I was asked to introduce the speakers at the relaunch of The Caravan magazine in Chennai the other evening (featuring Mukund Padmanabhan, Anant Nath, Sadanand Menon and Pankaj Mishra), and observing the panel discussion and interactive session afterwards reminded me why I am such a fan of the non-fiction narrative form.
Here is a feature I wrote for The Caravan last year, which I had titled “The City As Canvas”, and which is no longer online since their website was updated. I’ve noticed that of late, possibly in connection with Chennai Sangamam and the festive vibe the city takes on during December and January, there seems to be a great deal of interest in the street art of Chennai. Several events and pieces in the media, particularly on graffiti, are cropping up at this time, and it occurred to me that this might be the perfect segue into reposting this article. This appeared in the magazine in September 2009.
THE AESTHETICS OF CHAOS
Great cities are like rumours – they inhabit a space in the imaginations of even those who know nothing of their realities. Paris for romance, Istanbul for cultural mélange, New Orleans for jazz and voodoo. That cities have distinct personalities, have appearances and accents and accessories, is a rarely questioned premise, even among people who look upon the idea of anthropomorphism with skepticism.
Where then would Chennai, formerly known as Madras, fit in, in this spectrum of associations? Even within India itself, the southeastern coastal city is most frequently associated only with its notoriously hot climate, and we all know that talking about the weather usually denotes little more than idle chatter and elephant-avoiding euphemisms.
But to step into this city and brave the singularly defining characteristic that is its heat delivers certain rewards. What it lacks in nostalgic charm, modern architecture or the abstract energy that is expected to pulse through a city is – or was – made up for in its larger-than-life street art, in the forms of hoardings and graffiti. In Chennai, the walls may or may not have ears, but talk they certainly do.
And what do these public walls talk about? Politics, mostly. All over the city, political slogans and images of leaders cover the street walls. If a visitor could read Tamil, it would seem as though the city was an especially militant one, or at least constantly having elections. For the visitor who cannot, the city is simply a riot of predominantly textual graffiti. And for the Chennaiite herself or himself, it’s debatable what this urban scenery means, if anything, at all.
Cinema comes a close second, mostly in the form of vinyl posters. These are reduced versions of the grand billboards that once dominated and defined the city’s skyline, a relic of a different time. Cinema posters aren’t nearly as passionate as the political ones, but frequently risqué in their own way – like the public dreams of a privately conservative people. These and a smorgasbord of other street posters are of particular interest to a set of scholarly enthusiasts, who have collected 900 such specimens in the archives of the Roja Muthiah Research Library since 2002. Other kinds of popular street posters include ones commemorating a death anniversary, always picturised with the deceased’s photograph and a drawing of a pair of weeping eyes, and hilariously mistranslated ads for sex clinics, listing a variety of ailments they treat, including “nightfall” (nocturnal emissions) and “sperms coming too fast” (premature ejaculation).The Library’s director, G Sunder, said in an interview with The Hindu last year “they encapsulate an entire tradition of communication — on the occasion of death or marriage or coming of age and other rituals — in certain urban communities.”
But this is a cultural anthropologist’s understanding of the public visual culture, not, unfortunately, the city’s average resident’s. Perhaps these pieces of pop art are so ubiquitous that they hardly even register on one’s field of vision, or perhaps they are simply embarrassing – evidence of a city that has not yet grown up enough to embrace civic mindedness and cleanliness.
Whatever the reason, as vivacious as Chennai may seem in terms of street art, there is a disconnect between the appearance of the city and the active participation of its populace in this appearance. Who are the artists behind the city’s kitsch walls? They are, by and large, paid to either paint or stick posters up on the walls. In the broad light of day, any passerby in an autorickshaw might see them, perhaps calmly stenciling the word “Amma” in Tamil, in the political black and red colours, paid to splash opposition leader Jayalalithaa’s popular epithet across the walls of some street. Or sticking up some hyperbolic poster of a local political leader, comparing him to Che Guevara, or lionising another one as a deity. Even if technically illegal, there is no sense of transgression here. It’s all part of the propaganda machine.
