Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture   

Chennai Beautiful:
Shifting Urban Landscapes and the Politics of Spectacle

Roos Gerritsen

“An area meant for preserving greenery by the Agricultural Department opposite to the Gemini fly-over has been completely blocked from the view of the public by huge advertisement hoardings… Just opposite to the High Court in front of the Bar Council Office there is an advertisement board which is placed across the pavement, causing nuisance to the traffic and the pedestrians. If one goes down the Nungambakkam Bridge towards Poonamallee High Road, one can see a long advertisement board which must be about 300 feet in the length…We are not even worried about the obscene advertisements, mostly by film producers and Cinema theatres, which can be taken care of by appropriate existing legislation. But we are worried about the size and location of the innumerable hoardings simply spoiling the aesthetic beauty of the City and some of the modern buildings which have (been) built artistically with the help of architectural experts” 
(Excerpt from High Court Document 2006. Cited from Note 2007, 139)

The State of Tamil Nadu is well known, even notorious, for the elaborate decoration of billboards, murals, and posters featuring mostly actors and politicians that appear in the public spaces of its cities and towns (figs. 01-03).1 This culture of what many see as excessive display stems from an intimate and long-lasting relation between the fields of politics and cinema, with several actors and others from the Tamil movie industry pursuing political careers.2 The political leaders who gained eminence in the state have always been ubiquitously displayed across cities and towns through iconic images, party colors, and slogans on walls, meters-high billboards and cutouts, and numerous posters. What is important to note is that this kind of imagery is not merely organized by the parties’ leaders but is mostly displayed on the initiative of low-level party supporters. Political supporters coming from lower socio-economic classes use this visibility not merely to promote their party loyalty but to make themselves visible as well.


Even though the presence of such spectacular images is widely taken for granted, the High Court document quoted above alerts us to the recurring rhetoric of agitation against them in the Tamil public realm. Newspapers regularly report on the physical dangers posed by these ubiquitous images to pedestrians struggling to navigate their way around them (as these are often placed across pavements and footpaths), and to drivers unable to see traffic signals that are obstructed by such billboards. Furthermore, it is claimed that young viewers in particular are distracted by the stunning, frequently eroticized, stills taken from new movie releases. In 2009, in the wake of extensive criticism about the defacing of public and private walls by political parties and others, the Chennai city administration attempted to intervene in the elaborate visual encroachment on its streets and initiated campaigns to regulate the ‘pollution’ caused by unauthorized forms of pictorial displays within the city. From mid-2009 onwards, the city decided to enforce a ban on posters, murals, and hoardings on two of the main roads running through the city. Billboards were pulled down and walls cleaned of posters and whitewashed, covering up the remains of the once ubiquitous murals. To beautify these roads, artists were commissioned to cover the walls with images of Tamil cultural heritage and natural scenery (figs. 04-06). Chennai's Mayor M. Subramanian declared, “Images of various cultural symbols would be painted on compound walls of government property on the two roads. …This is intended to keep those who paste posters away and improve aesthetics. Posters are an eyesore” (The Hindu, Chennai edition 29/05/2009). Anna Salai and another road in the city were chosen to launch pilot projects for a larger beautification initiative. On the success of the pilot, the project was extended to the entire Chennai Corporation limits a year later. Today, more than 3000 public walls are prohibited from being used for posters and the like.3 Moreover, Chennai is being more and more "embellished" with beautification murals: main roads, junctions, and flyovers are decorated with images of cultural and natural settings, providing parts of the city with a new look.


As can be understood from the Mayor’s words, the reason given by the city authorities for installing the beautification murals is the rising agitation over an alleged absence of what is deemed to be aesthetic, and over the excessive display of hoardings and other public imagery. In this essay, I argue instead that the needs of Chennai’s growing neo-liberal economy have catalyzed this "beautification" plan. The new murals are in fact part of a larger beautification and gentrification initiative by the city, in which Chennai is clearly presenting itself as being on its way to becoming a "world class" city. I explore how the new beautification murals can be linked to three interrelated processes that are part of this "neoliberal turn."

