Posters and hoardings in Kerala show a disconnect between one’s personal and political lives.

One thing that will strike any pedestrian in a Kerala city, town, or village will be the ubiquity of posters, banners, hoardings, wall writing and flex boards that relentlessly punctuate one’s line of sight. All over the walls, perched on electric and telephone posts, astride the edges of sprawling paddy fields, atop high-rise buildings and, in some cases, even on the surface of the macadam roads, one comes across signs and emblems, slogans, appeals and allegations, wake-up calls and pontificating messages. This visual barrage can be seen in other places too, but mostly in urban centres and cities. Also these are often cinema hoardings, commercial ads or cut-outs of political leaders and social, religious and political wannabes. In places like Chennai, flex boards announce marriages and funerals too.

But what marks Kerala apart is the sheer diversity of textual content and visual design. For one, Kerala has a long history of such ‘public art and literature’, as they were employed extensively by socio-political and cultural movements. The early spread of literacy allowed it to go beyond the print media and reach out to the masses. Until a few years ago, one only needed to read wall posters in the city to keep track of the socio-political events at the local, national and international levels. Wall writings like ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ or ‘Condemn the execution of Benjamin Molois’ and fiery slogans against George Bush, U.S. Imperialism, apartheid and passionate cheers for Chairman Mao, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat were a common sight even in small towns. In some places, there were rare instances of individuals putting up handwritten posters to publicly vent their socio-political and spiritual angst from time to time. All these disparate images and texts together wove a very popular and extensive public art/ literature that turned the town into a virtual newspaper. They reminded pedestrians of the world around and invited and provoked them to take positions, join forces, contest claims and assert identities.

But the post-liberalisation decades and the advent of digital technology changed both the tone and tenor and the form and content of this public art or agit-prop discourse. There has been a definite shift from words to images, and messages to personalities. The posters, flexes, wall writings and hoardings of the current Lok Sabha election campaign offer a glimpse of the shift: the poster/ flex surface is dominated by the image of the candidate accompanied by his emblem/ party sign. The textual part is next to nil. Even in huge hoardings that display the ‘achievements’ of the sitting MPs, the hoarding is dominated by a huge image of the candidate. The long list of achievements is in small print (similar to that in investment offers); evidently it is not meant for reading but only to create a visual impact.

One major event that changed the scene was the entry of computer graphics and the eventual shift in media surface. Earlier, thousands of local calligraphists and artists painted on the walls, paper or cloth, made screen or block prints, and painted the hoardings grid by grid. Now, everything is designed on a computer screen — using drop-down menus and Photoshop colour palette — to be printed later in the required scale and size. There is no direct engagement with the actual surface or with the scale/ size of the final display. The integration of outdoor publicity with advertisement and display through other audiovisual and print media platforms necessitated the synchronisation of content, design and layout at the visual, textual and aural planes. Such centralisation in visual and sound design/ layout and of image/ text production has left thousands of ‘public artists’ redundant and unemployable.

This shift from analog to the digital also created a kind of vacuum especially in the area of calligraphy and lettering, which used to have great variety and innovativeness across regions and agencies. Now everything is driven by the tool kits and drop-down menus of Photoshop, creating an illusion of abundance and choices. Ironically, if one studies the umpteen flex boards and posters that crowd our visual field, one is struck by the overwhelming similarity — not diversity — in design, layout and image composition. This facility with imaging and colour, shape and tones has facilitated and accentuated the shift of focus from textual content to visual imagery; from message to self-promotion and information to publicity. With the shrinking of text, the aspect of ‘message’ or ‘appeal’ in the display too follows suit. With no political charge, they are just ‘outdoor publicity’ vying with commercial ads. On the visual plane, the image of the leader becomes the sole message.

The intervention of the computer screen has led to a total disconnect between the artist/ creator and the final surface of display — wall, cloth, board, or paper — and the eventual loss of touch with actual scale and size of the output. In a way, this also replicates the crisis of representation in democracy, reflecting the increasing disconnect in our personal and political lives, civil and political society, public and government.

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