According to Clause 6 of the Election Commission of India’s Model Code of Conduct for Political Parties and their Candidates, “No political party or candidate shall permit its or his followers to make use of any individual’s land, building, compound wall etc., without his permission , for erecting flag-staffs, suspending banners, pasting notices, writing slogans etc.” The Tamil Nadu Open Places Act 1959 also prohibits the vandalising of private walls at any time, regardless of whether the act is related to elections.
Ironically, there is virtually no graffiti that is not funded by a political party. Neither does there seem to be a desire to be anti-establishment, and subvert this state of things. One would imagine that spoofing the way in which Chennai’s political machinery turns the whole city into one massive polling booth would be the most obvious, effective and altogether appealing method of radical artistic protest, but this simply – bafflingly, in fact – isn’t the case.
Perhaps the fact that the powerful have co-opted as propaganda what traditionally has always been a tool of the visionary leaves its citizens’ unconvinced about the potentially radical elements of graffiti art. Or is it possible that Chennaiities, on the whole, aspire for a sterile, neutral-looking city? But that feels too simplistic, not to mention fundamentally at odds with the psychology of the urbane, as seen elsewhere in the world. If we consider the notion that the manner in which a populace marks out its city reveals the psychology of its counterculture, could it then be possible that the true problem we are grappling with is not an absence of tools, talent or reasons – but an absence of a counterculture itself?
In most parts of the world, graffiti is a tool of anarchy and expression. It is a legitimate artform – some of its more legendary proponents include the American Jean-Michel Basquiat, who went from street art signed off pseudonymously as SAMO (“same old shit”) to posthumously commanding five and a half million US dollars for his work, the semi-anonymous Banksy (Britain) and the Belgian Julian Beever, whose trompe-l’œil pavement chalk drawings have probably been forwarded to your email inbox at some point. It can be a tool of political protest, beautification, or simply adding to the mystique of the urban machine. In all cases, it is a manner in which the city itself becomes the canvas on which its inhabitants not just observe it or leave their impressions of it, but in symbolically charged terms, own it.
The same cannot be said for Chennai. In mid-2008, one of the city’s best kept secrets was revealed. Chennai, it turned out, is replete with trees and green spaces, a fact otherwise little known. That we ever overlooked this is perfectly forgivable, because until mid-2008, when a state ruling engendered their removals, the city was dominated by hoardings. Larger-than-life cutouts and advertising loomed above the city’s short skyline, obscuring these trees, enlivening the city with a mix of the garish and the glitzy. In mid-2009, another state ruling came into place: that the arterial Anna Salai and Kamaraj Salai roads would be whitewashed of their graffiti. Both rulings were met with tremendous public approval. The days of towering billboards has ended, and the days of cacophonous walls may soon follow.
All this begs the question: does the aesthetic of Chennai, the one which had characterised it for decades as a kitsch, chaotic place, mean nothing to its population? And if there really was no attachment to the hoardings and vandalised walls that so typify it – why not?
For illustrator and advertising executive Mihir Ranganathan, there is a fundamental lack of quality in the art that has so far appeared on the city streets. “I have never associated good quality with the kind of street art I have seen in this city,” says the Chennai native. “The portraits often only resembled the actual subject rather that being a good or near-perfect portrait.”
In his late 20s, Ranganathan was raised on a diet of foreign cartoons, was heavily influenced by his father’s interest in fantasy art, and gradually developed a taste for another niche form: rock album covers. Unassuming, yet aware that his scope and inspirations are different from those other Chennaiites might have been exposed to, he works with pen, ink and digital mediums, and sees graffiti as a difficult medium. It holds no particular appeal to him. “It requires a lot of skill, working with large formats. Drawing a grid on the face of a building or wall would be complicated and require a specific set of technical skills.” He says it’s possible that other artists in the city feel similarly – and coupled with the lack of recognition that comes from anonymity (or the arm of the law that might pursue those who seek credit), it doesn’t seem like the most welcoming medium for those seeking to show off their talents.