The first context of change is Chennai’s positioning as a "world class" city that will attract capital investors, and, related to this, the emergence of increasingly affluent neo-liberal middle-class publics."World class" can be understood as a global imaginary expressed, for instance, in architecture and the built environment, spectacular and exclusive public spaces such as shopping malls, as well as in the aspirations towards cosmopolitan life styles or globalized consumption (Brosius 2010). The imagination of "world class" seems to have become the incentive for many beautification and urban renewal projects. This has lead to the new middle classes becoming more visible in urban space, as well as brushing away selected parts of the city such as slums, or inhabitants such as street vendors, who pose a problem for such an image. The gentrification of the city is part of new "spatial strategies" in the urban environment that create or reinforce social distinctions (Deshpande 1998).

Second, following Abidin Kusno (2010), I propose that the new beautification images seem to constitute social and political identities as well as reinforce old political ideologies. The particular history of image display in Tamil Nadu, in which urban space has been used extensively for political and cinematic publicity purposes, is strongly entangled with the conventional political practices of the State. Now, just as public space demands gentrification and beautification in order to attract foreign investors, the political system demands an image cleanup as well, as populist politics are deemed inappropriate in a neo-liberal environment. Therefore, the visual environment as backdrop for conventional political practices has to be cleansed to brush away suggestions of populist politics. At the same time, however, the beautification murals with their focus on Tamil or Dravidian history and their mural form seem to reinforce the parties’ focus on ideological Dravidian origins and identity, only now more focused on a generic Tamilness.

This brings me to the third process. The murals are aimed at rebuilding present-day Chennai and its image for an aspired future. At the same time, they embody nostalgia for the past rooted in the image of a collective history and identity. As the city aspires to become a world-class city through urban renewal and novel architecture, the beautification murals mostly refer to the "traditional" past. I suggest that the murals figure as monuments of collective identity and memory (Rowlands and Tilley 2006) through which a uniform, idealized, and consumable history and future can be (re)installed or (re)created. As hyper-real objects (Eco 1990; Baudrillard 1994), the murals seem to cater towards the desires of the new, affluent middle classes to consume "tradition" in a simplified "postcard" history, a process which I will refer to as neo-nostalgia (Ivy 1988; Hancock 2008). As consumable historic narratives, they actually become more potent than that to which they actually refer. Moreover, this history, assembled from fractions of cultural values and moralities, is deemed lost by the city authorities in urban lifestyles, and thus in need to be instructed as well.

Taking these three processes together, the production of murals indicates a move on the part of the city authorities to embrace neo-liberalism and its publics through an emphasis on the aesthetic and the traditional while sidelining conventional political practices and loyalties. The murals turn the city into a postcard spectacle; a spectacle of aspirations, nostalgia, beauty, tradition, and moral pedagogy. They show a shift from more common uses of public space and taste to elitist visualities. In the meantime, unauthorized or "spontaneous" uses of public space are being replaced not only by sanitized, beautified images, but also by new, other imaginings and desires regarding what the future, history, culture, and beauty should be.


Reflecting the essence of Tamil culture?

The renowned former hoarding artist J.P. Krishna was the first to be commissioned by the Chennai Corporation4 to paint several walls as part of the beautification initiative. The images he painted on Anna Salai all refer to Tamil culture and heritage, and the natural beauty of the State (figs. 07-12). Most of the murals build on the style of realistic paintings initiated by Raja Ravi Varma in the late 19th century, and later on adapted, popularized, and commercialized in calendar art and cinematic and political hoardings. Among other subjects, the images include the UNESCO heritage site of Mammalapuram (figs. 09 & 10), the statue of the classical Tamil poet and saint Thiruvalluvar at India’s southernmost tip Kanyakumari (fig. 11), several temples and temple sculptures, and performers of Carnatic music (fig. 12). Murals painted since then also refer to the Tamil past, mythology, food habits, children games, music instruments, or well-known landmarks such as the State’s nuclear power plant to name only a few (figs. 13 & 14). Still others depict natural scenery, some clearly referring to famous places in the State or striking fauna native to Tamil Nadu (figs. 15-17); others depict Indian iconic images or landscapes that are not directly related to the State (figs. 18-22). The walls of public buildings such as hospitals depict thematic murals related to what is going on inside (fig. 23); another stretch of paintings on one of the large intersections in the southern part of the city depicts the mythological story of Kannagi, the heroic woman character of the epic Silapathikaram (figs. 4, 6, 24, 25). The artist commissioned to paint the story used the version that appeared in the popular Amar Chithra Katha comics as an example.5 He made slight changes to the images of the cartoon (sans the balloons), and the last image of this series is a copy of the Kannagi statue on Marina Beach.6 Figure 26 in fact shows the artist using a page copied from the Amar Chitra Katha cartoon of Kannagi that he used as a model to paint one of the scenes.


