Tag Archives: art

The Tragic And Talented

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Everybody dies. Of the many ways in which this can happen, the “tragic” death of a pop culture icon – inevitably attributed to a mixture of hedonism, extreme success and existential loneliness – is one of the least interesting, yet paradoxically, probably the most celebrated. When Amy Winehouse died last month, the same tired tropes were trotted out in the media and on public opinion aggregators like Twitter: that it came as a complete shock, that she was the victim of the paparazzi (or of a curse that affects 27-year old musicians) and of course, that her talent had gone to waste.

It’s the last of those statements that makes the least sense. Winehouse was known to the world first and foremost not because of her binge drinking but because of her work – her unmistakable contralto, her ironic (mostly self-penned) lyrics and the visual effects, such as the beehive wig and the winged eye makeup, which she cultivated during her healthier years. The rest of it came afterwards. The increasing disarray in which she appeared in candid photographs, for example, or the fact that she began to be booed offstage by her own fan following were because at one point she had been worth following at all.

So how could it be said that she wasted her talent, when her talent was observed and enjoyed at its height? What if there was little or nothing left in Winehouse, artistically speaking, beyond the body of work she had already produced by the time of her demise? The aftermath of such an event usually results in speculation that borders on the downright panegyrical, perhaps because it may come off as malicious to suggest otherwise. But the truth is, we don’t actually know what Winehouse might have cleaned up to become, or if she had been capable of cleaning up. But it must also be said – she owed no one else anything, but she owed it to herself to find out.

To say an artist has died “before their time” is to say that her or his death came unexpectedly, because of calamity or early disease. Consider just a couple of examples among other musicians. When Jeff Buckley drowned at 30 in 1997, he had only released his seminal Grace album, a work so remarkable that his cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is more famous than the original. When Lhasa de Sela died of breast cancer in 2010, aged just 37, her three luminous multilingual albums were only one facet of a life that spanned richly varied experiences as a traveller, circus performer and human being. Her music was a vital part but not the only vital part of what she did.

Amy Winehouse, however, didn’t die suddenly or unexpectedly. Her own parents have told the press that they had been preparing for her death for four years; her father wrote a graveside eulogy for her in 2007, her mother picked out a cemetery plot in 2008. Make of this bizarre parental admission what you will, but Winehouse herself showed no outward signals of being in love with life – and living in celebrity-obsessed England, where her every move was documented, some semblance of a fighting spirit or joie de vivre would surely have come through if she had. She killed herself slowly with the kind of “reckless deliberation” – an oxymoron in any other case – that can only come from a person motivated by self-destruction.

The idea of the self-annihilating genius is a dangerous one. What is true is that mess and chaos are often intrinsic to art – at the risk of romanticizing it, a nod must still be given to the correlation between beauty and heartbreak. What is also true is that many great artists manage to extend their lives and works over a long trajectory while waging a constant struggle against their inner demons and external hardships. To raise a shot of tequila to Frida Kahlo on her birthday is to celebrate the life she fought tooth and nail to embrace despite physical ailments over which she had no control. To leave vodka bottles in memorial shrines outside Winehouse’s London house – as fans have done – is hardly a salute to triumph and passionate engagement. It’s a mockery of what was actually wasted: the choice to live and to give.

None of this is said with ill-will. Winehouse had real talent, she was unusual and she had a devil-may-care attitude which at first was deeply attractive (setting her apart from those who contrive their public images) but later revealed itself to be a complete lack of self-possession. If she managed to clean up her act without losing the essence of her gifts, she would likely have blossomed. The tragedy is not that she couldn’t fulfill her potential because she died. The tragedy is that she died because she lived not in pursuit of creation, but in pursuit of tragedy itself.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

The Mucukunda Murals

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Two hours by car from Tanjavur, through a meandering scenic route of paddy fields, bucolic groves and glimpses of the sun-dappled Kaveri river, is the temple town of Tiruvarur: birthplace of Carnatic music’s triumvirate of doyens (the composers Kakarla Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri), and the site of the crown jewel of the South Indian Shaivite cult, the Sri Tyagarajasvami temple. Estimated to be around 1300 years old, the temple blossomed under the aegis of the major reconstructions of the Chola dynasty, and gained prominence owing to the many travelling bards who, seized by revelations, were moved to song within it. In the modern era, however, certain parts of it fell to neglect, most notably the Devasiriya Mandapam, an auxiliary hall within which is contained a trove of radiant 17th century ceiling murals.