I realise then that to argue that graffiti is by nature a spontaneous and subversive act may not correspond with this particular city at all. What if the absence of a subculture is a matter of perspective? After all, the entire notion of “street art” itself is an evolution of what was once considered vandalism in the very cities where it is now glorified. If we situate Chennai as being, frankly, behind the times in this regard, where can we find elements which may one day develop in such a way as to create an authentic, representative aesthetic?
The first thing that comes to mind then is the traditional domestic kolam (or rangoli). In fact, the only street art in the city that might be said to sprout from an organic impulse to beautify, rather than as a commercial enterprise or propaganda statement, might be the kolams that adorn many doorsteps. In lofty terms, this would then make the simple, housewifely gesture of drawing a temporary, unpremeditated pattern on the ground with rice powder a particularly pure form of art – impermanent, impulsive and instinctive. One can imagine that in the Chennai of tomorrow, an aspiring street artist who wishes to use an indigenous form would do well to incorporate the humble kolam into his or her repertoire, and make profound statements about time, loss, gender roles, symmetry and decay worthy of grand art theories and galleries.
Religious paintings themselves – more often than not a harmonious pantheon of various faiths and their iconographies – are not uncommon. Crudely painted in bright colours, they are particularly visible among slum areas. They are the only form of street painting in the city that is non-commercial and non-political in nature. They are, however, conformist in terms of imagery. One would be hard-pressed to find the artistic innovations associated with street paintings elsewhere in the world.
However, an interesting development of note is that a few months ago, coinciding with the Lok Sabha elections, a juxtaposition of the popular political and religious themes could be seen in a few quarters. Unlike the cliché of likening a political figure to a deity, however, the likes of Christ, Ganesha and the image of a mosque were painted side by side with the word “Vote” on each icon. A rare happening – a public service message not motivated by the agenda of any specific individual or organisation – which suggests that this may have been one of the very few instances of a person or group of graffitists treating the city as that extremely underused thing, a citizen’s canvas.
Then, there is the matter of the urban legend that is “P. James Magic Show”. All over the city, in a font that seems casual but is so Xerox-perfect that it can only be stenciled, are those words, followed by a phone number. They are 14 years worth of ingenious advertising by a magician whose shows one may never have seen, but whose name is known to virtually every English-literate person in the city. Until 2007, when he was ordered by the Commissioner of Police to stop doing so, P James would bicycle around the city and publicise his famously pigeon-friendly party magic show (for reasons of pure pop culture trivia, which all legends deserve, he seems to have an avian soft spot – rumour has it that in the 80’s, he operated under the name Mr. Peacock). An estimated 30,000 instances of his graffiti, as mentioned in an article in The New Indian Express, were found in the city at the peak of what some have correctly identified as his guerrilla art/advertising tactics. No one else in recent memory has done anything like it in the city – and granted, that’s not necessarily saying very much.
Over the phone, P James says that he does see the place of his advertisements in the larger context of street art. “I do encourage struggling people to take up street art,” he says in Tamil. Yet, as with the dubious success rate of his ads, very little evidence of a proletarian paintbrush streaks the city. P James’s legacy, too, seems set to fade. “They’ve whitewashed most of my ads,” is almost the first thing he says to me. There’s a trace of hesitation in his voice; he eventually hangs up the phone – not rudely, almost fearfully – as it becomes clearer that I intend to talk art, not hire him. Throughout the conversation, he addresses me with the polite “Madam”. He seems completely unaware of his own urban legend status. It probably has had no bearing on his life whatsoever.
