Chennai is now home to lifelike wall art done by Tamil Nadu’s very own banner artists

Noticed lifelike murals dotting parts of the city, recently? Behind these public art projects are banner artists, now turning the walls of North Chennai into their canvas

September 09, 2021 05:21 pm | Updated September 11, 2021 01:21 pm IST

Murals depicting traditional art forms on the walls of Manali bus terminus

Murals depicting traditional art forms on the walls of Manali bus terminus

On the cylindrical facade of a former cyclone shelter in Thiruvottiyur, a scene unfolds: smiling fisherfolk, some wielding oars and others holding baskets of their haul, invite you into the frothy ocean.

The expansive sea meets the sky dotted with clouds in what reminds one of simpler, happier times. The two-storied building of around 17,000 square feet, located where Ennore Express Road meets Kathivakkam High Road, is now a canvas.

The debris that once surrounded this shelter has now disappeared; and so have the empty liquor bottles. Cut to Manali, and a therukoothu artiste gazes into the distance from the compound wall of the bus terminus.

These are only a couple of the new-found canvases that North Chennai is now home to. As part of the Greater Chennai Corporation’s Singara Chennai 2.0 initiative that looks at multiple beautification drives across the city, this wall art project bolstered by CSR initiatives is a work-in-progress.

The artists? Chennai’s very own, born out of a near-forgotten practice called banner art.

Helmed by JPK Vijay, this team of artists who have had a difficult couple of years due to the pandemic, has worked on the facades of Chennai Primary School, Manali; Manali bus terminus; Madhavaram roundabout and the former cyclone shelter/Amma Unavagam, Kathivakkam. The overarching theme of these murals points to Tamil Nadu’s culture.

“The first site I got was the Amma Unavagam building (cyclone shelter) and I wanted it to be one-of-a-kind. I wanted to use the art to spread awareness. I took inspiration from the area and depicted the fishing community that forms the heart of Ennore,” says Vijay.

He recalls resentment from the local community when they started work. “But as soon as we started painting, they became curious and wanted to help us. It has now become a special place for them to preserve,” he says, adding that their success lies in how the artwork helped bring behavioural changes indirectly.

“We are looking for sponsors to fund landscaping and fountains in the entrance to the building, benches for senior citizens and toilets. The wall art project is only one part of the beautification planned for the site,” says R Jayakumar, Assistant Executive Engineer, Zone 1, Kathivakkam. “We want the public to benefit from this.”

On the compound walls of Chennai Primary School, Manali, a group of children in uniform play a heated game of gilli-danda . “Games like gilli remain forgotten. Children don’t know of them anymore,” says Vijay.

In the bus terminus, on the other hand, therukoothu takes centre stage. The fact that therukoothu is not portrayed as often as other traditional artforms like silambam is what led him to pick the folk form.

On another plastered wall, stone sculptures of Mamallapuram seamlessly blend onto the texture of the facade. “When it comes to Madhavaram roundabout which was a small site, we thought of depicting traditional foods,” says Vijay.

Leg up to local talent

What makes these murals stand out is their realistic portrayal of people: familiar faces that call for an instant, rather personal connection for a passer-by. This life-like quality is an offshoot of the artists’ years of experience with handpainted boards and cine banners.

This expertise with banner art, which uses emulsion paints and acrylics, helps them move from wall to wall swiftly. A public art project usually takes anywhere between two weeks to months to be completed, but some of these walls were done in a day’s time.

“Wall art is also eco-friendly. Flex prints for instance, leave a huge carbon footprint. Now, after seeing such works, the public is also slowly moving back to hand painted boards, banners and walls,” adds Vijay.

In the noughties most banner artists lost their livelihood, owing to the digital shift and the flex culture. Handpainted boards that ensured employment to many small-scale artists were the norm until then. Vijay’s father JP Krishna, president of Bharatiya Kalakar Sangh was one among them; a pioneer in cine banner art in the 1990s.

“There were lakhs of artists in Chennai who lost work around the time when flex printing started dominating,” says Vijay. “They started going for other jobs as security personnel and carpenters.”

Singara Chennai 2.0 is a revival, and a tribute to their talent.

Vijay’s next for the city will be the one kilometre-long subway near the RBI building and Secretariat. “The walls and the ceiling will be inspired by the wall paintings inside the Brihadeeswara temple’s gopuram , which gave birth to the Tanjore style of paintings,” says Vijay.

The biggest advantage of such beautification projects is its scope for employment, especially for those who belong to the widely-hit arts sector, he adds.

“Many of the large-scale artworks that we see in Indira Nagar MRTS and Kannagi Nagar are done by artists from across India and abroad. We have the talent, right here in our State, but we don’t utilise them,” he says.

A silver lining to these projects is that the Greater Chennai Corporation is also identifying local, upcoming artists from each zone to beautify their own localities.

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