Up until three years ago, the murals were in a rapidly deteriorating state owing to water seepage, fire, human negligence and other factors. When Ranvir Shah, the maverick behind the Chennai-based arts and culture organisation Prakriti Foundation, was told by temple authorities a decade ago of plans to whitewash the paintings, he managed to stave off this travesty for eight years, when the necessary permissions for restoration were secured and a collaborative effort with the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) could begin.

He wasn’t the only one concerned with preserving the stunningly detailed, exquisitely painted murals. The Indologist David Shulman, in what he calls “an act of despair”, visited in 2006 with the photographer V.K. Rajamani so as to document the images before they were lost forever. Shulman and Shah, among others, met – propitiously, as anyone associated with this project now says – and from this was born a major undertaking to restore and preserve what are now known as the Mucukunda Murals.

Dating to the late Nayaka/early Maratha period, the murals narrate, over the course of 50 panels, the mythology of how Tyagarajasvami – or Shiva in his mode as householder and king, flanked by his consort and child-prince in the iconic Somaskanda configuration – came to reside in Tiruvarur. Legend has it that the monkey-faced Chola ruler Mucukunda brought the deity from the heavens at his own request. Tyagarajasvami, who before this had rested on the chest of Vishnu in the cosmic ocean, moving in tandem to that deity’s breath, was bored in Indra’s heaven. This god of momentum and relocation desired settlement – specifically, in a locale already associated with Kamalambal, a powerful goddess with Tantric significance, as well as a different, more primitive aspect of Shiva as lord of the anthill. When Mucukunda, having helped Indra defeat a demon, is offered a boon, Tyagarasvami secretly communicates to him the desire to be taken to Tiruvarur.

Indra, hesitant to part with the god so quickly, has six more identical figures made, and asks Mucukunda to choose the original. Again, Tyagarajasvami gives Mucukunda a signal (different sources suggest a smile, a wink, or an intuitive understanding), thus allowing him to leave the ennui of heaven, and make the town his abode.

The origin story of Tyagarajasvami thus exalts him as a god who chooses his own tribe, and this sentiment remains strongly ensconced among those involved in the restoration of the murals. The release of Shulman and Rajamani’s elegant coffee table tome, The Mucukunda Murals, on January 26 in the Devasiriya Mandapam celebrated the near-completion of the restoration work, and was well-attended by a large gathering of scholars, aesthetes and local devotees, who carried mirrored trays as they walked beneath the murals so as to look at them without strain.

In brief lectures, a panel of noted experts on Tiruvarur – Professor Rajeshwari Ghose, Professor Saskia Kersenboom, Professor Davesh Soneji and Professor Shulman – shared their personal connections to the temple and its deity. Kersenboom, author of the pathbreaking 1987 book Nityasumangali, spoke about the “cinematic flashback” she experienced during her first visit to the temple in 1975, during which she saw the devadasis in procession as they had been in the generations before their art was banned. Ghose quoted an anonymous Tyagarajasvami kavacham, in which the poet tells God to take away anything from him but his ability to appreciate the arts, because it is through them that he experiences divinity. She also credited the temple for having been the wellspring of the Tamil bhakti movement, inspiring the pilgrimages of the Nayanmars and Alwars and giving the collective Tamil consciousness a meaningful identity.

At no point was the numinous quality of the events that led to the restoration, and indeed to that particular day of celebration itself, underplayed. In what is perhaps an unusual method of doing things in this modern (and that too, academic) context, the lectures ended to coincide with the Sayaraktsha Pooja, the dusk prayer to the deity. The entourage reassembled at the sanctum sanctorum, chanting Om Namashivaya Namaha in front of the glittering Tyagarajasvami, before the evening’s performances began.

Evoking the panegyrical element of all pre-colonial temple performances, the concert was highlighted by the magnificent recital of a portion of the mohamana varnam by dancer Shymala Mohanraj. A disciple of the legendary devadasi Balasaraswathi and one of the foremost torchkeepers of that lineage, her supreme command of the stage and consummate, unostentatious grace were breathtaking to behold. A deeply endearing rendering of kuruvanji songs by Tilakamma, who is also of devadasi heritage but no longer able to dance, also served to fortify the idea that age is an externality – beauty and passion transcend such limitations. A nagaswaram presentation by T.K. Selvaganapathy and T.S. Palaniappan (who trace their musical lineage to 22 generations), accompanied in part by a padam by Kersenboom, and as a performance by eminent vocalist Aruna Sairam rounded off the evening. At the heart of the entire ceremony was an exploration of lineage in all its forms – hereditary, intangible, karmic and incidental. But most importantly, a new understanding of lineage, stripped of hegemony and baggage and brought to the simplest level: the absolutely personal epiphany of the workings of cosmic leela, and one’s place within it.

