Art has always been viewed from an elitist lens, admired for its aesthetic and pleasing portrayals. But Art can also be compelling, persuasive and transformative.

Navya Agarwal, our next pathbreaker, student at Indus International School, Bangalore, helms Project Limitless, a social initiative that creates murals depicting narratives that are often marginalized or seldom discussed, thus creating awareness around stories that need to be told.

Navya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about realising the joy of art and deciding to create impactful art through murals, to break barriers around stigmatized communities

For students, Art has the potential to change societal perceptions. Take it up if you believe in the power of Art as a medium to highlight societal issues and incite social change through visual narratives.

Navya, tell us about your background?

I was born in the United States, specifically Seattle, Washington, to two software engineers. Growing up, I was very disciplined, but I was timid, and never expressed myself. I tried all sorts of extracurriculars – from ballet to gymnastics, singing to karate – and I was not incredibly passionate about any of them. Then at the age of 6, my parents enrolled me in my first drawing class, and from that point on, I fell in love with art. My earlier works were simple landscapes or drawings of animals, but I soon began experimenting with various mediums, techniques, and genres. When I moved to India in 2012, I started using art as a medium to express myself. I would keenly observe both my tangible and intangible surroundings and find ways to reflect them through my artwork. 

What are you currently studying? What subjects have you chosen? Reason?

I’m currently doing Year 1 of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program at Indus International School Bangalore. The IB requires me to take subjects from all groups (math, sciences, languages, humanities), but my subject choices lean towards the humanities stream. My favorites are English, History, and Economics! Interestingly, I opted not to take visual arts in high school because I prefer to look at art as a free, limitless form of expression, rather than a graded subject with a strict syllabus. 

What made you choose such an unconventional path ?

By the age of 13, I had made two realizations: The first was that art brought me joy. The second was that many people in India (and around the world) could not experience joy through art because they did not have access to art. At that point, I decided that I wanted to make art universally accessible, but I wasn’t sure how. And so, i reached out to a woman named Gitanjali Gupta for advice. Gitanjali Gupta is an incredible woman – she has been involved with hundreds of NGOs, and her sole purpose is to make the world a better place. I’ve known her for over two years now, and she continues to be one of my greatest sources of inspiration. 

Gitanjali Gupta directed me to a  home for young female survivors of sex-trafficking, where I spent a day teaching drawing to the young girls there. I could tell that the process of creating artwork brought them so much joy: the entire day, their faces were aglow with happiness and life, and they would not stop giggling. After spending some time with the girls, I sat down to have a conversation with the woman who ran the rescue home. She told me harrowing narratives of the young girls’ encounters with domestic violence and sexual abuse. These were narratives that so deeply contrasted with the girls’ happy demeanor, narratives that I had never seen in mainstream media, narratives that I didn’t even know existed. 

After I went home that day, I was determined to figure out a way to depict the narratives through the girls’ love with art. That’s when it hit me: murals. The next weekend, the girls and I painted a beautiful mural of butterflies: symbolic of their belonging, empowerment, and evolution. When the mural was completed, the girls were ecstatic: their residence was transformed into a beautiful gallery, and their wall bore the mark of each one of their stories. From there, Project Limitless (https://www.projectlimitless.social) was born, and I committed myself to the goal of transforming humanity through art. 

Fast forward two years later, and Project Limitless has now painted ten murals throughout India in locations ranging from the NIMHANS adolescent ward to Bangalore’s Juvenile Detention Center and Child Court. Beyond depicting marginalized communities’ narratives, Project Limitless’s murals have helped empower, uplift, and inspire people throughout India. I’ve been so grateful to have the support of incredible people, like Antra Bhargav, the CEO of Suvitas, and of course, my wonderful parents who’ve supported me every step of the way. 

How did you begin with these initiatives? What were the challenges you faced (society, school etc)? How did you execute? Your approach?

