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Jaleel and Indian Street Art

The street artist Jaleel whose work adorned Kochi for several years died on May 16, 2018. By all accounts, he was unostentatious and understated as an individual. His work focused on current affairs, social issues, and landscape. Some of it was literally wiped out when Bastion Bungalow, his canvas, was renovated.

Jaleel appeared to be resistant to being incorporated under a banner. During the Kochi Biennale, he is reported to have written, “This is not part of the Biennale,” under his works. Despite this, he was cognisant of issues relating to the valuation of art and artists. A 2012 piece reported that he also painted on canvas in the hope of selling his work, and that he had lamented saying: "The main difficulty painters in South India face is the unwillingness of people to buy paintings by street artists. But in places like Goa, Calcutta and Delhi, street painters are given equal importance."

From afar, it would appear that many facets of his work raise issues which affect a large number of Indian street artists. His street art appears to have often been executed in the frame of mind of an activist interested in documenting social issues and, possibly, advocating change. In consonance with many other Indian street artists, although he was deeply invested in his art, he didn't seem to see art as being for art's sake alone.

There is little clarity about whether he created art with the permission of the owners of the surfaces upon which he worked. That said, there is no indication that at all that he derived any thrill from engaging in the illegal by painting without permission. This is, of course, a line of thought which repeatedly arises in Western contexts but it does not appear to find an echo in the practices of Indian street artists whose work is, however tenuously, linked to the traditions of their counterparts in the West. 

On the contrary, Indian street artists seem to focus on self-expression and social activism, picking up what commissions they can along the way. Illegality for its own sake does not appear to motivate a sizable fraction of Indian artists.

Jaleel used chalk to execute his street art and later began to mix it with enamel so that it would last for a few days. He presumably painted some street art too; there are reports of works having taken him months to complete. Nonetheless, he appeared to harbour no expectation of permanence. And when some of his art was wiped out at the time Bastion Bungalow was renovated, there seem to have been no outraged cries about the infringement of his moral rights; what sadness he felt seems to have been expressed in non-legal terms.

Indian street artists, like their counterparts in the West, function largely beyond copyright although that is not necessarily because copyright law would not protect them and their works. For the accordance of copyright protection, the governing statute does not require works to be permanent in any sense of the word, it does not require works to have been created legally, and it does not expect artists to be acclaimed.

There have been times when corporates have been known to figuratively lift the works of street artists, reprint them on memorabilia, and monetise them. At other times, street art has been literally lifted, decontextualised, and displayed in contexts other than those intended by their creators.

It is likely that, along with concerns about being accused of vandalism where they've created works without permission, a lack of resources coupled with a lack of awareness has kept street artists from invoking copyright law. The situation has not been aided by street artists not really being revered by the public (which is, of course, demonstrated by its rarely being willing to pay fairly for works created by street artists). 

This leaves street artists susceptible to exploitation and, in particular, to having their works being used without fair recompense. In the circumstances, for all its flaws, copyright law could potentially provide a legal framework to protect street art to an extent. For that reason alone, it is worth taking a closer look at how it interacts with street art, and if it can routinely be used to challenge the misappropriation and unwarranted destruction of street art.