To live in any culture whatsoever is to live in a visual culture (Mitchell 94)
Indian cities offer to their inhabitants a cornucopia of samples of popular art everyday: from giant billboards along the streets and facades, to the brightly-coloured Bollywood posters on taxis, buses and walls of private houses, from FM channels airing old film songs to pubs giving a chance of a gig to a local band. In this paper, I shall look at select samples of one such popular visual art form to look at the narratives of a city that is obtained from its representations therein – this paper reads the representations of the city Kolkata in two different series of hoardings/billboards. The idea is of course to see, sift and search the multiple images of Kolkata represented, visualised and imagined in these cultural and consumerist artifacts. My reading of these constructed images will show that they cannot be “static but are always embedded in social and cultural practices of representation, often contested and never complete” (Balshaw and Kennedy 7) and it will try to analyse how the urban experience has been objectified in these pieces of art and artifacts.
I came back to Kolkata in early 2007, after spending four years in a south Indian city. I was back to the city to work on my doctoral thesis and to be near my ageing ailing parents. However, the state of being back home was one of mixed emotions. I was at the same time comforted by the familiar landscape and exasperated by familial intrusions into my privacy. I would, during this time, take long walks around the city to let off steam, exploring paths I had walked many times earlier and finding surprising new lanes and alleys every other day. I had photographed the two series of advertisement hoardings, which I analyze in this paper, during many of these aimless perambulations.
Billboards or hoardings are an essential part of the urban fabric. Making the optimum use of the available spaces, advertisements (painted or otherwise) are usually put up on elevated structures and placed on the sides of busy urban roads (or even highways) for most visibility. Clogged city traffic often forces people to cast bored stares at the same advertisements over and over again. Posters, advertising one thing or the other, serve the same purpose, but are generally hand-pasted on many city building surfaces and walls, and they often cater to a smaller audience. The static images presented in these hoardings focus on the centrality of vision and the visual world for arriving at certain meanings. The repetition and reiteration of certain images create a modulated and mediated reality, engendering certain value systems and aspirations. The commonest example could be the perceptions about body-image circulated and crystallized through advertisements. The ubiquitous presence of super-thin bodies on billboards all over the body of the city become documents of aspiration and desire for so many who do not conform. In a cityscape, thus, advertisements put up on elevated structures determine more than consumption practices and patterns. They circulate several layers of meanings, making the lines between reality and art fuzzy. As I will attempt to show in my analysis, they often privilege certain elements over others in the scopic regime. In the case of representations of a city in the images that the city throws up, this might lead to, through repeated reinforcement, some aspects of the urban historical past gaining more currency over certain others. These meanings are “seen and assimilated in different ways by the “seeing public.”
The first series of advertisements that I am going to look at were put up throughout the city by Red FM 93.5, a private FM channel during the year 2007. (See figures 1 to 4 below)
These advertisements took up cudgels against common civic offenders of the city. Each of these bright red hoardings had a larger-than-life portrait of a character and they formed part of a campaign launched in 2007 by the radio-station. The campaign was ironically titled “The Red FM Kolkata Super Heroes.” Red 93.5 unveiled this innovative idea in an effort to keep the city “clean.” All the characters shown in these advertisements are stereotypes of civic offenders who typify individual lack of awareness and the names that have been coined for them are imbued with sarcasm and ridicule. The series had characters such as PK Lal who spits and paints the city walls red, Muttu Rajan who waters the walls with his urine, Roomal Das who uses his handkerchiefs to reserve seats, Shopno Dhar who sleeps and snores at work, Dharna di who is ever so willing to lie down and block any street in the city protesting against something or the other, Khora Tapan who digs potholes on the city streets and Nana Shaw, a taxi-driver who refuses passengers at his own whim. Jimmy Tangree, Station Head, Red FM, elaborated on the vision on the occasion of unveiling the campaign:
Red FM is promoting social awareness among citizens about causes that Kolkata has been grappling with forever now. Dirtying the walls and doing nuisance on the roads, sleeping in offices and regular bandhs are some chronic problems of Kolkata. We are trying to embarrass the culprits sweetly with music. At Red FM, we are trying to create more awareness among the people of Kolkata and ensure that these characters think several times before they indulge in such acts in the future (Televisionpoint.com).
The Kolkata that gets reflected through this series is one that is stuck in time. Modernisation has given the city a miss. The work culture in the city offices is badly affected by laziness at work and frequent strikes (“bandhs,” “hartals” or “dharnas”). The traditional Protestant work ethic demanded hard work and excellent standards at workplaces. But, as most Kolkatans would know from experience, government officials of the city hardly work in between their tea-breaks. And though the campaign tries to bring people of various classes under the lens, with characters such as Nana Shaw and Khora Tapan (Fig 4), the majority of the characters have Bengali middle-class underpinnings. And it is essentially a middle-class bhadralok (educated caste elites of the society, viewed often as a Weberian status group) idea that a salaried government job is much more respectable than trade or business of any kind. Among the bhadralok, “business” is seen with moral suspicion and is seen as the forte of the unscrupulous Marwari (a community originating from Rajasthan, and later moving to Kolkata and now controlling much of the city’s wealth). Here we obviously have to keep aside the private company jobs primarily located in the eastern fringes of the city (in the so-called “IT Hub,” Kolkata’s Silicon Valley) and the work ethics spawned by capitalist economy and its faithful friend, consumerism.