And no wonder. The fate of the ubiquitous “P. James Magic Show” graffiti is sealed. As with the hoardings, this crucial nugget of Chennai’s visual culture is disappearing. Will anything take their place, or is early 21st century Chennai doomed to be a city of absences and indistinct aesthetics?
At his modest studio in Vadapalani, with its stacks of cinema hoarding cutouts fading in the sunlight, M. Aathidhatchnamoorthy speaks with sadness and hope about the death of the city’s aesthetic and what this has meant for those who had worked on the Chennai skyline in its glory years. It has taken a couple of months to track him down; when the laws changed, an entire industry lost its livelihood.
“There must have been 2 or 3 lakh people working in the cinema hoardings and banners industry,” he estimates. “This includes not just the artists, but also constructors, erectors, various types of labourers. Now not even 10 percent of that population can survive in the field. Where we used to work with ten assistants, we now have to make do with one. These days, having been forced out of their jobs because of a lack of revenue, they are now drivers, gardeners, carpenters, watchmen and coolies.”
Aathidhatchnamoorthy has been extremely fortunate owing only to his seniority in the field. The winner of the 2000 Best Banner Artist Award from the Tamil cinema Kalaimandram and the lead artist behind a coffee table book, The 9 Emotions of Indian Cinema Hoardings, which sets the popular iconography and lyrics of Tamil cinema against the tenets of the Natyashastra, he has maintained a commission-based clientele who continue to support his work. He points out that while financial struggle is a reality, even with his expertise, the repercussions extend even further that basic survival. “A person in this field today loses value in the marriage alliance market,” he says, illustrating an example of the diminished status of those in the field. “Prospective in-laws ask, and not without reason, ‘how can you even be an artist when there is no art itself anymore’?”
But something keeps him in the industry, something greater than 20 years of experience alone, and it quickly becomes clear what that something is. In his late 30s or early 40s, he dresses like a businessman, and speaks and shakes hands with a certain authority. When he begins to talk about the industry in its heyday, he turns deeply passionate, even visionary, and one gets a clear sense of where he sees himself in its continuum, and where he hopes to stand in its eventual revival.
There’s no trace of bitterness in his voice – if he spoke of being crestfallen before, it’s clear that he continues to believe in the importance and eventual resurgence of what he sees as a distinctly indigenous aesthetic.
“What an era it was! Just as an aspiring actor looks to Rajnikanth as an inspiration when he prepares to enter the field, we too looked to our legacies and the masters before us. It was an entire world, the industry – it was our world. Like in an institutionalised school of art, there was a parampara of teachers and disciples. We rose through the ranks step by step – you would learn how to do sketches first, and after some time, be allowed to apply single tints only, and after that get to paint the villain or a minor character, and only after years would you get to paint the hero and heroine.”
“I was a fine arts student in Tiruvannamalai. I came to Chennai because cinema art drew me here. It called me here. It was for this that I left, it was for this that I came here,” Aathidhatchnamoorthy says of his inspiration.
He rattles off a list of industry legends: Madhavan (who pioneered the aesthetic and who is his own personal inspiration), Sai Arts Vedachalam, Baba Arts Kandasamy (who did the hoardings for iconic film star-turned-chief minister MGR), his son Baba Arts Kumar, KS Arts Brahma (who did the hoardings for the films of Sivaji Ganesan, Tamil cinema’s other great lion), and his son Selvam.
He reveals that he recently changed his name from MP Dakshana to Aathidhatchnamoorthy not only to continue to honour the god of wisdom who he is named for, but in homage to the work of the fine arts painter KM Aadimoolam, who died in 2008. There is a custom, particularly in the literary arts, of taking the name of a mentor or influence as one would a father’s name.
It’s not just nostalgia that brings a fire to Aathidhatchnamoorthy’s eyes: he feels as intensely about the preservation and reclamation of the art form. “I live in the hope that we can get it back,” he says. “You can’t find this art form nowhere else in the world. Not even in the other states in India, where there is a real difference in quality, for instance the use of neon colours instead of photorealistic ones.
