CHENNAI: The spot where Mount Road’s Anand Theatre, with its colourful array of hand-painted walls once stood, is now a stack of grey and white office buildings. Just one small wall carries a painting of yesteryear actor and political stalwart, MGR.
“The place has changed. The giant hoardings are gone and there are no images of cinema stars on the walls anymore,” says Premkumar, who has been commuting along the arterial route for decades. He isn’t the only one who has observed the metamorphosis of Chennai’s wall art culture.
Pop culture heroes, party glyphs and temple paintings were the popular themes painted around the city of Chennai. “To a traveller, it may be intriguing to see so many faces as wall designs, but as Chennaiites, we are used to it,” says 28-year-old Ashwin K of Choolai.
Many paintings are lost behind coats of whitewash, or have been swallowed by filth. Wall portraits have been replaced by plastic and vinyl images and letters. Areas like Perambur Barracks Road and Vyasarpadi are among the few areas that still retain stretches of free-hand art.
From the 70s, the transformation has been gradual even in other respects. ‘Angry’ graffiti has given way to an ‘organised’ graffiti culture, with groups taking it up as art and beautifying public spaces. Scribbling like ‘P James Magic Show’ and ‘Illuminati’ stand beside more colourful graffiti at the Egmore Railway Station.
Murals and paintings have also cropped up in the city in recent years — at the US Consulate and at Sathyam Cinemas, for instance. Along with changes in style, there has been a change in content as well.
By the Marina and Besant Nagar beaches, one can spot paintings that carry messages, not just faces.
Lakshmi Priya Daniel, dean of students and associate professor of visual arts at Stella Maris College, explains how through the years, art constantly faced a threat of being lost in antiquity and fading from urban memory. “My childhood memory of art goes back to places like T Nagar where people would paint pictures of gods and goddesses on the pavements and ask for alms,” she says. To her, the city has always been intrinsically rooted in art in some form or another.
“Streets near temples had their own creative spaces, while art associated with politics and movies could be seen on street walls. But much of this has disappeared from the city,” she says, explaining that although she is glad about the new wave of wall art, traditional forms of art should not be forgotten.
Dissecting art around us
Usually legal and are commissioned works of art applied or painted on an entire length of a wall. They carry both images and lettering. There are several folk genres of murals in India
Grew globally as an underground movement by spray-paint activists (their mode of paint). Today it is an art form with groups having their own styles of graffiti. Can be done on a variety of surfaces
The simplest form of painting, it is the style chosen by amateur artists and experts alike, who use normal wall-paints and brushes
Stylised scripts of letters in Tamil and English which were usually styled onto walls, but now have been replaced by vinyl stickers across the city
Art that incites violence or murder
Anything that obstructs pedestrians or traffic
Religious profanity or depicting any faith in a crude or derogatory manner
Obscene or indecent imagery
Art that influences armed forces against serving the nation
Painting or scribbling on public structures without permission