The Corporation selected these images to use for the murals and carefully monitored the painting process. For the first few stretches of walls, they authorized the use of a book containing paintings by Tamil artists that depict scenes of Tamil heritage and nature. Initially the Corporation planned to commission students of the Government College of Arts and Crafts; it was they who actually suggested this plan to the government.7 Paradoxically, however, the city ended up commissioning former hoarding artists to paint the scenes. I think this is paradoxical because the same artists who previously flourished within the "cut-out culture" and benefited from the commissioning of numerous political murals have subsequently seen their income disappear as political parties fought each other by imposing restrictions on cutouts. Within the current context of beautification, these former hoarding artists are now commissioned to replace their own work on city walls.


In fact, the artists receive a relatively good salary for the beautification murals (around Rupees 35 per square foot), a sum that is much higher than what they were receiving (around Rupees 10 per square foot) for political murals for the last several years.8 The artists are selected on the basis of the quality of their earlier work, but the final selection is made on tender: the lowest bidder gets the job. The artists I spoke to actually appreciated the work, not only because of the money they were earning with the murals but also because of the positive reception they get for their work. Passers-by often stop at the scene where they are working and praise them for their efforts. Moreover, several artists indicated that they enjoy painting a new kind of imagery instead of endlessing doing the faces of the same politicians. As the artist Munnusamy told me in an interview, he had not receiving any appreciation for the political work and he has had to change the painting constantly to keep up with political vicissitudes. At least the beautification murals will last for some time as they have been commissioned by the government, according to Munnusamy:

“They [politicians] ask us to keep changing the paintings. When they fight each other, they are not stable. But we want our work to be recognized, for that the painting should be there for some time. Our hard work is always wasted. What we are doing now is giving me satisfaction.”9

According to the Corporation, the images should reflect Tamil culture. One of the artists who was commissioned to paint the new murals found that not everything belongs to Tamil culture as the Corporation sees it. Along with some colleagues, Raj was commissioned to paint a public wall around 270 meters long on Rajaji Salai, close to the former seat of Government in Fort St. George, as well as several other stretches within the city. He explained to me how he and his colleagues often sketched scenes from daily life in their own environment: a sunrise at Marina beach, a street vendor selling ice cream to a young boy, or a rag picker picking recyclable garbage off the streets. For Raj and his colleagues, these scenes express the real and typical Chennai. He suggested to the Corporation officer who was in charge of the project that artists like him ought to be allowed to paint these kinds of everyday life scenes, but the Corporation refused such a commission because in their view such images did not correspond to what they regarded as "Tamil culture." Remarkably, however, in the light of the emphasis on "traditional" culture, the Corporation permitted the inclusion of a man playing golf on one of the city walls (fig. 27). Even though this painting was commissioned by the local golf course, it was sanctioned by the Corporation and integrated into the series of paintings commissioned for this road. Later, when I asked about this particular image, the corporation officers in charge appeared slightly embarrassed regarding what they now deem a "mistake." Such "mistakes" cannot be explained merely in terms of a distinction between images of the "traditional" and the "modern." The compound wall of a government hospital, for example, shows us images of doctors looking at X-rays and an operation chamber (fig. 23); these images are placed next to a panel in which healers are shown using Ayurveda (a health care technique with growing popularity across India, and in particular, in the southern states) (fig. 28). The image of golf play, however, had been privately commissioned by the golf course. My suggestion is that whereas doctors and X-rays reflect contemporary icons of the State, a golf player is an image of affluent consumption and urban spatial aesthetics and therefore does not fit in the range of themes that express collective identity and history.



