fashioned. Their goals were as diverse as they were: women such Fatma Kahatoon and Sony Verma would-be lawyers, Mou Kuntal wanted to be a police officer, Easha Saha a beautician, Farzana Begum a fashion designer and Nafisa Mallick created a delightful image of driving her own car − a symbol of her independence. There were many other careers the women wanted to pursue which included becoming doctors and nurses. One of the women was adventurous and wanted to be a trekker, another would have pursued a career in dance and there was a woman who saw herself as a train driver.

Encouraged by the musings and art work generated at the workshops, Swayam reached out to Chhatrapati Dutta, the Principal of the Government Art College to create a mural to transcribe their dreams. Mr. Datta met with the women to establish a rapport and understanding of them. Then on the basis of these interactions and their outpourings he conceptualized a mural reflecting their collective dreams. He used their colors and formats of expression to ensure that their vision remained front and center in the mural design.

Professor Dutta then assembled a team of artists who had graduated from his college to execute the artwork. He worked alongside of them. The artists worked from tall bamboo scaffolding and moving ledges for over fifteen days with their work screened from the road till it was to be revealed publicly. For the artists too, who are trained in expressing their own vision, the mural presented challenges. They had to use the colors and modes the women had devised as their guide for the mural to be genuine and to the spirit of the dreamers.

This multi-layered dialogue between women survivors and artist has yielded a truly arresting mural that expresses women’s dreams in a fresh and direct visual language that commands attention. The mural is joyous, optimistic and depicts a world where women are the creators of their own destiny. It will capture the City’s imagination and become a point of conversations as well as become a destination for visitors.

As any outdoor installation is subject to the elements, I asked Anuradha how long she expected the mural to last. Nonchalantly she said “two years. Then it will be time for us to paint a new mural!” Swayam has never shied away from bold art projects that bring women’s voices to public attention in public art installations. Last year in the iconic Victoria Memorial they had worked with Swiss artist, Franziska Greber, to raise awareness about gender-based violence where 216 survivors reflected on their experience, thoughts and expectations on red dupattas. The dupattas, along with installations, photographs of women creating the dupattas, women reading their texts on video were all part of a dramatic installation.

Over the next two years, Calcuttans and visitors to the city will at once be delighted and have their cultural perceptions of women’s work shift by this outstanding mural

Francisca Grabr, to have women survivors write about their experiences of voices and sorrow and stitch them together in dramatic displays.