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‘Nah. Didi Can’t Hatch This Egg’

Dhiman sen takes a few steps away and surveys the wall. He squints his eyes and smiles the smile of a man happy with his work.

So says the CPM on a wall in Kolkata. The Left may be ahead in the war of wits with the Trinamool Congress,but political graffiti in the West Bengal capital is losing its bite

Dhiman sen takes a few steps away and surveys the wall. He squints his eyes and smiles the smile of a man happy with his work. Then,with a flamboyant wave,he makes a “voila” gesture,though his work of art was completed more than two weeks ago. Clearly,this CPM party worker from Naktala,a suburb of Kolkata,who doubles as the graffiti painter for the local party office,is a showman. “The idea for this work came to me during one of our Sunday afternoon addas at the party office,” says Sen,a former student of Government College of Art and Craft. The work in question is a graffiti depicting Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee as a bird warming an egg with “chiefministership” written on it. There is an emaciated shirtless man in the corner who says,“This egg will never be hatched,Didi!”. Funny? Yes. Astute? Not really.

In a city cluttered with ugly vinyl hoardings of candidates in filmstar-like poses,a graffiti reflecting a semblance of creativity and humour is a visual relief. More so when graffiti in Kolkata on the eve of the Assembly elections ranges between prosaic and more prosaic. Hammer and sickle peer out cautiously between twin flowers,and somewhere in the side a name is squeezed. Wit and aesthetics have clearly deserted Kolkata walls. “The Election Commission has made it mandatory for us to take permission from owners for painting on their walls. That is a bit of a bother. Not many want to deface their walls,” says Sen,with a laugh.

But it’s not as if Kolkata is not being “defaced” — wall after wall in the city is swathed in red and green,directing voters on how to exercise their electoral rights. It’s a question of how the walls are being defaced,says veteran cartoonist Chandi Lahiri. “There has been a systematic decline of humour in public life in West Bengal. 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 wall graffiti. But during the Left rule,we were forced to exercise caution,” says Lahiri.

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“Caution” translates to boring and unimaginative graffiti which steer clear of personal attacks. Lahiri gives the example of his favourite creation,a 1960 graffiti which 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 (grit). We used to call that variety of rice kankarbati,” he says. But during the CPM rule,Lahiri had to think twice before designing a 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,” says Lahiri.

That doesn’t mean there was no alternative voice during that era. In the 1980s and 1990s,when Kolkata emerged as the poster city of urban decay,Congress had a field day making jibes galore. Some walls cried for more candles and kerosene lamps (thanks to frequent and prolonged power cuts) while others shouted,“Jyoti Basu-r dui konna,khora aar bonna (Jyoti Basu’s two daughters,drought and waters)”. As an impressionable teenager growing up in Kolkata,graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee drew inspiration from them. “Political graffiti is an example of true satire. In Kolkata,we saw some really acerbic examples of them,” he says,even though he deems the voice of graffiti a subaltern one. “Which is why they are very important. Historically,graffiti has always been a guerrilla art form. People from the fringes of society would express their dissent and mock mainstream society on the walls,” he says.

Graffiti culture in West Bengal was much in that spirit,feels Banerjee. “If you were to eavesdrop on a carefree conversation between drivers and domestic help in which they talk uninhibitedly about their employers,you would realise how caustically they make fun of the middle class. The graffiti culture in the city was much in that vein,” he says. And it thrived because the average Bengali bhadrolok still had not lost the ability to laugh at himself. “Is it globalisation that has corrupted our way of life? Or was it the fact that we were cursed with leaders who couldn’t take a joke on themselves?” asks Banerjee.

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A sliver of that brand of humour survives,thanks to a certain Mamata Banerjee. “She is every cartoonist’s dream. I could dedicate a whole graphic novel to her many moods,” says Banerjee.

A few elections ago,the walls of Kolkata witnessed Bengali humour at its acerbic best. A graffiti depicting former Union minister and Trinamool leader late Ajit Panja as Ramakrishna Paramhans (he had won appreciation for his portrayal of the spiritual leader in the Bengali play,Nati Binodini). Mamata Banerjee was shown touching Panja’s feet. This image was obviously inspired by the incident in which Swami Vivekananda touches the feet of Ramakrishna and gains enlightenment. However,in the graffiti,Mamata’s speech bubble said,“I don’t want enlightenment. Just make me the chief minister.”

In a similar vein,a wall in south Kolkata has a CPM graffiti taking a dig at the Union railway minister’s tendency to announce new railway projects at the drop of a hat. It depicts Banerjee standing on a heap of foundation stones,while a stone mason chips away another one. Clearly,in the feeble graffiti war between parties this year,CPM has forged ahead by default. “It’s always easier to caricaturise an interesting personality,someone with a lot of character,” says Lahiri.

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The Trinamool graffiti,on the other hand,has been all about playing safe. The only one with a bit of bite is the one which takes a dig at the CPM campaign slogan,“Aamar sarkar,aamar sathe.” It shows a glum-faced woman with a child looking on dejectedly while her husband is being showered with alcohol by CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. “We don’t need to make ugly digs to get votes. We have been asked to only paint the party symbol and the candidates’ names,” says 27-year-old Ayan Basu,a Trinamool worker from Kankurgachi.

It’s this attitude that worries Lahiri and Banerjee. “I am sure today’s youngsters have a lot to say. It’s foolhardy to believe that they won’t be able to create interesting visuals and creative limericks. What is stopping them?” asks litterateur Sunil Gangopadhyay. “This generation needs to stop taking itself so seriously. If you are not being playful with your knowledge,you are wasting it,” he says.

First published on: 17-04-2011 at 11:04:55 pm
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