Shifting publics: new images of world class imaginations


"Beautification" is nothing new and specific to Chennai. Other Indian cities are working on their appearance in similar ways, also initiating new paintings depicting regional cultural scenes.10 What is happening in Chennai, however, is somewhat different, as this is not merely an attempt to beautify the city by means of wall paintings, but also involves a rigorousand almost iconoclasticprohibition of every kind of billboard, even commercial ones, on these "corridors" in the city. Chennai’s new look indicates that the city is claiming and restructuring forms and appropriations of public space, first in the form of beautifying the city through murals and thus aligning it to a different form of aesthetic experience and urban imaginary, and second through the bureaucratic interpretation of culture that embraces capital investments. In this way a distinct and selective image of the city is imposed, but whose image of the city is it? The following quote is instructive for what it reveals of the paradox inherent in the idea of reflecting Tamil culture. The author aptly pinpoints the ubiquitous presence of political imagery in Tamil Nadu’s visual culture.

“…Thiruvalluvar, Mamallapuram and Bharatanatyam do contribute to the culture of the state, thus how can you call it the essence of Tamil culture without the colourful politicians? Always on the walls of Mount Road, they were the friendly neighbourhood Spidermen of Chennai. I miss Kalaignar [respectful artist] Muthuvel Karunanidhi in his trademark dark glasses smiling down from vinyl billboards at the Thousand Lights traffic jam. I feel motherless as I stare into the void left behind by the cut-outs of Amma [mother] alias J Jayalalithaa on Mount Road. When my boss says I lack aggression, how do I convince him it is because they have removed all the posters of Vaiko whose roar for the dead tigers of Lanka used to instil a revolutionary zeal in me on my way to edit meetings? ‘Karuppu [black] MGR’ Vijaykanth has been whitewashed; S Ramadoss has been shredded. On the smaller roads and bylanes, however, they all thrive in myriad forms.” (Blog post from Arun Ram, Times of India website 03-08-2009)

Because of Tamil Nadu’s specific historical background of which public political imagery has been an essential part, the restrictions on it today raise questions about how the political landscape is changing. Until now, it has always been argued that political parties triumph because of their ubiquitous presence in the public realm. It is striking though that it is politicians who have tried to curb these images in the city; indeed, they are the ones who initiated this new visual regime of representation. Paradoxically, Chennai is the only city that went so far as to completely ban all billboards from its urban milieu. Do we see here a harsh act in response to the ubiquitous presence of political faces and to the image that state politics has constructed over the years? Do these parties no longer need this imagery and are they distancing themselves from the populist image attached to it? Or is it an approach towards new middle class publics within selective parts of the city, at a time when parties know that political support through imagery will last after all in the fringes of the city? It seems paradoxical that politicians are now in favor of replacing their own images with that of postcard images of historical and natural scenery. This is even more surprising since in official political discourse the images of the Chief Minister Karunanidhi and his successor Stalin appear almost everywhere. The streets of Tamil Nadu are swamped with their pictures during party rallies, inaugurations, or state-organized events. The paradox here is that the people who vote for Karunanidhi’s party are rejected or by-passed by the restrictions on their appropriation of images of adulation and publicity, whereas the city administration continues to use the same kinds of images within a discourse of "official" politics.

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. The rejection of grassroots images by political rulers, however, suggests an act of distancing from the political praise and linkages that these images symbolize and sustain. In fact, this kind of political practice is deemed populist and does not fit in the neo-liberal economy that the city is also aspiring to adopt.

