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Art or Not?

Driving around the city has always been natural to me. Whether it was for work, visiting relatives and friends or embarking on new adventures, Chennai never fails to surprise me. What I absolutely enjoy about these drives is soaking in this beautiful city. I enjoy taking in the different scenes that pass by, the people, animals, buildings, the sounds and smells, and just letting my mind wander. These journeys help me observe small things like a new addition to an old building, a new restaurant or the demise of an old one, a sudden enamel signboard in a crowd of LED ones, and, my favourite, the political graffiti or wall paintings.

I remember this one time I was on the way to the book fair being held at the usual venue of St. George’s School in Kilpauk. Just as I was taking the turn off the Harrington Road subway, I noticed the compound wall of the corner plot, belonging to Pachaiyappa’s College, being given a makeover of a kind. I slowed down to catch a glimpse of something I’d long been waiting to see - the behind-the-scenes of the beautifully written names of political leaders and personalities. For as long as I can remember, I’ve never paused to process the name of the person but I would always be awestruck at the skill, wondering how they get the outlines and design of the letters SO perfectly. I don’t remember which of the two Dravidian parties had the good fortune of getting such a prime spot bestowed upon them, but I distinctly remember the curves and lines and the flawless outline that had been painted on. Cut to the recent past, and I was waiting at the Thevar Selai signal when my eyes were looking around aimlessly and landed on the political lettering opposite. Again, I’ve long forgotten the name of the person, but I clearly remember the curves and colours that brightened my wait.

The neons, blues, greens and reds lend so much richness to our city that I, as is habitual of me, had a scene of the city without them flicker past me. How colourless and soulless would Chennai become, I thought to myself! Be it the red and black of the rising sun, the green of the two leaves, or the bright red sickle, the inherent culture of the city and its fundamental relationship with politics is vibrantly visible in these works of art. This goes right down to the smaller markings announcing ← D.M.K → or ← A.I.A.D.M.K →, thereby setting aside that particular wall or space for the party. But beyond all this, for a great period of time, they played a significant role in disseminating information as well.

We just had a major election get over and are coming out of the several propaganda, in all mediums, that buried us under. But, back when televisions weren’t aplenty and mobile phones were a thing of the distant past, it was these wall paintings that would help people know about their candidates and their party symbols. Over time, these came to be usurped by flex banners, but unfortunate, disastrous incidents have more or less brought the life of the banners to an end. Interestingly, rural areas in Tamil Nadu see a greater number of these political wall paintings when compared to urban areas. This is due to the Model Code of Conduct in Tamil Nadu that prevents political wall graffiti campaigns in the latter during elections.

What’s remained constant, however, is the larger than life depictions of the political leaders. The artists (and maybe the party members?) come up with fascinating imagery and stories to convey the happenings in the party. This happened with the demise of one of the tall leaders of the state, J. Jayalalitha when the AIADMK had a tumultuous saga of throning and dethroning. During this period, the party paintings would largely have her, her two ‘successors’ and her ever-popular predecessor, in varying scales dependent on their perceived and revered role in the party and the state. Similarly, with the ageing health and, later, the death of another tall and significant leader, M. Karunanidhi, imageries and literal references of his son, and the current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. K. Stalin, began appearing, with a strong message of the baton being passed over.

Of course, colours play an indispensable role. Blue dominates the paintings of parties like VCK and their leader, the enigmatic Thol. Thirumavalavan, a direct reflection of the party’s ideologies and aspirations. Red and black are the primary colours for the two major Dravidian parties, with white being an addition for the AIADMK. Neon is generally used as a drop shadow or fill, to grab the attention of the passerby, day or night. Realistic images often use the appropriate colours, with the same neon sometimes being used for creating an emphasised effect. These renderings follow the party hierarchy religiously, with the people painted in descending scales of significance or roles in the party.

These paintings do seem to stand out of context in many areas, and a line of thought completely opposite to mine is that of people considering the political wall paintings as defacement of public property. They come from the perspective that a large number of the walls are collective property and cannot be used to promote political agenda. Looking at the larger, and simplistic picture, this is an avenue that provides work to hundreds of artists, some of whose livelihoods are based on this. What is defacement in one’s eyes is a peek into the city’s ecosystem, and in extension, the talent and skill of unnamed artists, for another.

After all, and reiterating, Chennai would lose a great part of her colour without these splendid works of art.

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