My story on looking for quiet places to read my new manuscript in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, featuring an elephant surprise, is in Condé Nast Traveller India. You can read it here.
Maybe they don’t know everything, the women with the divining sticks, but they sure know how to reel a girl in. Maybe they don’t see everything, but they do see you there on the beach, alone or in some laidback configuration, and somehow – they see enough.
And so they come up to you as you’re rolling your jeans up or dusting your bum off, scrunching the newspaper your sundal came in and absentmindedly considering whether to litter, trash or recycle. And they look you in the eyes with a smile of recognition and say: “Nee ambulaiya poranthirikanum, ma!” You should have been born a man.
Even later, when you find out that there’s nothing unique about this line, you will consider it a compliment, because it is meant as one.
And the shore-side soothsayer will offer you this opening gambit as she takes your palm, because whatever else she knows or doesn’t, she can intuit you aren’t going to take it as an insult.
Though later, you learn: some women who do terrible things to other women have been told it too. Other women who do worse things to themselves have been told it too. Are those also ways to be men, then? “Internalised misogyny,” you think. Women who should have been born men because maybe then they would hate themselves, and each other, less.
Even later, when you bristle and say, “Well, if I lived somewhere else, was steeped in better societal conditioning, desexing me wouldn’t feel like a compliment.”
But you don’t live anywhere but here. You live here in this city by the sea. With a long beach where you could be detained for holding hands at night. And by the brightness of day, you give yourself away because only someone who doesn’t mind sun-kissed skin would be loitering. Someone like you, a woman like a man.
Count them and see how few they are, the women. How far between the canoodling (straight) couples and the water-shy families. While half-naked men splash around like they own this city, or indeed, this sea.
“Should have been born a man”, you ponder – and you look at the transwomen who also mill about between stalls selling blackened corn and displaying balloons to shoot for prizes. And you wonder what the fortune-tellers say to them, though you don’t quite know how to ask.
And not yet, not today, but soon – you may wander along that beach and arrive at the memorial of another woman who “should have been born a man”. And you’ll think of the crowds of men in white who surrounded her, and all the women still in their kitchens, whose lives she made a little easier.
At first, when you were younger, you thought that all that the fortune-tellers meant with that provocative, alluring opening gambit was this: that you have courage in excess, a province you demurred was not exclusively male. Later you understood: if you were a man, in this place and in this time, what you could do with that courage would have multiplied. Or to put it another way, perhaps you wouldn’t have needed that much courage at all.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 8th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
I wanted to encounter my gods as objects of beauty, and not as objects of praise. There, in the Bronze Gallery, I found I had miscalculated, for what was I doing if not engaging in idolatry, tracing with my eyes limbs and lines that had transferred from wax to mould to molten five-metal? They had travelled through centuries coveted and worshipped, smuggled and salvaged, to arrive finally behind glass – bare of turmeric, the cascade of milk, the caress of flowers.
I wanted to encounter myself at 19 again, the last time I had been in this gallery (isn’t this the shame of all of us who don’t appreciate beauty within stone’s throw of our dwellings, hungering for distant terrains to locate our most inspiring experiences in?). I want to say I have visited it in the interim years, and perhaps I have – but the only clear memory I have is of exploring it with another girl, to whom I texted a whole Audre Lorde poem to, stanza by stanza, whose admiration of the cambers of womanly bodies in bronze I had hoped to mean something more than purely aesthetic.
I looked from the statues to the mirrors behind them, poised so as to allow a dorsal view: the way a garment drapes at the back, snail-curls of hair. I was in those mirrors too.
In Tiruvarur, years ago, someone pointed to a woman in the Mucukunda murals, another feat of Chola artistry, and told me that she looked just like me. This became my conceit: a devadasi from centuries ago, ancestress or avatar. When the murals were fully restored later, I was fortunate to be among the celebrating party. We were given mirrored trays so we could wander the hall and look at the paintings on the ceiling without straining our necks. I stood underneath my dark-skinned, long-eyed charmer and saw her face and mine in the same reflection. It was a moment of triumphant vanity, a mysterious confrontation. There’s a funny comfort in catching one’s own eye.
When confronted by beauty upon beauty, one sees nuance, becomes partial to certain renderings. In the Bronze Gallery, I contemplated how we cannot touch these statues, but other hands have. Artistan, thief, curator. I imagine a pair pressing a stylus into the softness of wax, a softness that the 16th century Devi in the far-eastern corner embodies and expresses with eyes that brim with stone-still sadness. From that Audre Lorde poem on the fullness of body and moon – Thus I hold you / frank in my heart’s eye / in my skin’s knowing / as my fingers conceive your flesh…
I walked away, gazed down at her from an upper level, returned to cross the hall only to adore her again. She was the reason I had contemplated touch. It was her eloquent left eye that held me captivated. In the play of light and shadow in that corner, the right one was opaque. Right eye stoic to the world, left eye brimming with truth. This was how I saw her.