The beautification murals as part of a larger gentrification project taken up by the city can be situated in Chennai’s aspirations to become an attractive "world-class" city.11 Such aspirations started with the former Mayor M.K. Stalin, son of current Chief Minister Karunandhi, initiating the Singara [beautiful] Chennai plan, in which parts of the city were to be beautified and made attractive to economic investors. Chennai realizes its economic and global aspirations in conspicuous initiatives that selectively refurbish the city: IT corridors, Special Economic Zones (SEZs), and beautification schemes involving the renovation and planning of roads and parks, the erection of large statues, and, as I show here, the embellishment of public walls. The aspiration to become a world-class city is informed by envisionings of the future and other city models that appeal to the imagination. Chennai uses the larger beautification project to emphasize its own attractiveness and to root out unplanned encroachments that are seen as unsolicited uses of the city. Local authorities in Chennai are actively erasing images of the city that do not belong in this cosmopolitan view of being attractive or "world class." Publicity and visualizations are put into play in order to pursue imaginations and transformations of public spaces, and they have become crucial tools for changing the image of the city and the ways in which belonging to the city is defined (Zukin 1995). In this regard, the city selectively attempts to push back the encroachment on public space by restricting its use.


Whereas on the one hand a certain segment of and practice in the city is being curbed and set aside, on the other hand, the beautification images point to a shift in attention towards another public. By becoming an attractive city for affluent investors and citizens, Chennai seeks to reach out to an audience of middle-class professionals aspiring to join the ranks of a global class of similar professionals. As slum dwellers are removed from sight within the city, the neo-liberal middle classes become much more visible instead. The liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s has brought a rise in lucrative businesses and consequently an increase of the group of affluent middle-class Indians. Chennai has become a major player in the car industry, medical healthcare, and IT and BPO services.12 Several authors have indicated that the notion of middle class is used as a marker by means of practices of distinction (Bourdieu 1984), the wish to be visible, and of belonging to a "world class" (Brosius 2010; Fernandes 2006; Jaffrelot and van der Veer 2008). This public visibility of the middle class expresses itself in conspicuous consumption (Brosius 2010, 23), but also in a political culture shifting from “older ideologies of a state-managed economy to a middle class-based culture of consumption” (Fernandes 2006, XV). In this light, the golf player who has been inserted in the series of images would actually not be an anomaly after all. This becomes more and more evident in the material form of the city, as Chennai is increasingly becoming a city selectively made up of malls, multiplexes, housing enclaves, and IT corridors. In this regard, when we look more closely at the spatial politics of the new interventions, we find that the city administration is mostly concerned with only that section of the city that relates to a shift in the public. Several areas, or even corridors of the city, are being reorganized, sanitized, and beautified partly to realize the global aspirations of this new public. In the fringes of these corridors, as Arun Ram has already observed, political and commercial imagery thrive in myriad forms.

Aspirations for the future, nostalgia for the past

The aspiration to become a world-class city and to attract a middle-class audience is oriented towards a prosperous future, and informed by a reproduction and evocation of the past through the revival of postcard images of vernacular architecture, ritualized commemoration, and "traditional" practices (Hancock 2008; Brosius 2010). As Christiane Brosius has pointed out, the heterogeneous group of middle class negotiates concepts such as national identity and "worldliness," or tradition and modernity (2010, 12) in which heritage and nostalgia can be utilized as markers of "having tradition." Brosius convincingly shows how being world class is a "rooted" cosmopolitanism, i.e., rooted in locality, heritage, and moral instruction and consumption (2010). In Tamil Nadu, the evocation of the past is more specifically directed at the politics of Dravidian or Tamil linguistic heritage of the region. If today Dravidianism has become a generic sign of Tamilness, in the past it was much more closely tied to nationalist and linguistic projects in which Tamil Nadu distinguished itself from the north of India in religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions (Ramaswamy 1998). Political parties, particularly the DMK in its heydays in the 1950s and 1960s, gained political capital by staging itself as the guardian of Tamil and the Tamil cause (Ramaswamy 1998, 73). The placement of ephemeral yet spectacular cutouts of cinematic and political figures and more permanent monuments of historic figures has played an important role in the construction of Chennai as a Tamil city as well as establishing the political face and identity of these parties.13 The politicization and reproduction of monuments or, as discussed here, beautification murals, actually emphasize the state’s connection to what it wants represents and hence underscore its power (Anderson 1991, 182-185; Kusno 2010). Just as monuments, the beautification murals are a type of symbolic speech (Anderson 1978) in which the authorities mediate a common past and future. The fact that they come in the form of a mural is even more pertinent in the context of the elaborate image history in the state.


