Urban Design Collective partnered with others to organise the series of Jane Walks around Pondicherry (a town in South India) in early May 2014.
As a layman to urban planning, cities and spaces, I participated in one of these walks on the 3rd of May 2014. This was a cycle tour around Pondicherry. The tour was to examine ‘street art’ and to engage with public spaces.
During the tour we went around a part of the city known as the Boulevard town- the elite part of the town- to look at street art made by Europeans as well as some residents of Pondicherry. The art was made by individuals and artists’ collectives from Germany, France and other countries – Artiste Ouvriers, Mosko, Aye Aye Cherie, Tona as well as local individual and artist’s collective- Mosel and Imprintz. It was very interesting since we hadn’t really noticed most of these graffiti earlier.
After spending a few hours riding around town and discussing and photographing art in the city- as resistance, as politics and as advertisement- we gathered to discuss the cycle tour.
Among the things discussed, I would like to dwell on two points which I feel we need to reflect upon in retrospect.
One was the question of the use of cycles in the city. We were asked which cities we felt comfortable cycling in. Pondicherry was and is a place where one does find many cyclists. Some of the participants pointed to how cycling in Pondicherry was scary when motorcycles, cars and other vehicles too plied on the road. But the general sense was that cycling is a good thing and that the city should be cycle friendly.
Though the discussion was brief, I felt that the question of cycling being good is not such a simple one, rather it complexly intersects with questions of class, aspirations, weather, etc. As Sanjay Srivastava points out in this piece, cycling is not just linked to environmentalism, green cities, but also to class, class aspirations, and to convenience in our climactic conditions, where it often becomes physically stressful to ride cycles.
The other question that seemed contentious to me was the question of art in the city itself. In our discussion, one of the participants pointed out that she never really engaged with the town spaces or its roads as all she did was to commute from her home to her workplace and back. In connection with this, I added that street art then allowed us to engage with public spaces and that the consumption of this art then allowed us to loiter.
At the same time, I added that our own understanding of street art, especially as seen during the tour, was restricted to paintings on the walls- that too in the very elite space of the town. This art again, was made by Europeans and some resident artists’ collectives who were again local elites. Though some of the art was political, most of the European’s art were colonial responses to India. The gaze on India was very distinctly colonial- tigers, women in saris, Hindu gods such as Ganesha, men in turbans and so on.
I argued that the meanings of art in the city needed to expand to include posters, shop hoardings, hand painted cinema posters, to paintings on lorries and paintings on the backdrops of religious as well as marriage processions. Art in the city needn’t be restricted to static, normative forms of paintings and graffiti on the walls- which is only a few years old in Pondicherry.
In this regard I would like to briefly reflect on what it might mean to understand ‘art in the city’ very differently from just graffiti on the walls.
In my research on bride processions, practiced by non-Brahmin communities in and around Pondicherry, I noticed that the art on the backdrop of the processional car had changed remarkably over the last few decades. A few decades back, the backdrops resembled temple gopurams and were more elaborate and used more flowers. There was a distinct element of the sacred in these marriage procession backdrops. In the present, the design of the backdrop had landscapes painted on them, and there was a rise in the use of serial lights. The sacred meanings of the backdrop had given way to the romantic.
The bride procession backdrops, 2010.
The bride procession backdrops in the 1990s or earlier
Painting the backdrop was a recent development. If we examine art in the city, we then need to interrogate not just the European tourists who make graffiti, but the artists who paint the backdrops of these processions too. Who are there artists? Where do they draw their understandings of the landscape form from? Since these marriage processions form part of a non-Brahmin community practices, especially the lower castes and Dalits, how does caste intersect with this practice of art?
At the same time, the cinema hoardings used to be hand painted earlier. With the disappearance of hand painted hoardings and the introduction of flex boards, we need to understand that a part of ‘art in the city’ is disappearing- and if it does exist, we need to understand who the painters are, what techniques they use, and what they do after the flex boards arrive. Paintings on lorries too have its own history and influences and we need to look into the meanings of art of lorries.
It might be difficult conducting cycle tours of art in the city when we talk about processions, or lorries. But there are ways of engaging with this art by visiting the artists, who might double up as lorry-drivers, or labourers, and who challenge our very idea of who an artist is. The few hand painted hoardings left in the city are also important to examine, and they are often spread across town, and not restricted to the Boulevard town.
To engage then with art in the city would include not just graffiti on the walls of the elite part of town, but to also engage with varied spaces and varied forms or ‘art’ which would challenge our conceptions art, artists, spaces, and allow us to engage more democratically with our own public spaces.
Photo Credits: Ketaki Chowkhani
Ketaki Chowkhani, a native of Pondicherry, is a PhD Research Scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai, India. Her doctoral work focuses on adolescent sexuality and the politics of sexuality education in contemporary urban India.