Most of the characters portrayed in the hoardings typify the government-office clerks. Roomal Das is one of the million aggressive commuters who are always in a teeming hurry to reach the workplace, where they hardly work. The local and suburban trains and buses, as well as the underground Kolkata Metro railway, are usually packed during office hours, and the practice of “reserving” public seats by “daily passengers” is widespread, and this “reservation” is most often done by placing handkerchiefs, newspapers, and playing cards on the seats. Shopno Dhar (Fig 2) is a logical extension of Roomal Das, who reaches office only to take his many tea-breaks and cat-naps. PK Lal, Muttu Rajan and Dharna-di embody the behaviour of these same office clerks outside their offices. The city is known for its robust political culture and urban protests. Often the agitation-oriented tactics of political parties bring parts of the city to a complete halt. And though Dharna-di (Fig 1) would consider it her civic right to express her dissent on just about any cause, in her other avatars as PK Lal and Muttu Rajan (Fig 3), she would refuse to appreciate the problems of civic offences like urinating in public or spitting betel juice on the city walls. I would present a larger analysis of these representations in relation to the next set of advertisements under discussion.
The next set of hoardings that I shall be analyzing can be in some ways connected to the Red FM 93.5 set. These are advertisements put up by Star Ananda (now ABP Ananda) during the year 2007. (See figures 5 to 8 below)
Star Ananda was a 24-hour news channel in Bengali language, started in 2005 and run as a joint effort of STAR India and Anandabazar Patrika, a widely-circulated and followed newspaper in Bengali. The channel is now (since 2012) called ABP Ananda and is run by ABP News Network Pvt. Ltd. It not only airs regional or national news programmes, but covers lifestyle and cinema as well. The viewership is mainly made up of middle-class, “cultured,” elite Bengalis, the same kind of people who would sympathize with the “Red FM Kolkata Superheroes” campaign. And one look at the Star Ananda hoardings (photographs of which are above) tells you it is the middle-class viewers who were being prodded by these hoardings. These advertisement visuals bring us to the important point to be pondered over in today’s world where visuality mediates power relations. It is significant in this context, to note: 1) Whose fantasies do these images feed? 2) What are these fantasies that they focus on?
Each of the hoardings of this series has a catch-phrase: “Dekhun. Bhabun. Egiye chalun” (“See. Think. Walk towards progress”). There is a message to be understood in this scheme of mixed-media. The meaning that the spectator arrives at is not unmediated. The conspicuously visible logo of Star Ananda and the ubiquitous catch-phrase on these hoardings tell them that Star Ananda is the only channel which can help them see, think and thereby walk towards progress. The areas which require discussion and debate, according to the channel, and which find visual expression in 2007, are infrastructure issues of the city and some debated symbols of the city. Fig 5 and Fig 6 show the tram and the hand-pulled rickshaw, modes of transport unique to Kolkata, which have been in the eye of the debate for a long time. Fig 7 and Fig 8 show the city’s jeopardized civic amenities – the potholed city roads and the waterlogged city in the monsoons.
The city’s legislative council has banned the “inhumane” hand-pulled rickshaws, which also cause traffic congestion. Of course, due to lack of rehabilitation opportunities for the rickshaw pullers, they continue to ply in parts of north and central Kolkata. Also these hand-pulled rickshaws are the city’s only hope when the monsoons flood these low-lying areas of the city. I stress on Fig 6, for the rickshaw-puller for me epitomizes the idea of middle-class charity, the tokenism that comes through in the debates and discussions shown in TV channels, consumed by a genteel class of viewers. The streets of the city get water-logged because the city’s basic urban infrastructure has not kept pace with time. Factors such as an ever-growing population, lack of planning, poor execution of work ethics and accountability lead to such crises. And the rickshaw puller is a subaltern figure, deprived of education and value-added jobs, without the benefits of industrial revolution and capitalism. Such a figure, as a victim of a crumbling system of a decadent city is discussed by the city’s elite intelligentsia on a TV channel while the middle-class viewers partake of it with their evening tea and biscuits.
I argue that there are two complementary discourses and patterns of signification at work here. At one level these visual metaphors of the city deplore the state of subaltern life in the city, and on another level they reinforce the image of the subaltern. The middle-class discourse of social awareness and philanthropy, evident in these Red FM and Star Ananda campaigns and the scores of news channel discussions that we encounter every evening, feeds on the image of the subaltern and they reinforce and celebrate the image of the subaltern while drawing its own sustenance. These two narrative strands freeze the image of the subaltern’s city, in the scores of visual representations of the city. Here, we can also re-read the catch-phrase presented by the Star Ananda advertisement: Egiye chalun also, literally, means ‘walk ahead’. This literal reading, perhaps, brings out the irony that characterizes the city’s representation in the middle-class narrative of philanthropy. The catch-phrase now reads, “See. Think [for a moment]. And just walk ahead”!
These hoardings and billboards tap into the multifarious images of the city and their potential to signify certain values and meanings to the spectators. These cultural representations are heavily coded and the patterns of decoding is controlled and predetermined by the repeated use and ubiquity of the images. The consumerist culture taps into these codes and in the process, reinforces the stereotypes. In the iconic representations of the city, the everyday life is marginalized or they find their own stereotypes, like Dharna Di or the rickshaw-wallah. And though my samples are chosen from a particular time frame in the history of the city, this levelling of the heterogeneity characterizes most consumerist representations of the city, or any city, at any time, to extend the argument.
Balshaw, Maria, and Liam Kennedy, ed. Urban Space and Representation. London: Pluto, 2000.
Mitchell, W.J.T., ed. Landscape and Power. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
“Red FM says ‘Aashun shobai mile eder bajaai’.” Televisionpoint.com. 23 May 2007. 11 December 2010.
All photographs courtesy the author.
This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol II, as part of the Coldnoon journal.