Posters, flex boards, hoardings and banners drip eulogy all over Madurai

In one of the busy lanes on the Town Hall Road, men in white dhotis huddle around a computer at a flex board designing centre and instruct the designer to highlight the copy of the gazette held by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.

The partymen have been tasked with designing a flexboard that will depict the CM’s effort to get the Cauvery River Tribunal Award notified in the gazette. And what better opportunity than this for them to also assert their presence in the party.

Historian Sandria Freitag says religious and political processions carve out a public sphere in India and visual symbols play a critical role.

Madurai is a city synonymous with a strong visual culture and carnivals. The political climate here has always provided the space for a new form of visual publicity to flourish. Every political party has embraced the opportunity presented to it.

A press unit owner says that Dravidian parties followed by Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi were their major customers. Earlier, on occasions such as birthdays of party leaders and during elections, orders would flow in. But in the recent past, restrictions by the Election Commission and the emergence of flex boards have affected their business.

Archival sources give us an idea of how posters dominated the city in the past. In Atul Kohli’s ‘Democracy and discontent: India’s growing crisis of governability,’ there is a reference to Madurai of 1984. It says, “The AIADMK in Madurai was virtually indistinguishable from the name and image of MGR.” City streets were dominated by larger-than-life posters of MGR in his trademark sunglasses. Gaudy posters and garlanded pictures were everywhere. The DMK regime (2006-11) did not lag behind. Be it posters, flex boards, hoardings or banners, they were always outsized and dripping eulogy. Any event of the DMK was heralded by festoons, posters and flex boards of various sizes.

Says Abdul Kareem, proprietor, Arasan Litho Press, “AIADMK, the Communist parties and all caste-based organisations form our major customer group. The fan clubs and trade unions once dominated the scene but not any more. The period when a new government takes charge after elections is when orders pour in.”

Getting caught for printing posters with inflammatory content during the 1990s was common for many of the units, given the political climate then. “But now we have instructed our association members not to print such posters and be careful with the language,” adds Mr. Kareem.

In Sellur, huge billboards cover the facades of houses during local festivals or marriage ceremonies. Says A. Jaganathan, a PhD scholar of Madurai Kamaraj University, “This is a unique feature of Madurai’s visual culture where a sense of narcissistic pleasure prevails among people to see their own images alongside their favourite leaders, film stars and community icons.”

K. Nagarajan, joint secretary, Madurai Flex board Printers Association, reiterates that restriction by the government has resulted in dwindling business.

“During the last DMK regime, we got bulk orders and ran out of time to produce them. But now, even marriage orders do not come our way as a lengthy administrative process awaits customers before they get permission to erect flex boards,” he says. Nagarajan feels easing the norms would bring relief to 400-odd such units in the city whose businesses are facing a crisis now.

The three clans of Kallar, Agamudaiyar and Maravars are among the castes which put up mega-size flex boards during marriages, festivals and major events, and most importantly during Thevar Guru Puja.

Contested space

“This sphere of aesthetics becomes political and a contested space as Dalits too are engaging in occupation of public space through flex boards as they have to make their presence visible,” says writer Stalin Rajangam.

Dr.B.R.Ambedkar riding a chariot pulled by leopards and tigers, Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar sitting on a throne surrounded by lions and tigers or a chariot being drawn by tigers, and Immanuel Sekaran in military garb holding a machine gun are some of the popular images one sees during the months of September and October ahead of the guru pujas.

Mr.Nagaraj confirms that the Thevar community, people from Sellur, Vazhaithoppu, Kaalavasal and Meenatchipuram form the majority of their customers.

This practice of having huge flex boards and larger than life hoardings has evoked criticism from the general public, particularly road users. There have been freak accidents where pedestrians have been killed in Madurai by falling flex boards.

The defacing of posters and the inflammatory content of such signage have resulted in caste clashes in this caste sensitive district.

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