MADURAI MATTERS It’s the single most visible material sign of political activity that is ubiquitous here, say parties

Graffiti writing is one of the easiest and most efficient ways for individuals and opposing groups to register political dissidence, express social alienation, propagate anti-system ideas, and establish an alternative collective memory. — Lyman Chaffee.

The Corporation’s move to ban wall writing/ graffiti following a jostle for space between the two major political parties in the city has indeed brought mixed reaction among various political parties and social movements.

This effort to clean up the city by the authorities is seen by social movements as an effort against the marginalised and provide a freehand for the mobilisation on the part of the middleclass to further their access to the cityscape and their right to a clean environment.

Irrespective of parties and movements, wall writing has been the most vital means of expressing information and is the single most visible material sign of political activity that is ubiquitous here. Tried, tested and fine tuned, more than half a century, they have become essential characteristics of the State’s political culture.

For Dalit parties, political graffiti is a means to claim territories and inscribe their otherwise contained identities on public property. If not performed on the public and private landscape, graffiti loses its meaning; its meaning is in fact anchored to spatial contexts, said, Kani Amudhan, state deputy secretary, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi. He sees the ban as an effort to curb the growth of parties of the marginalised who do not have the media power to reach the masses.

For the Dalits, the notion of space formed the central social idiom of their struggle and as political movements it becomes pertinent for them to claim space within urban areas on par with other parties as can be seen in wall posters, flagpoles and murals. A huge wall painting carrying the image of B. R. Ambedkar on a prominent public space indicates the self-assertion of the marginalised and the creation of a new political identity laced with social justice. Graffiti here turns the environment that broadcasts their existence, agency and self-defined identity.

B. Vikraman, urban district secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that his party views this move as against the idea of freedom of expression and strangling democracy. But, he added that the party welcomes move to reinforce legal conventions that have developed to regulate paintings that contain communally sensitive stuff and also at particular places such as educational institutions, temples and government offices.

Prominent political theorist Partha Chatterjee elsewhere has said that the ban on political graffiti is part of “zeal to cleanse and sanitise” the public political arena. “It is a desire to rid the space of citizenship of all the noise, smell and gaudiness of a publicly mobilised plebeian culture that is now being seen as both an impediment to and an embarrassment for an India seeking to be become a world power.” But the worst affected by the ban are the graffiti writers. M. Ezhil (31) of Vellaripatti in Madurai, who has been involved in drawing political graffiti, says that during birthdays of prominent political leaders, film stars and Guru Puja times he used to make Rs.50, 000. “A ban on graffiti would lead us to a situation where we have to lose a major portion of our income,” he noted.

New phenomenon

This function of creating visibility lies at the heart of graffiti from its very beginnings; it formed an integral part of the Dravidian political discourse, where icons from the past were used to construct newer political meanings.

Not only political parties and social movements fighting for marginalised but even supporters coming from working class background in mainstream parties use this visibility to make themselves visible as well.

However, recently there were efforts to beautify the walls which once had graffiti carrying strong political and social messages; new artists were commissioned to adore the walls with images of the city’s cultural heritage and glorious past. The administration prefers that these cultural traditions should be kept alive within the city and murals should teach the young about the city’s culture and historic past.

Political parties in the State are still largely dependent on support from lower socio-economic classes, and this makes the politics of visibility necessary after all. On the other hand, the desire to upgrade the city towards a well-upholstered appearance through an array of urban development schemes and invite investors is pushing them to “clean-up” the city.

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