But who’s to say who or what it was I saw – sculpture, mirror, self, memory, symbol?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 29th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
Motherland carries a long article on performances in Tamil funerals, specifically focused on two oppari singers from Ayodhyakuppam, Chennai, and the self-styled subculture star Marana Gana Viji. Read it here.
There are places in the world known only because of the events that catapult them to recognition; their names become a metonym for the atrocities or tragedies that occurred there. This is what happened to Vachathi. Deep in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, fringing the expanse of semi-evergreen forests in the Kalrayan Hills of the Eastern Ghats, the hamlet of Vachathi was as unremarkable as any other until the summer of 1992. The dacoit Veerappan, scourge of South India’s woodlands, was nearing the apex of his powers; the following year, the state government would deploy its Border Security Force to carry out his arrest. It would be over a decade before he would finally be killed. But in the thirty years during which he evaded capture, the pursuit of the dreaded brigand fuelled tensions in the relationship between the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, involved at least two high profile kidnappings and numerous murders – and resulted also in much collateral damage of less immediately conspicuous proportions. Among these was Vachathi.
Vachathi borders the Sathyamangalam forest and was, and remains, fertile with various kinds of produce – mango, pearl millet and turmeric for example, but also a certain highly coveted tree: sandalwood. Except in Kerala, the fragrant and lucrative timber is largely controlled through state licensing in the South; it is an offence to possess more than 20kg of the commodity. Veerappan was its most successful, and more reviled, poacher. It was while investigating a sandalwood smuggling racket possibly associated with Veerappan that a team of forest officials and police officers raided the village on the evening of June 20, 1992.
Daylight still brightened the vicinity at that hour. Its inhabitants were still out in the orchards, gathering fruit, or working in the pastures. Vachathi’s population, mostly consisting of tribals, numbered around 2,000 at this time. Most of the men had yet to return from their work, which took them further afield – or, as some accounts put it, they had escaped as they heard the vehicles approaching. When the jeeps arrived, carrying a battalion of 269 police officers, forest authorities and revenue officials, whoever remained – women, children, the elderly and the unwell – were rounded up.
Accosted, dragged by the hair or coerced by brute force if they put up any resistance, they were made to congregate under the immense banyan tree, the traditional locus of the village’s activities. The allegations against its residents were that they had participated in a racket, hiding chopped bundles of sandalwood in their agricultural fields: 60 tonnes of the same were seized and handed over to the government after the operation. Thirty women and ten men were made to lead the way to the buried sandalwood. Female constables, though present on duty, did not accompany them.
Meanwhile, those assembled in the shade of the banyan were routinely thrashed. A small shrine to the goddess Mariamman, also situated under the tree, was vandalized. These were the least of the brutalities that would take place in the course of the events known now as “the Vachathi case”. As night fell, over a hundred people were held under police custody and taken away. The rest fled into the Sitheri hills, where they stayed for months, traumatised.
Some of the women taken under custody were first taken to a nearby lake and raped, made to urinate in view of their attackers and subjected to abusive language. The ordeal was repeated at the Forest Rangers Office in Harur, the taluk headquarters. Through the long night that followed, the eighteen women who later came forward as victims were each exposed to the cruelty of multiple assailants. The youngest of the women was 13 years old at the time.
Among the four men taken under custody that night was Vachathi’s village chieftain, Perumal. Police personnel had a singular punishment in mind for him at the Forest Rangers Office. The ninety women also apprehended there were made to assemble into three rows. They watched as the officers stripped him to the waist and tortured him. When he collapsed, the first two rows of women were given broom sticks. They were told to beat the chieftain – if they did not, they in turn were hit with lathis. They refused to strip him of his trousers, as instructed to, but they could not refuse to beat him or watch him being beaten.
It was nearly two months before the detained were released. Many had been held at the Salem Central Prison; a total of 133 villagers were incarcerated, including twenty-eight children. What they came upon on their return to Vachathi was a scene of utter desecration.
The village had been looted of everything of value within the first two days of the operation, but it had also been rendered inhabitable. Most of the houses were razed. The livestock had been killed, mostly to be used as meat, and the village well had been used as a dump for the remains. Chicken heads, goat skin, bones and other inedible parts of the carcasses filled and contaminated its water.
Other wells were filled with equipment and daily instruments: grinding stones, bicycles, utensils and engines were found discarded. Grains that had been kept in storage had been mixed with glass.
