Faces on the wall

Being born in the world’s largest democracy is a privilege. But do we need visual loudness, the strange, ludicrously ambitious, garish chutzpah that surrounds us to realise it? Sumati Mehrishi looks for answers.

It may have been a coincidence. But the first word my toddler added to her nascent vocabulary after our increasing trips from New Delhi to Noida a few months ago was — ‘statue’. Every time we would drive along Mayawati’s statue-park in Noida, my child would unbelt herself and peer at the huge shrouded structures. Today, looking at the labourers chiselling fountain floors and perfecting domes at the park, she is in awe of the statues in Delhi’s boondocks, especially the beautifully carved elephants. Anyway, the last I noticed, they were fixing the Ashok Chakra on a tall pillar at the park and it was quite a tear-jerker, a decently patriotic moment to live.

Serendipitous moments, well, they keep arriving to a parent. Going by my child’s interests in this marvellous jamboree and representation of the endangered pachyderm (unfortunately the power-packed party symbol is far from such intentions), I sometimes wonder whether I was making her visit the ducks at the Lodhi Gardens and the dolls at Shankar’s Museum during my stay in Delhi more often than she could relish. But I see a lot of interesting, riveting bits in the fact that in the coming months, the toddler’s interest in Mayawati’s park, however indirect, will grow. I, a brahmin mother, would be educating my child about the country’s dalit leaders and their aspirations in coming years.

Like any other child born to moderate politically conscious middle-class parents, she would grow up absorbing this tumultuous riot of visual political propaganda so naturally — to be part of the democratic mish-mash that the country is about. But, really, it’s all very different from what our generation was exposed to — in colours, clichés and cacophony.

The last 10 years have seen an aggressive show of electoral might through banners and advertisements on Indian streets. Strangely, unlike the 1980s, the show doesn’t really fluctuate with the parties’ or the leaders’ vicissitudes today. Political lackeys break their so-called achievements in blinding crowded hoardings and loud wall graffiti across New Delhi.

Rise And Shine

At eight, growing in Uttaranchal, I was aware of the who’s who of the region’s political circle — through newspaper reports, scanty wall graffiti and occasional messages from loudspeakers tied to rolling auto rickshaws. That was all. Today, Dehradun has a different picture story to tell. The “poetic” chief minister’s banners speak to you — the state’s neat image screaming in his speckles white kurta-pajamas and the customary heartwarming hand fold of a tourism state’s welcoming host — at every nook and corner.

A few years ago, at work, I was part of a formal interaction with the Madhya Pradesh chief minister at the newspaper office. After a few questions on his role in the state’s much questioned “secular credentials” and his party’s involvement in the activities of a controversial students’ wing, I tried making a few teasing remarks on how his political rival, Uma Bharti had outdone him in one area. “What’s that?” he asked, taking the microphone off his clothing, prompting a young party worker to take down notes. “Going by her aggressive publicity banners in the state’s Capital, it looks like she is the chief minister and you are not.” Hearing this, the CM laughed hard. My colleagues smirked harder. He said that I would see a different Bhopal during my next visit. One of my colleagues ideologically opposed to the party and the CM had looked extremely peeved over this entertaining moment. “You want him to do more damage to the state,” she whispered annoyingly. I did not blame her well-placed cynicism for inability to smirk. Not everyone finds political gaffes amusing.

The First Glimpse of Dr Ambedkar

My first exposure to a political figure’s statue as a child was in Mayawati’s Uttar Pradesh, four hours down the spruced, sprouting-garden fresh Noida — in Bijnor, the place which would become the pocket borough of the country’s fire-brand woman leader in the late 1980s. In my ancestral village, the idols apart from those of the Hindu deities’ placed or erected randomly around the village would be of BR Ambedkar’s. Village children would usually play around these idols with kites and sticks, their feet buried in muck and mud. Strangely, there would be a tattered cloth flag, sewn over to a twig, flying over the Ambedkar idols I would see across the villages in and around Bijnor.

Two decades later, I had come across an interesting parallel of the village scene in the CPI(M) boroughs in the villages of Kerala — flags hand sewn and hand-painted, decorating the idols of Marx and local communist leaders fluttering across tea estates and spice gardens.

My first exposure to a dalit figure was made of images rustic, plain and memorable. On the other hand, there are the mammoth money times my daughter’s generation is living in — nothing really exciting about them. Take for instance, the trivia of sorts behind her first exposure to “statue”. At a dizzying `685 crore — the cost of construction of Mayawati’s park — “statue”, so far, is the most expensive word or an image she has picked — after “Shera”, the CWG mascot.

Chennai Central

Even adults find themselves caught by this visual propaganda carried out by political parties for their own interests. Three years ago, I was living in Chennai for work. I had found a decent rented accommodation in Kalaignar Karunanidhi Nagar (originally called K Kamraj Nagar) popularly known as KK Nagar. For someone like me who had grown up watching the repetitive political tussles in North India, living in Chennai’s KK Nagar served as the first refreshing relief — the first visual introduction to Tamil Nadu’s money and race driven dynasty politics.

Looking at the political publicity banners, I would often feel like a fly out of the fussed about fluctuating versions of tea, into a cup of a standard unchanging measure of filter coffee which has only two ways of being served — either with sugar or without.

Except for a few splashes of banners from “Tamil cause” driven parties, Chennai is about larger than life banners and cut outs of the DMK patriarch and his sons, or the super motherly banners of the AIADMK chief Jayalalitha. Back then, the DMK was riding high, and the radiance showed in MK Stalin’s posters — his teeth digitally shined and the tuft of hair on the side of his forehead dramatically wavy. Azhagiri’s posters were scanty and within a week’s stay, I had realised, I do not have to follow the news to know why.

One of the banners of Jayalalitha I distinctly remember looked like a leaf from her family album. The local party workers had compiled photographs of the leader on a single banner — pictures from days as a toddler to her days as a student, an actor and as a leader. Today Chennai super queen is back to power and the DMK cracking up to a shift of fortunes and fans. I wonder how staying in KK Nagar would be different today. Do people of Kolkata stand staring at the walls after all the pain and pining for “change”?

Will our children have any interest left in figuring out the country’s democratic, political nature and its complicated inside through any efforts of their own? Being born in the world’s largest democracy is a privilege, alright. But do we need visual loudness, the strange, ludicrously ambitious, garish chutzpah that surrounds us to realise it? Baba Ramdev is too busy to answer.

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