“It was the identity of Tamil Nadu. It is a great heartsickness to me that nobody sees this, except people abroad. There’s huge appreciation abroad. Even the pieces we throw away here, they take and appreciate and respect. Sometimes I worry that we will lose our aesthetic and identity to the rest of the world, to foreign artists who admire it and copy it.”
Aathidhatchnamoorthy laments the fact that there was little protest when the hoardings initially went down. “Maybe if we had banded together at the time and raised awareness, things might be different,” he muses. “But for now, we can’t approach the government because we lack a unified force. The numbers are simply not there anymore.”
But the artist has plans, big ones. He recognises his position as a major industry force, keenly aware that with appeal elsewhere and within the patronage community of India, he will be able to engender the revival that is his deep desire. “This is a tradition that needs to be protected,” he affirms. It is our cultural identity, as important as Bharatnatyam. And to put it baldly, the city looks naked now.”
A twist to the textbook case of the emperor’s new clothes, perhaps. Everybody sees it, but nobody seems to care. But not, it seems, if Aathidhatchnamoorthy gets his way.
As Aathidhatchnamoorthy pointed out, the outside eye sees the potential of the city’s dying aesthetic in a way that very few locals do. Shannon Spanhake grew up in New York City, which she describes as being “full of street phenomena”. Together with Pierre Conti, she co-founded Casa Blanca II, a makeshift gallery with no proper physical location, taking instead the entirety of the city as their space. They believe that public art has to respond to its surroundings, engaging with the local landscape and community.
Prior to her relocation to Chennai less than a year ago, Spanhake had put together a project in Tijuana, Mexico, in which she planted mini gardens into potholes in the street, calling the act, “a mechanism for acquaintance”. Here in Chennai, Casa Blanca II held its first exhibition in a crowded street off Anna Salai, taking as their inspiration the handpainted signs that clustered on its buildings. The exhibition, “Make Them Love You”, explored the negotiation between interior desires and exterior spaces, and featured the work of ten local and foreign participants, including a politician, an actress and inmates in a home for the mentally unwell. A professional sign painter, SAV Elanchezian, transferred their creations onto sign formats, which were then hung on a building in Narasingapuram Street.
Speaking to them in their apartment, it is interesting to watch how the duo works. Spanhake is a vivacious young woman of Korean descent, whose face lights up with enthusiasm about her work. Conti, who was previously based in Europe, is more reserved, dealing with details and basic information, like setting up and explaining a computer slideshow of their exhibit and giving me press material. I get the sense that Spanhake is the energy behind the gallery, and it is given focus by Conti’s commercial acumen.
Spanhake and Conti’s “mechanisms for acquaintance” are far more than friendly gestures of expat-local camaraderie. In working with the landscape, they knowingly alter it – and judging by the radicalness of simply doing such a thing in a city that seems to lack the imagination to sustain a thriving counterculture, this is probably for the better.
Spanhake and Conti see street signs as a form of street art – and by these terms, Chennai is truly vivacious. But the visual effect, the visual culture if you will, that results from this abundance is an unwitting one. The signs are hung up as advertisements or announcements, purely functional objects – the kitschy cacophony that results in multiple signs in the same venue is coincidental. They are art because, in unison, they thrill the eye. But the efforts of Casa Blanca II aside, they are not motivated by a sense of artistic agency.
The press release for Casa Blanca II’s “Make Them Love You” says that “place is lived as much internally as externally”. Perhaps expatriates, exiles and anyone who negotiates with a sense of dislocation understand this notion better than most – but when, I wonder, will the interior lives of native, homespun Chennaiites too manifest upon the cityscape? There is surely more to the city’s denizens than this apathy. True, you can’t make them (whoever they are) love you, but you surely can make them look at you – and if Chennai intends to ever be accepted as a true city of the modern world, it will need to try a lot harder to catch hold of that look.