The first few years were definitely an uphill battle. As a teenager, I’m constantly experimenting, making mistakes, and learning. Aside from the physical challenge of standing on ladders/staying in uncomfortable positions for hours on end to paint the murals, I had to deal with numerous logistical challenges in sourcing my materials and organizing the projects. I remember that my first few mural designs were incredibly intricate, and they would often require elaborate hand painting, meaning that I would often spend double the estimated time. However, I soon learned to optimize tools such as spray paint, rollers, and stencils, which not only allowed me to complete the murals on time but also made the mural painting process far more inclusive (because many people could paint with such tools). It was also quite a challenge to convince people to allow a 13-year-old to paint their wall, but that became easier with time. 

Looking back, I’m really glad I faced all these challenges because I can now pass on my learnings to other young artists who are passionate about transforming humanity through art. I have a team of 20 student artists from all around India, who are undergoing an extensive training process to learn how to find a location, design, and eventually paint their own mural. They are building their teams of local volunteers and developing the skills necessary to continue painting murals. This chain allows Project Limitless to educate young artists on how to use their talent for good. Together, we are determined to depict every story and uplift every community through art. 

In July 2020, we were fortunate enough to win the prestigious Student Innovators Grant by IBO and Ashoka. This grant will provide us with the financial resources and mentorship to further expand Project Limitless to new cities, communities, and objectives. I’m super grateful for this opportunity and excited about this new chapter for Project Limitless. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work and vision

It’s certainly a challenge to manage Project Limitless alongside my schoolwork, personal life, and extracurriculars. A typical weekday after-school involves responding to emails, conducting interviews and meetings, creating design briefs, and scheduling mural paintings. On the weekends and during breaks, I travel to locations and paint the murals. Often, a mural painting involves traveling 1-2 hours at 2:00 am and working for 10-12 hours straight for 2-4 days in a row. However, it does not feel like a job, because painting murals is a very liberating, creative process, and the end result is always super rewarding. I ultimately hope to pass on my vision to future generations of artists and fulfill the mission of transforming humanity by making high quality, meaningful art accessible to everyone. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

Ever since I started creating art, I always thought that it was some grand, romantic phenomenon that can change the world. But I felt that art in itself is not enough: it needs to be seen by everyone to have an impact. 

Project Limitless creates art that can be seen. 

But we don’t just create art; we create socially impactful art. Our murals depict narratives that are often marginalized in mainstream media – sex-trafficking, teenage suicide, autism spectrum disorder – in a way that can be understood by anyone. Every mural we have holds a story, a story that we openly share with the world. This not only benefits marginalized communities by providing a platform for their stories to be told, but it also benefits the artists who are depicting the stories and the viewers who are gaining awareness about the stories. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Project Limitless has taken me to some unconventional locations. I remember a year ago, I was invited to paint a mural at the entrance of a child court, which was connected to a government observation home (juvenile detention center) for young boys. The moment I stepped foot into the home, my first response was fear. I automatically assumed that every person in that home was a criminal, and didn’t think to ask any questions or engage my surroundings. 

But as I was painting, the warden told me the narratives of the boys living there. She told me how most of them came from low income areas, and committed isolated crimes of petty theft to support their families. Of course, such crimes are not justifiable, but there was also an upside to their blunders: they were taught to be held accountable and find alternative means of livelihood. Most boys that were released from the home went on to live plentiful lives as kind, compassionate individuals. 

It’s really easy for us to make black and white assumptions on people based on the way they look, the place where they are, or the things they’ve done. But this experience helped me realize that, much like my art, people are not black and white; rather, they’re amalgamations of vibrant colors that seamlessly fit together to form complex individuals. People do have the capacity to grow and rise from their mistakes, but only if we give them an opportunity to do so. I think it’s crucial for us to look at all aspects of life from such a lens: instead of focusing on what went wrong, we should look at ways to fix it. Only then can we build an understanding, holistic society. 

Future Plans? What do you intend to study? Why?

In university, I hope to pursue the humanities – particularly something in public policy or global affairs – with a possible minor in art. Art will always be my lens to understand communities. The humanities will allow me to introduce legitimate political reform that will uplift the people that I engage with through art. Together, I believe these two subject groups can change the world at both a societal and structural level.