As part of the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike’s ambitious “beautification” project, local artists are painting the city’s walls red, virtually. Where anti-establishment graffiti earlier used to cry out loud, today you have paintings of the demure, traditional and the conformists.
According to civic officials, the paintings are being done with a view to curbing “defacement”, promoting the State’s tourist destinations and highlighting the State’s “rich and vibrant culture”.
The paintings of heritage sites like Hampi, Halebid and the countryside have triggered a larger debate among artists, planners and critics over a fundamental issue: “Who decides what goes on our walls?” This, in turn, has given way to the question: “How to decide on the aesthetics of the city?”
S.G. Vasudev, a renowned artist, says that such projects have to be very carefully planned. The civic authority should not go about mindlessly painting the walls in the city. “The BBMP should have a committee of experts, consisting of artists, city planners, architects, some important citizens who can suggest ‘beautification’. Even a Picasso sculpture cannot be placed in a public place in Paris without approval of the local art body,” he said.
Terming the paintings as “unaesthetic”, he said that the civic authority should have first ensured that the city has good roads, footpaths, lighting, toilet facilities and garbage system. “That in itself is ‘beautification’ at this stage for the city,” he added.
The wrong way
Yusuf Arakkal, another renowned artist, said that while the idea behind the project is commendable, the civic authority is going about it the wrong way. “These paintings are not going to last for long. A year later, they will begin to look uglier. The BBMP does not have the funds to use the right kind of materials. Instead of painting the walls of the city with crass images, the civic authority could instead have just painted them all white and penalise those who deface the walls,” he said.
He said that ideally the BBMP should have involved artists, talented art students and citizens before going ahead with the project. “It is a project that has gone all wrong,” he added.
Three decades ago, the Bangalore Urban Arts Commission was formed to draw up a plan for the city’s art in public spaces, among other things. It was inexplicably shut down in 2002 and has not been replaced by a similar body.
Prakash Belawadi, journalist, playwright and director, says that this Commission hoped for a discussion to evolve urban aesthetics. “We need to debate on the issue more vigorously to find solutions and answers. If we have a Government body for this purpose, we need people who have studied urban art, visited cities - here and abroad - who know and understand town planning,” he says. A debate on urban aesthetics is needed now more than ever, he adds.
Photographer Clare Arni, whose work has revolved around documenting urban spaces, uses the example of Jaipur to make her point. “The murals that are being painted on the public walls here have been done in traditional colour palates and the motifs have been made conscientiously,” she says.
Taking the idea of aesthetics forward, to allow for inclusiveness and people-friendliness, Rohan D’ Souza, researcher and urban activist, says that when a wall is painted over, it does not allow “various sections of society to speak.” “Cinema posters, job advertisements, protest flyers, are all part of the city’s organic aesthetic. Why superimpose it with something else?” he asks.
He points out that Freedom Park in this scenario is a good example of the more inclusive urban aesthetic, where the memory of what it used to be has also been preserved as jail museum. “It has a lot of potential in terms of an aesthetic space, but rules like not being able to walk on the grass because it is imported can be restrictive,” he says.
But his debate about the urban aesthetic is not complete without heritage and its conservation. “Merely reconstructing or redoing heritage sites is of no use. Kempegowda built a beautiful city, but the colonisers constructed over it. If we want a swanky city, we should build a new one and not destroy our existing aesthetic,” says Mr. Belawadi.