Rinky on the wall

shreevatsa nevatia | Updated on November 07, 2014 Published on November 07, 2014

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Keep calm and scribble on: Lovers lay claim to the Buddha statue on the beach in Bheemunipatnam, Andhra Pradesh. - Photo: K R Deepak   -  Business Line

Why graffiti continues to seek immortality on the walls of our monuments and streets

In the last week of September, residents of Folkestone, a seaside town in the county of Kent in the UK, awoke to a visual surprise. Those passing the town’s Payers Park noticed one of its walls curiously altered. A new mural depicted an old woman, wearing headphones, staring at an empty plinth. Word began to spread. Graffiti artist Banksy was at it again. Like kings who had just spotted the Star of Bethlehem, art enthusiasts flocked to Folkestone. Concerned about the preservation of their latest tourist attraction, council authorities began talking of Banksy in a tone that would otherwise be reserved for Rembrandt.

While Indian graffiti artists elicit no such regard, they still busy themselves with leaving a mark. In July 2012, a graffiti artist who goes by the pseudonym Daku, spray-painted a four-letter expletive all over Mumbai. Except, he spelt the cuss word in Hindi. Even though he claimed hilarity was his only intention, later, his rocket-shaped cylinders were clearly a social comment. LPG prices had just been hiked.

Be it in Delhi’s Hauz Khas village, Mumbai’s Bandra or Bangalore’s Malleswaram, graffiti art is now both familiar and celebrated. For Indians, however, this kind of art often stops short of subversion. Admired for their quirkiness, these wayside exhibits are rarely appreciated for their radical potential, for their appropriation of public space. Graffiti art, in essence, is a signature left for the world, a reminder to one’s fellows — “I too was here”. Reductively, it isn’t very different from ordinary graffiti, a much-vilified elder sibling. The primary skill that separates love-struck Sumit from Banksy, for instance, is geometric dexterity. The arrow that pierces a heart he drew for Soni in Lodhi Garden is crooked.

Lovers are not the only ones seeking immortality on the walls of our monuments. With ingenious sketches, there are perverts too. Morbid loners even stencil their mobile numbers on sites like the capital’s Red Fort. In 2009, with the Commonwealth Games fast approaching, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) felt convinced that a distinct mixture of carbonate chemicals, lime and sand will make the tombs of Humayun and Safdarjung pristine again. But like the ghosts of Mughals past, the graffiti continued to return. At the Qutub Shahi tombs in Hyderabad, you can see friends climb each other’s shoulders, trying to scrape their names on the walls. They aren’t necessarily looking for prominence. It’s just that there’s not much space left lower down. Temple authorities in Tiruchirappalli too are fed up and, like in Hyderabad, they blame Indians for thoughtless defacement. Foreigners, they believe, know how to behave.

History both confirms and belies this assumption. After ordering the restoration of Taj Mahal, Lord Curzon had written to his wife from Agra, “If I had never done anything else in India, I have written my name here, and the letters are a living joy.” One could argue that Rinky, whose name stands outlined on the marble wall of the Taj, perhaps feels the same way. Suffering a severe shortage of monument attendants, it comes as no surprise that the ASI is pinning its hope on an increased fine and penalty to keep insidious Rinkys at bay. If caught defacing historical monuments, you could now be jailed for two years and charged a fine of ₹1 lakh. The earlier punishment of ₹5,000 and three months in jail clearly wasn’t deterrent enough.

In Egypt, a perennial victim of the visitor’s scrawl, you’d have to cough up $20,000 if caught scribbling on the Pyramids. Worse still, you might have to spend a year being bullied in a Cairo jail. Egypt’s monuments, though, are testament to man’s undying desire for historic inclusion. Much of the graffiti found on the country’s monuments date back to the Napoleonic era. Even French poet ‘renunciant’ Arthur Rimbaud reportedly couldn’t help himself at a temple in Luxor. He went to great heights to etch his name on a piece of stone. But given the man’s weakness for absinthe, hashish and most things scandalous, he is hardly worthy of emulation.

Visiting Luxor, more than a century later, Ding Jinhao, a 15-year-old Chinese middle-school student, was regrettably gripped by Rimbaud’s earlier insolence. When faced with a 3,500-year-old tablet in an Egyptian temple, the teenager felt forced to write in Mandarin — ‘Ding Jinhao was here’. Seen by another tourist, a picture of this graffiti soon appeared on Chinese social networking sites. It was shared over 90,000 times, and the errant boy fast became the subject of ridicule and mockery. An adolescent Ding, his parents were compelled to admit in a local newspaper, had “cried all night”. Humbled by social networking, the teenager could have well been mollified by related trivia. In archaeological circles, the act of leaving your name on a monument is called ‘tagging’. Offering a similar perpetuity, Facebook gives you access to several more walls you can tag your name or picture on. In the end, it is essentially a form of personal graffiti that allows its users a continued and bolstered indulgence. China, for all its criticism of Ding, appears to appreciate the longing for endurance. Authorities there have designated an area of the Great Wall for those wanting to leave an imprint. Our real and virtual worlds both help prove a quasi-algebraic truth. We are X, and X, true to form, always loves marking the spot.

(Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based writer)

Published on November 07, 2014
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