An old woman and two dogs were all that remained. Every other living being was still in hiding in the hills, in fear of a second attack. Behind the shelter of shrubbery and rocks, they had managed to survive in the most primitive of ways. Some women, pregnant at the time of the raid on the village, had even given birth under these conditions.
Wrecked in mind and body, punished as a collective for the criminal endeavours of a few in their midst, the former residents of the village of Vachathi, now the survivors of the Vachathi incident, took a long time to trust the help extended to them by NGOs and different government bodies. They continued to live as foragers for a time, finally choosing to accept the assistance of former MLA, M. Annamalai, who promised their protection. It would be three years before an FIR, spearheaded by the district’s CPI (M) representatives, was filed. A CBI probe into the incident was begun in 1995.
It was not until September 29 2011 – almost two decades after Vachathi and its inhabitants were pillaged and violated – that justice, at least in its legal form, was served. The case had moved from courts in Coimbatore and Krishnagiri to the Dharmapuri sessions court, which finally lay down its verdict.
That 34 of the victims, among hundreds, had died over the course of the investigation and trial is not in itself strange: the villagers had been left impoverished, and among the sufferers were the elderly and the ailing. More surreally, perhaps, no less than 53 of the 269 of the accused – all of them government employees able-bodied enough to perform the brutalities committed on the night of June 20 1992 – had died in the interim years. Only 216 remain to serve the punishments decided by the Dharmapuri sessions court: 10 years of rigorous imprisonment under the SC/ST act for atrocities against tribals (specifically, torture, unlawful restraint, abuse of office and looting). Seventeen officials found guilty of rape were sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment.
For the people of Vachathi, however, who have begun to properly rebuild their lives only in the last few years, it is unclear whether the verdict, in effect, is more than a symbolic victory. The time they have spent waiting for justice is longer than the sentences that have been served to their persecutors. The financial compensation awarded is meagre: only 15,000 rupees each have been given to the rape victims, while the loss of livelihood, destruction of property and mental trauma among the populace at large has gone unconsidered. The SC/ST Commission, which in 1997 offered 1.25 crores in compensation to 500 villagers, had provided more by way of monetary assistance than the court.
At present, the case may be appealed in the High Court of Madras. Meanwhile, the village of Vachathi continues to slowly pick up the pieces: its people rebuild their lives in the shadow of the horrific incident which its name has come to stand for. They have reconstructed its 250 houses and gained access to a secondary school. The great banyan beneath which they were tortured still stands, its Mariamman shrine restored.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.
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.
My essay, “The Aftermath, The Afterlife”, is in Killing The Buddha. You can read it here.
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.
I have a long essay on the aesthetics of the city of Chennai in the current issue of Caravan magazine. Caravan is a journal of politics and culture and is available nationwide at good bookshops, and can also be read digitally here.
This is how we know that the financial crisis has finally hit home: pretty soon, there are going to be multitudes more homeless on the streets of Tamil Nadu. As tends to happen in times of crisis, they will come almost exclusively from one minority: in this unfortunate case, bootleggers. Whereas the impoverished masses generally seek solace in drink, these former Sultans of Smirnoff, these de-crowned Jesuses of Jose Cuervo, traditionally find salvation in dryness. The state’s, that is. But those days are over. Tamil Nadu is letting liquor loose.
As per honoured cultural customs, alcohol can only be procured via four avenues: from the government-run TASMACs, duty-free at the airport for those lucky jetsetters, overpriced in bars (that must by law be attached to twenty rooms – independence is always evil), or from our buddies the bootleggers. But now that imported liquor will become available in the TASMACs and rumours of even more relaxed laws swirl around town like the olive in a martini, those customs are soon to be a thing of the past. Goodbye innocence, hello mass inebriation.
Since all social problems are inconceivable without the presence of an intoxicating substance (such as gulab jamun, frequently found at traumatic events like weddings), we can expect a huge surge in crime and moral decline. It is well-documented that elephants never rampage, students never fail exams, trains never get derailed and women are never abandoned without alcohol being involved somehow.
The fact that one of history’s most famous teetotalers was Adolf Hitler, and some of history’s most famous leading lushes included Winston Churchill, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (the latter two were also a whiskey distiller and a wine-grower, respectively), should be regarded only as mere coincidence and a purposeful distortion of data.
Let’s not forget that extremely dangerous side effect of liquor consumption: honesty. Can you imagine how bleak a future without hypocrisy, self-censorship, underhanded insults and duplicity will be? It may lead to a breakdown of all communication. We’ll all have to hike out somewhere far from civilization, grow out dreadlocks, get high and ponder our navels and the origin of the universe. Unlike anything ascribed in our holy and historical traditions, of course. If things get really apocalyptic, we may even begin to take up that celebrity-endorsed foreign import, yoga.
