Dutch anthropologist Roos Gerritsen is intrigued by how much compound walls are a visual street culture of the city

Our city may not have public spaces comparable to the Times Square or even the Tahrir Square, but Chennai has its own claim to public space — compound walls! The public space that Germany-based Dutch anthropologist Roos Gerritsen finds very intriguing. Apparently, since buildings rise directly along street margins in Western cities, especially in commercial areas, they do not have the luxury of too many compound walls, and even less opportunity for graffiti on them.

While Roos likes South Chennai for its proximity to the sea, it is north Chennai that she finds most interesting. “It is a rich hunting ground for my research as it is much more cramped and has more interesting things on its walls,” says Roos, who teaches media, visual culture, urban anthropology and anthropology of South Asia at the Heidelberg University.

Ever since she visited the city the first time in 2002 as a young student and an Indophile, Roos has been coming back every year, staying here for several months at a time, exploring the city’s streets on a motorbike or on foot. “What is interesting is that Chennai’s compound walls allow its people — especially the ordinary ones — an opportunity to have their say,” remarks Roos.

She recently displayed her photo documentary of urban public spaces — the city’s compound walls — as visual street culture of Chennai. Considering that the city’s compound walls are covered with obnoxious notices and layers of posters glued one over the other, one would not have thought of art in connection with the city’s walls. “But even with posters, there is realism and art, colors and ideas. It does tell you about people and their minds,” says Roos.

The fan phenomenon

Roos recently completed extensive research for her doctorate ‘Fandom On Display: Intimate Visualities And The Politics Of Spectacle’ on the fan phenomenon in Tamil Nadu. “I don’t want to look at art or films from an elitist perspective. I want to understand how the masses see art and respond to films.” Does hero-worship of film actors seem juvenile to her? “Not really, it is a little similar to the behaviour of soccer fans in the U.S., and I see that fan clubs here help people to connect and become part of a network of friends,” says Roos. In her research, Roos looks at fan clubs, at how cinematic imagery is produced, disseminated and consumed, visual technologies used in vernacular politics, the interplay between cinema and the street-level appropriation of film celebrities, use of posters by film and political fans and how this becomes part of Tamil Nadu’s version of neo-liberalism.

Roos had started off with studying wedding videos and albums in this part of the world, for her M.A. research, when she noticed that several young couples here included photographs or messages of their favourite film stars. “I was intrigued by the connection between the young couple‘s personal lives and the film inputs,” she says, adding, “My next focus is on the lives of the people on the fringes of the Tamil movie industry — such as dancers and stand-ins.” Roos is also known for her series of articles ‘Chennai Beautiful: Shifting Urban Landscapes And The Unanticipated City’.