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

Chennai Beautiful:
Shifting Urban Landscapes and the Politics of Spectacle

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.


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.

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