And a word on the health consequences. Alcohol may have been proven to protect against cardiovascular disease and extend the lives of moderate drinkers, but more importantly by far, it is also known to cause sterility, impotence and lack of libido. We are definitely better off without any impediments to our ongoing social experiments, such as trouncing China in the quest to fit the most number of malnourished babies into a single square kilometre as possible, and getting our most unpleasant relatives married off and out of the range of our rifle scopes.
Finally, on a most sobering note, we can only imagine what will happen to the house rules that prevent men from entering dens of sin in slippers. As everybody knows, there is nothing more uncontrollably titillating, or more of an invitation to collapse into anarchy, than the sight of the male toes. Today it’s tequila instead of homegrown toddy. Tomorrow, it will be a pageant of protruding pinkies and podiatric cleavage. Oh impressionable, corruptible, guilelessly gullible people of the post-prohibition era – how will we ever survive such an onslaught?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.
That night, the oppari singer didn’t just stop singing when she was asked to. She wept as she stopped.
We were in a home with a small baby and no death in sight, only poetry. And still, she wept. Somebody took her in their arms and kissed her cheeks. Someone else brought her fruit.
Her work is the lament. She could not sing lullabies; her voice was too oriented in the work of grief, of allowing the bereaved to mourn.
This was months ago, at the home of a noted folkloric preservationist, and the singer was a professional mourner from Chennai’s Marina Beach. 7000 people live in the kuppams between the lighthouse and Broken Bridge. Many depend on fishing for their livelihoods. They bear every stigma that the marginalized suffer, and were Chennai’s most devastated community in the 2004 tsunami.
Last week, in conversation with someone deeply involved in the community, I came to know of what some fear is the second tsunami: eviction, dislocation, clearance.
I am told that what we are about to witness is disaster capitalism – in this case, using the tsunami excuse as a means of changing the entire face of the beach. The actual plans have not been released – but beachfront luxury properties and corporate buildings are expected to take precedence over human rehabilitation.
I went to the kuppams, just to get a feel for this change. “Of course there is sadness,” one man told me. “But the government has promised that fishing people can stay. Only ‘guests’ will be moved elsewhere.” I asked if he trusted the government. He said he did, adding, “We don’t want what happened in MGR’s period. We’ll adjust.” The incident he referred to were riots that took place during an attempted clearance of Nochikuppam and surrounding areas.
One woman saw us looking over a bare plot of land. “Fishermen’s houses will we built here,” she said, broadly smiling. But I knew, for a fact, that this is not absolute. Other intentions – some good, most not – have different designs.
I came away knowing I had only begun to scratch the surface of something enormous.
When I think of the oppari singer, I wonder if the death she was serenading that night was as much oracular as it was body-memory. A way of life is dying out, and there will be people who suffer with it as it does. It can be argued that it’s dying anyway, and it is – but to be evicted 20km from the beach means it could die even within the lifetimes of those engaged in it today.
It is more than armchair anthropology that leaves me heartsick. The battle for the kuppams along the Marina, if there is to be one, is the battle for the soul of Chennai. This cannot be overestimated. Imagine the beach overrun with high-rises, hotels, corporate monoliths, and maybe, a few discreet low-cost buildings. We may be on par with any first-world city. But we will no longer be Chennai.
Before Chennai, before Madras, were the little pre-colonial fishing hamlets along the Coromandel Coast.
This is where it all began. To lose this is to lose the origins of the city itself. Take any side you want – rationalist, sentimentalist, spiritualist, socialist, traditionalist, artist. Take the capitalist side if you must, but acknowledge what we are about to lose in this gentrification of this coast (as if a wild geographical feature can ever be gentrified – did the tsunami teach nothing?).
Perhaps nothing can be done but mourn. Then, let this be mourned the way it deserves to be. Like the oppari singer did that night. Like nothing but the song exists – because soon, nothing will.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.
I’m exhausted — and we have one day left of Madras Week! Expect long recap with pictorial evidence sometime in the coming week, but for now just wanted to announce a spoken word event tomorrow morning IN ADDITION to our final sinful reading (Lust for last, obviously).
As you may know, I love persona poetry, and I love the coast, and I love any morning when I wake up in time to see the sun rise. So am looking forward to this.
Living Statues of Marina Beach walking tour.
Sunday August 24, 7.30am at the Kannagi statue.
Featuring brief performances and talks at the statues of
1) Kannagi, 2) NSC Bose, 3) Thiruvalluvar, 4) GU Pope,
5) Bharathidasan, and 6) Avvaiyar. English and Tamil.
90 mins. Free. Facilitated by the World Storytelling
Institute, 98403 94282.