In the afterglow of this rare, possibly miraculous, story of triumph over the forces of aesthetic ignorance and bureaucratic negligence, it’s easy to forget that a multitude of precious structures throughout India face dissimilar fates. The Mucukunda Murals have been saved, for now, by “the co-operation of public and private interests in temple conservation”, as Soneji puts it. “I hope this is a model that will catch on”. Perhaps God only winks at a chosen few, but the responsibility for the protection and maintenance of our architectural and artistic heritage lies with all who care to watch, refusing to allow such losses in our own lifetimes.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: The Compulsive Creator

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In the age of the Twitter trending topic, nothing exalts the artist quite like death. When Dennis Hopper, Hollywood maverick and counterculture icon, died a few months ago, this happened in a more interesting way than usual: not only was Hopper remembered for his work in cinema, but a resurgence of curiosity in his photography was sparked. Lauded for half a century as an actor, director and screenwriter, his work with still film – although widely published – came as news to many.

Hopper taught himself photography at 25, and expertly chronicled Americana and the art(ists) of that generation. His subjects included his friends – Paul Newman, Andy Warhol, Tuesday Weld, Ed Rushcha – but mostly, a certain milieu and moment. A self-described “compulsive creator”, Hopper was not unlike many artists, who visibly succeed in one field, but whose body of work runs along several parallel tracks.

What the audience receives is distillation; in the artist’s life, these tracks converge. Back when I first began to develop an Internet presence, I perhaps injudiciously let my bios tip over in their exuberance, listing the various things I did: dance, painting, photography, theatre and (oh yeah) writing. This was meant without conceit, for truly, I was passionate about all of those things, and had yet to understand the benefits of streamlining. Writing was not the first love, only the most extant.

In the same way, it took years for me to think of myself as a poet (instead of as a fiction writer who sometimes wrote poems). When I stumbled into journalism at 16, I did so thinking it a lesser form, with not a shred of the admiration I have for non-fiction now! But now I’m a manquée novelist, a dabbler in many things, but mostly a writer of poetry and non-fiction. Art must necessarily be incidental in a life fully lived (the ash of a life that burns well, as Cohen – who himself was a bard turned balladeer – put it). Recognition is even more secondary, and what one becomes recognized for is almost arbitrary.

Then there’s the question of money. The starving artist is increasingly something of an anachronism: art requires money, be it to buy time, materials, or enough to eat so that the spiritual hunger supersedes the visceral one. So, knowing that both terms of recognition and market value are vagaries, at what point does one become a sellout? At the point of commercial success, or at the point of intention?

Still, the life of a piece of art cannot be charted at the outset. Even sincere intentions can be diverted. Tamra Davis, director of a new film about the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat, says that toward the end of his life Basquiat was saddened when friends would sell his gifts, if they contained his artwork. They valued it less than their buyers, or their giver.

In some ways nearly everything I do, creatively, is a vanity project. But some things are more likely to succeed than others (and what does success mean? Ah, perhaps another time…). I find the best way to balance ambition with humility is to go back to the naïveté with which I proclaimed all my many passions: to do all of it, love all of it, and then let it go, allowing it to become what it will.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Review: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves

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When the renowned painter Robert Oliver attempts a brutal attack on a painting in a gallery, he is institutionalized under the care of the psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, where he retreats into a sullen and complete silence. Marlowe, who in his fifties lives a reasonably contented life with little upheaval, finds himself inexplicably drawn to his patient’s case. The mystery of Robert Oliver’s outburst, as well as his charisma and extraordinary expertise, have an unusual effect on Marlowe. To his own surprise, he begins to take an unprecedented, even unprofessional, interest in the case.

All Marlowe knows about why Oliver brandished a knife at a painting depicting the Greek myth of Leda’s rape by a swan is that it has something to do with the enigmatic woman who fills sketch after sketch and canvas after canvas of Oliver’s work at the institution, as well as something to do with the antique bundle of French letters he keeps re-reading. The more Marlowe observes Oliver, the more he too becomes entranced with this otherworldly muse.