According to the Corporation officials I interviewed14 the murals have two main objectives. First of all, as I already suggested above, the murals should keep away people that want to use these walls for political or commercial purposes; hoardings or billboards with this function are considered unsightly, and walls should now become pleasant to look at. The second argument put forward by the Corporation is one of cultural promotion and education. As Chennai promotes itself as the gateway of South India, one could argue that the promotion of heritage sites and tradition seems to fit in this notion of how the city sees itself. Most historic sites depicted on the murals are not actually situated in Chennai itself. The beautification murals aim to show the rich cultural tradition of the state in the form of consumable heritage sites and cultural traditions. What is interesting is that none of the murals show explicitly religious sites or ritual interaction. Many sites or practices are associated with religious or ritual interaction, but in their representation on the walls they seem removed from this embeddedness. As postcard images, temples merely become heritage sites, and Carnatic musicians are comically shown performing with their shoes on (fig. 12).15 Instead of the importance of the tradition as lived, the images emphasize the (touristic) importance of the heritage of the State in a universal heritage attentive language. Just as in museums, the iconic state of images turns cultural materials into (art) objects (Alpers 1991). Now the city itself has become a tourist brochure or a selection of postcards, a spectacle from which tradition can be selectively picked and consumed. The incorporation of the touristic present in some images (fig. 10) reinforces the relevance of the monuments as heritage sites.

Besides turning Tamil Nadu into a site of spectacle and cultural promotion, the Corporation indicates that cultural traditions should also be kept alive within the city. The murals should teach the young about the State’s culture and historic past, something people supposedly forget when growing up in the city. The depiction of those aspects of culture that are believed to pass into oblivion in the city and consequently have to be revived, points to a nostalgic imagination of the past and the village. In light of the booming economy for which Chennai is selectively refurbishing its city, the pedagogical aim of the murals, I suggest, is not necessarily directed only at the younger generation but also to a wider middle-class audience. This may explain the ease with which the mural of the golf player was incorporated into the series of “traditional” settings, despite the exceptionality of the mural within the series as a whole.

Since the envisioning of the village as the repository of Indian culture by orientalist scholars and figures such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, it has become a privileged trope in the imagining of the "original" and "real" India. Following from this vision, cities are deemed degraded places that seem to have lost the wisdom, morality, and harmonious lifestyle of the countryside. This rural lifestyle is believed to have disappeared with the mass movement to the city and should be passed on again to individualistic and materialist city dwellers. These ideas about the new middle classes are reflected in stereotypes, fuelled by media coverage, stating that the rapidly growing young middle class of IT professionals is leading this individualistic and materialist lifestyle with all its negative connotations of materialism, sexual affairs, and an active nightlife (Fuller and Narasimhan 2006). I am not interested in tracing these stories but I do think that the omnipresence of such rumors and opinions actually reinforces the ideas about the middle class’ lifestyle and the city as a place of decay that is rapidly losing its traditional values and morals.

As a moral-pedagogical tool, the beautification murals fit in with the nostalgia for the idealized, harmonious village and traditional ways of life. This nostalgia has come to be envisaged and articulated in consumption patterns and life styles, and by themed sites that noticeably refer to the past or rural life in films, theme parks, handicraft exhibitions, heritage hotels, museums, craft villages or ethnic chic (Brosius 2010; Hancock 2008; Srivastava 2009; Tarlo 1996). Mary Hancock has coined the term "neo-liberal nostalgia" to indicate how under neo-liberal globalization, heritage-themed sites rearticulate the rural life worlds for cosmopolitan elites (2008, 148-149). These sites, she argues, have come to epitomize what modernity has displaced; they serve as sanitized reproductions of rural life and the past. Hence, heritage is something arising within capitalism and not against it; it is a counter-narrative of the city, taking place within the landscape of urban life. By showing images of Tamil heritage, rural life, and the past, the new murals are part of this counter-narrative of neo-liberal nostalgia. The patchwork of images from different periods, themes, and genres indicate that this is not nostalgia for a specific period or past but for an arbitrary and assembled past, which was not experienced as such by its referents themselves (Appadurai 1996; Ivy 1988). History and tradition have become postcard images drawing on stereotypical images and “memories” that evoke neo-nostalgia (Ivy 1988). Marilyn Ivy has similarly developed the concept of "neo-nostalgia" in relation to tourism ads in Japan which do not refer to a specific period but to a free-floating past in which “[t]he idea of the neo is a literal displacement from any original referent” (p. 28). The ad hoc assemblage and ubiquitous repetition of images, reinforced by similar genres such as calendars, postcards, or movies, underpins this feeling of "postcard" or "neo" nostalgia.

