| Subversive at its core
I am not really up on the Bengal Anti-Defacement Act or whatever it's called. Equally, I am not surprised that the rest of India also supposedly follows this ancient piece of Raj legislation that came out of Calcutta, the intention of which was to stop people from writing or drawing whatever they wanted on walls and other surfaces open to public view. All I know is that there is already a long list of typically Calcutta things that have disappeared or are soon going to become extinct, and that our political graffiti are about to be added to this roll-call of shameful loss. Let us take a hard look at Calcutta and ask ourselves some straight questions.
Was this a planned city from its inception such as Brasilia, Canberra, Pretoria, Lutyens's Delhi or Chandigarh' No. Did we ever have a Louis Napoleon who ordered, or a Hausmann who carried out, the job of ripping up the winding lanes of old Paris and laying long, wide boulevards which provided both a sense of grandeur and clear fields of fire to over-awe any uppity working-class mobs' No. Next: post-Independence, post-1947, has any brilliant, modern, Indian, public, semi-public or private architecture ever touched our municipal space as it has in Ahmedabad, Delhi and even Jaipur' Forget about Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. Leaving aside recent additions such as Udayan and City Centre, is there any public building here designed by a Correa or a Doshi' Hell, no. Has there ever been a simple, down to earth, sensible, planning effort towards a municipal space which kept not just the comfort but also the aesthetic nourishment of the ordinary citizen in mind' Of course not.
So, what does that leave us' On the older hellish side it leaves us with a mass of the ugliest, ill-constructed, Sovietique architecture outside of Gagaringrad, a veritable aesthetic Chernobyl which radiates damp, dirty, depressing slabs of crumbling concrete, crepuscular piles which contain airless, lightless, dimly tube-lit warrens from which the non-existent Revolution was supposed to be administered. It leaves us with slums, dingy lower-middle-class mini-chawls and middle-class boxes that start to decay before they are even inhabited. It leaves us with the inexorable wiping out of any building of grace and beauty if that building has made the mistake of allowing itself to be built by the Ingrej Raj or during the Raj. It leaves us with the filling in of all those tiny parks, tanks and constructed pukurs that punctuated many areas of the city and made it unique.
On the newer hellish side it gives us flyovers that scar right across the face of old (and uncared for) institutions such as the Indian Museum; it gives us massive hydroceles of shopping malls that tower over small streets and bungalows, or which wipe over large tracts of open land in Salt Lake and other newer areas; it gives us a new bridge that not many people find practical to use and an old bridge that looks as though it's supported by pillars of garbage.
In short the 'new Calcutta' gives us the grim and the grey of the 60s, 70s and 80s overlaid with the gaudy and greedy of the 90s and the 00s. When I manage to get to Paris, I see not only the old architecture vibrantly and dynamically preserved, I also see witty new additions to it, I see completely new public spaces courageously conceptualized and brought into reality. When I think back about the transformation of London over the last fifteen years, I note a remarkably deep makeover. The Thames riverside has been completely transformed, the new Jubilee line is magnificently sci-fi, and even something as old and seemingly unchangeable as Trafalgar Square has been re-oriented and given new life. It is a transformation that began towards the end of the Thatcherite reign, that carried on through the optimistic beginning of Blair and Labour, and one that has sustained its momentum in these fractious days where London is split between the Blair/Brown national government and the far more radical mayoral administration of Ken Livingstone that actually runs the city. The bitterest of three-sided political rivalries has not impeded the yanking forward of a tradition-bound city such as London into the 21st century.
Visiting a wealthy enclave, you may sometimes be able to look into the open plate-glass windows of rich people's mansions and you might understandably envy them their antiques and their modern furniture. But when you return home to your own humble dwelling you also have to try and find something of value, something that pleases you and gives you hope. When I come back to Calcutta, I look for happy-making things that I cannot find elsewhere and I find very little. There is the great root-entwined elegance of the surviving semi-ruined bungalows; I now even find some of the semi-modern baadis built in the 40s and 50s very charming; a few of my old neighbourhoods and haunts still hang on to their character by the edge of their nails; and then, reassuring as ever, there are the political wall graphics.
Whether the city burghers and powers that be recognize it or not, the political wall-painting is the only thing that connects public Calcutta to the post-modern world, the only thing that is 'world-class' among all of Bengal's contemporary, non-traditional cultural production. Within a Chaplinesque animation of a series of repeated symbols, within the Duchampian-Warholian presence of a Cong-I hand, the palm perfectly replacing and riposting Marilyn Monroe's dis-registered face, or the hammer and sickle sliding into a lineage of Duchamp's famous urinal, there lies both a warm connection with, and a proud differencing from, the rest of the world. In the changing yet unshifting mural of Indira Gandhi's face at Poddopukur, there is more than a precursor-trace of Aleksander Sokurov's film, Soviet Elegy, with its train of still portraits of Russian leaders from Lenin to Yeltsin. In the large, thumping dance of the Bangla script across tracts of wall there is an answer to all sorts of pop artists, all species of installationists, all varieties of poster-makers and typographers the world over.
Even in the minimalist pre-painting scrawls ' 'all wall CPM, 1998-2028' ' there is an echo of the meditative, a desperately possessive awareness of time, making them light hors d'ouvres of counter-beauty to the highly worked lettering that is to supplant them. The artist and craftsman cadre who sweat all night to execute these works may not be aware of their kinship to artists as diverse as Diego Rivera, Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat, but the connection is there, alive and throbbing in the planetary collective unconscious.
There is a particular, impossible-to-fake power to be found in the genuine graphic expression of a people. Calcutta's wall painters are connected not only to those modern greats whose work sits large on museum walls but also to the popular muralists of Central America and Los Angeles, to the graffiti-commandos of NYC and other American cities, to the cheap poster-makers of the Paris at the previous turn of century. Despite the rhythmic hammer and sickle and the repeated slap of the palm, this wall-painting is, at its core, subversive. Despite the political parties it advertises, this web of lines and colour is anti-Sovietique and anti-fascist. It is of Bengal and of the city. It is human, with different painters showing individual take-offs in the grid of the allowed messages and stamps, in the illustrations, in the lettering, and even in the deployment of the limited colours available. This is popular production, but it also displays the serious play required for any work to reach the level of genuine art.
Whether through the idiocy of the Election Commission or the tragically shrivelled imagination of the neo-Stalinists, this particular baby, too, is in danger of being thrown out with the bathwater. Even as the spatial and visual gang-rape of Calcutta continues around us, we will stand by and watch as yet another human element is snuffed out of our city and yet another dose of sterility injected into our aesthetic ecosphere. Perhaps the question people in power, both the EC and the state government, need to ask themselves is: what is there left to deface in this city, that we can either use or repeal the Anti-Defacement Act'