Kolkata ‘Walling’: Poetry on walls

While social media have taken over political campaigns, the receding art of wall writings in different languages in the city, eve in Mandarin in China Town, has not gone out of fashion yet

Kolkata ‘Walling’: Poetry on walls
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Devasis Chattopadhyay

Streets of Calcutta in the sixties would be awash with wall writings declaring ‘Tomar Naam, Amar Naam, Vietnam, Vietnam’ (Your name and my name are both Vietnam) in a show of solidarity with the people of Vietnam who were then fighting invading American troops. Celebrated Bengali poet Shakti Chattopadhyay called this Walling - wall poetry.

But in the age of social media and new tech, music videos seem to be the flavour of the election season in Bengal this year. Communist Party of India (Marxist) released a parody of the popular Bengali song Tumpa Sona in a musical invitation calling people to attend a Left election rally at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground.

The street-smart lyrics mocking Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Trinamool Congress (TMC) in one stroke however did not go down well with purists.They frowned at the CPM imitating others in using slang and popular songs, deviating from the cultural high ground that socialist and communist movements across the world occupied.

Kolkata ‘Walling’: Poetry on walls

While the Left employed subaltern language to reconnect with its lost support base, BJP appropriated the 19th-century Italian protest song Bella Ciao or Goodbye, Beautiful to launch its campaign against Mamata Banerjee with the lyrics ‘Pishi, Jao’ (Goodbye Aunty). The song had been adapted by anti-CAA protestors last year and a Punjabi version of the song is being lustily sung at Delhi’s borders by farmers protesting against farm laws. Ironically, Bella Ciao has been a popular song of the anti-fascist movement and its appropriation by BJP in Bengal did not go unnoticed. Trinamool Congress released its own music video, Khela Hobe (The game is on) while a civil society group campaigning on ‘No Vote to BJP’ released another variation of this song to mock all parties including BJP, Trinamool and the Congress.

Even as music videos in Bengal rally people and young voters and the battle of perception is fought on social media, witty and combative wall writings, the earliest form of social media, have not gone completely out of fashion.

No evidence of wall writing is however found during the first two general elections. But they were used extensively in the mid-sixties by the Naxalite movement, especially between 1967 and 1969. This was largely because newspapers and radio frowned on Naxalites, who therefore looked for alternative ways to communicate. The inspiration possibly came from Latin American countries. They could be executed quickly, were inexpensive and were effective in conveying dire warnings.

In earlier elections, buntings, string-banners, placards, festoons, and posters were used for campaigning. A Tibetan Tanka like scroll poster was prepared by the then Communist Party of India (CPI) parodying a well-known devotional Shyama- Sangeet (songs devoted to goddess Kali).

Since the mid-sixties, wall writing evolved and used literary tools – the metaphor, parody, rhetoric, illustrations and graphics. It was unfair to call them graffiti, which is derived from the Italian word – graffito meaning scribbling or scratching. Adopted originally by archaeologists and paleographers as a generic term for casual writing, crude drawing and markings on ancient buildings as opposed to inscriptions, graffiti did not do justice to the literary flourishes in evidence on the walls.

The wall-writings went through four distinct phases, namely Pre-Naxalbari period, Naxalbari Movement and the Emergency, during Left-Front Rule and the current period since 2011 when TMC wrested power.

While wall writings were often a direct call for votes with attention drawn to party symbols, more popular ones used catchy rhymes in taking the fight to the rivals. Hath-Haturi-Kaste-Tara / Ebar hobe Bharat Chara / Futbe na ar Padma phul / Bharat Gorbe Trinamool (Hand, Hammer and sickle and the lotus/ will all wither away, paving the way for Trinamool to bloom). While Congress and the CPM were always more adept at wall writings, paying attention to typography and visuals, TMC and BJP have been quick to catch up. Erstwhile CPI(ML) and organisations like Aamra Bangali relied on free-hand writing with provocative statements.

Kolkata ‘Wallings’ are also examples of how political parties adopted outdoor advertising techniques. They applied basic principles of outdoor advertising - bright primary colours, bold lettering and use of graphics. Red, Black, Green, and Blue are favourite colours used in wallings. Yellow is mostly used as the base background colour to provide relief. Left parties avoid using green and blue while TMC doesn’t use red. BJP predominantly uses saffron, green, black, even blue. Congress depends on green, blue, black and very occasionally some hue of red.

True to the city’s cosmopolitan character, Hindi, English, Urdu and in specific areas Gurmukhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Odiya can also be seen. In fact I found TMC had used Mandarin in the China Town area.

While coexistence of wall writing by rivals were common once, driven by the desire to maximise use of available space, things are changing. Earlier no party ever encroached on the rival’s wall, with an informal system of advance booking of walls in the city taking care of possible disputes.

Several younger politicians are avoiding the use of wall-writing to keep the city clean. Groups of citizens are also resisting defacement of walls. They do not want the city walls to be the canvas for election campaigning causing ‘visual pollution’.

(The writer is a consultant on Public Policy, Brand Strategy & Actionable Insight, author and columnist)

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