What does this say about who actually looks at these murals? Even though, as I hope to have shown in this paper, the city authorities seem to cater to the emergent new neo-liberal middle class publics, this does not necessarily suggest that the murals appeal to them. Many middle class members I spoke to were in fact dismissive of the "badly painted" or "kitschy' images, and some were not even aware of the new murals and often noticed them only after I have drawn their attention to them. In contrast, mainly urban poor city dwellers, just as the artists themselves, were quite happy to see finally something else instead of the endless iconic faces of the State’s two major political leaders. Now it remains to be seen when the murals will disappear again or be replaced or even defaced by new images. Who will be the first to dare to “disgrace” a beautified wall with a poster?16

As postcard images the new murals have contributed to the reinforcement of the iconic, standardized status of history, tradition, and the beauty of the State, but is not their repetition again creating indifference? I think we can be almost sure that after the newness of the mural form has worn off, the depicted scenes will return from their short-lived presence in hyperreality into the sphere of clichéd, everyday manifestations that are largely unnoticed. For the moment, the city authorities steadily continue to embellish even more public walls.

Top of the page

1 I have presented this paper on different occasions. I would like to thank all who responded with comments and questions that helped me shape it to its current form. I would particularly like to thank Christiane Brosius, Steve Hughes, Kajri Jain, Sumathi Ramaswamy, Patsy Spyer, S.V. Srinivas, A. Srivathsan, Mary Steedly and A.R. Venkatachalapathy for their valuable comments, suggestions, and insights. 
2 For an elaborate account on the use of cinematic imagery in political discourse, see Jacob 2009. 
3 Public walls are compound walls of government property.

4 The civic body that governs the city. Its responsibilities include the infrastructure and planning of the city.
5 Amar Chithra Katha ("Immortal Illustrated Story") comics have since the 1980s become very popular in India and with Indian migrants abroad. The stories often serve an educational purpose as they are about Indian history, religion, and mythology.
6 Ironically, the statue depicts a fiery Kannagi who is laying the city (of Madurai, in the story) under a curse and destroys it. The statue on Marina beach caused various rumors, controversies and agitation as it was suddenly removed for a while a few years ago (Pandian 2005). 
7 My thanks to Gandhirajan, a teacher at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, who alerted me to this.
8 With the advent of vinyl banners and digital printing, this amount has decreased over the years. When the banner business was still in its heydays, an artist could earn around Rupees 125 per square foot. In 2011, 1€ equaled 60 INR. 
9 Interview Munnusamy 25/02/2010.

10 Of course, also outside India there are many examples of cities and towns in which murals have become part of beautification projects.
11 Chennai is not the only Indian city searching for world-class stature. Other big cities such as Bangalore, Mumbai, and Delhi actively try to position themselves on the world map.
12 Business Process Outsourcing.

13 See Srivathsan 2000; Pandian 2005; Hancock 2008; and Jacob 2009 for elaborate accounts on the use of cutouts, statues, and architecture by political parties.
14 Personal conversations with several Corporation officials that are responsible for the selection or supervision of the new murals, i.e. the PRO, the deputy Commissioner, the Superintending Engineer (Bridges) and the chief engineer of Corporation zone 10. Chennai, 2010.
15 My thanks to Sumathi Ramaswamy for alerting me to this.
16 Several months later I came across the remains of posters on a few murals, the others all look conspicuously clean.

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