Thus begins a pursuit of an answer to the mystery that deepens into a pursuit of the truth itself and the setting aright of historic injustice. From the Washington gallery where it all began, Marlowe’s research takes him first to other American cities, then as far as France and Mexico. In order to unravel the secret of Oliver’s muse, he relies on what the artist’s other women – his ex-wife Kate and recent lover Mary – can tell him. The quest becomes the central force of Marlowe’s life.

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves is a novel about this obsession, and others. It is also a novel about possession – the ways in which inspiration and desperation can make us act beyond our wills and radically alter the trajectories not just of our lives, but of history itself. And although it lacks a sense of urgency or tight plotting, and too often gives in to small failings like over-description and meaningless detours, in the yearning of its characters, a clear sense of their passions is evoked. And this is ordinary yearning – only Oliver, whose genius sets him apart anyway, suffers from longing that is anything other than human, daily, and universal. The power of art transforms even the most commonplace of lives.

While it does suffer from some flaws in execution, and could have been more powerful in the hands of a more creative writer, The Swan Thieves is certainly recommended as a light yet absorbing read. At nearly 600 pages it provides several days’ worth of entertainment for the reader who enjoys a mellow mix that’s neither too literary nor too lowbrow. Although written in an unremarkable pedestrian style, and ultimately far too predictable to really qualify as a mystery, there is something both engrossing and satisfying about this book. It is as though the inscrutable Robert Oliver and his muse exert their spell over the reader as much as they do over Marlowe; we cannot help but be rapt.

An edited version appeared in today’s EDEX, The New Indian Express.

The Venus Flytrap: My Bloody Valentine

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There’s a story I like to tell about an incident that hasn’t happened yet, and to be realistic, might never actually occur. This may be my favourite, and most frequently contemplated, revenge fantasy, but it is also by far the most restrained one I could potentially imagine for this scenario. It puts me in an exuberant mood to describe its minutiae – who said what, who wore what, architectural detail, supporting characters, soundtrack and scenery. I love to see how my friends react as we reach the story’s singular defining triumph: the clip clop clip clop of my high heels as I walk away from the table into the afternoon light of a city straight out of a TV show.

My weapons are only words, and they are designed to leave incisions, but not casualties. I intend only to draw the curtains, not to draw blood. The most that is spilled are tears (not mine), and perhaps, for cinematic affectation, the contents of a fine-stemmed glass across a crisp tablecloth. The air ricochets, in that final frame, with the sound of stilettos, not bullets, and those stilettos themselves are deployed for no purposes sharper than style.

I am less tranquil, however, in art – both the art I consume and the art I create. “Not you too, Black Mamba!” I admonished the screen in the disappointing latter half of the Kill Bill diptych, as our Lady of Atonement herself mellowed out like the rest of us lily-livered mortals. Where was the gore and hunger of the first film? Give me blood and guts – literal and figurative – and righteous rage. And glory, in many spades. Do it with flair – do it like the merry murderesses in Chicago, cell-block-tangoing their way to fully, fabulously, deserved incarceration. The best vengeance is vicarious.

Violence enjoyed or expressed through art, indulged in imagination, or released in aggressive sport, is not senseless. If anything, it is sensible – even sensual. It’s a primal scream in a soundproof room. It’s also an indicator of one’s sanity or lack thereof. The sociopath is consumed by it – the sound-minded, as I said earlier, simply consume it. There is a delicious mercenary quality to brief immersion – by participating in a proxy ritual, be it armchair massacre or arm-wrestling, there is relief and satiation for that bloodthirst without anyone else having to suffer for it. Surrogate slaughter, if you will. It is singular obsession that is dangerous.

Perhaps this is why, for someone with such a taste for brutality, my own pet revenge fantasy is so decidedly sterile. No adrenaline, no deeply visceral satisfaction – but also no horrific aftermath, no guilt, no demons – at least, not new ones. What I want is closure. What I want is conversation. Neither are within my grasp for now, so I’ll take what I can get: staving off my madness, the madness we are all capable of, with another movie marathon, the violence of a Pollock, the brute force of the Bösendorfer in the Boys For Pele album, the drum dance, the deep laugh, the riot of my own angry paintbrushes, the pleasure in the way my own voice delivers a certain sequence of words into a microphone, the power to eviscerate a poem of its pretty so all that’s left is elemental, vital, staccato. Clip clop clip clop.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

On Street Art In Chennai

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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.

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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.

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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.