West Bengal election 2016: The writing on the wall

The graffiti is one of many in a battle being waged on the walls of Bengal.

Written by Premankur Biswas | Kolkata | Published: April 13, 2016 12:40:43 am
A wall on East Behala constituency depicts the complexity Lahiri is talking about. A wall on East Behala constituency depicts the complexity Lahiri is talking about.

IT WAS 2 pm and Subhasis Roy, 42, had not taken a break since the morning. The Trinamool Congress worker from Alimuddin Street, where the CPM headquarters is housed, doubles as the graffiti painter for the local party office. “We have to finish this work before evening,” said Roy, a former student of Government College of Art and Craft.

The work was a piece of graffiti depicting what he called the “unholy marriage” of CPM and the Congress in West Bengal. Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and CPM leader Surjya Kanta Mishra seem to be stuck in a tussle. The Congress leader asks the CPM leader to not run away, the CPM leader seems to be muttering a halfhearted word of assurance. The hand and the sickle too seem precariously poised against each other.

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The graffiti is one of many in a battle being waged on the walls of Bengal.

In a state where ugly vinyl hoardings of candidates in filmstar-like poses had taken over most walls and public buildings, graffiti reflecting creativity and wit are making a comeback. Even in the 2011 assembly elections, the few graffiti on display ranged between the prosaic and the very prosaic. Hammer and sickle peered out cautiously between twin flowers, and somewhere on the side a name would be squeezed. There was little of wit or aesthetics.

“There has been a systematic decline of humour in public life in West Bengal. So, when I see graffiti that are acerbic and funny, I feel hopeful,” said veteran cartoonist Chandi Lahiri. “During the era of Bidhan Chandra Roy and Siddhartha Shankar Ray, we had the creative freedom to lampoon leaders of the ruling party. Most of my cartoons were used by opposition leaders for graffiti. But during Left rule, we were forced to exercise caution. This year, the satire seems better, more complex.”

A wall on East Behala constituency depicts the complexity Lahiri is talking about. A bus with route no 420 on it is depicted on a city road. Signage beside it says the bus goes to Narada and Saradha via Kalighat, where Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee lives. At a corner of the graffiti, bold letters say the Trinamool is so corrupt that no one will buy it even on OLX.

This used to be the kind of graffiti that would adorn the walls of Bengal in the 1960s and 1970s. Lahiri gives the example of his favourite creation, a 1960 graffiti in Kolkata that showed a donkey refusing to eat rice offered by then state minister of food Prafulla Chandra Sen. “The rice that we got in the market was of pitiful quality. It used to be full of kankar, or grit. We used to call that variety of rice kankarbati,” he said.

But during CPM rule, Lahiri had to think twice before designing any graffiti that then chief minister Jyoti Basu could deem “offensive”. “Since I was a cartoonist with a leading Bengali newspaper, I was issued a press card. I used to visit the Assembly during sessions to observe the visage of leaders. However, after an anti-CPM graffiti of mine became particularly popular, the state refused to renew my press card,” he said..

Political graffiti are supposed to depict hard reality in a lighthearted manner, feels graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee. “Political graffiti is an example of true satire,” he said. “In Kolkata, we saw some really acerbic examples of them… Historically, graffiti has always been a guerrilla art form. People from the fringes of society would express their dissent and mock mainstream society on walls.”

The themes of the graffiti of Trinamool and the opposition CPM and Congress also depict their campaigning tactics. While most CPM and Congress graffiti attack Mamata Banerjee on the Narada sting operation, the Sarada controversy and women’s safety in the state, the Trinamool’s graffiti mock the alliance of CPM and Congress, once such bitter rivals in the state.

In East Behala, a wall shows a harassed woman surrounded by names of places where rape cases were reported in the past few years – Park Street, Kamduni, Madhyamgram. One in Howrah depicts the Vivekananda flyover collapse.

The slogan in Bengali reads, “Trinamool has taken bribes, the flyover has come crashing down.”