Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Chennai Beautiful:
Shifting Urban Landscapes and the Politics of Spectacle

Roos Gerritsen
This essay comprises of 4 pages plus a gallery. How to navigate them.

“An area meant for preserving greenery by the Agricultural Department opposite to the Gemini fly-over has been completely blocked from the view of the public by huge advertisement hoardings… Just opposite to the High Court in front of the Bar Council Office there is an advertisement board which is placed across the pavement, causing nuisance to the traffic and the pedestrians. If one goes down the Nungambakkam Bridge towards Poonamallee High Road, one can see a long advertisement board which must be about 300 feet in the length…We are not even worried about the obscene advertisements, mostly by film producers and Cinema theatres, which can be taken care of by appropriate existing legislation. But we are worried about the size and location of the innumerable hoardings simply spoiling the aesthetic beauty of the City and some of the modern buildings which have (been) built artistically with the help of architectural experts” 

(Excerpt from High Court Document 2006. Cited from Note 2007, 139)

The State of Tamil Nadu is well known, even notorious, for the elaborate decoration of billboards, murals, and posters featuring mostly actors and politicians that appear in the public spaces of its cities and towns (figs. 01-03).1 This culture of what many see as excessive display stems from an intimate and long-lasting relation between the fields of politics and cinema, with several actors and others from the Tamil movie industry pursuing political careers.2 The political leaders who gained eminence in the state have always been ubiquitously displayed across cities and towns through iconic images, party colors, and slogans on walls, meters-high billboards and cutouts, and numerous posters. What is important to note is that this kind of imagery is not merely organized by the parties’ leaders but is mostly displayed on the initiative of low-level party supporters. Political supporters coming from lower socio-economic classes use this visibility not merely to promote their party loyalty but to make themselves visible as well.


Even though the presence of such spectacular images is widely taken for granted, the High Court document quoted above alerts us to the recurring rhetoric of agitation against them in the Tamil public realm. Newspapers regularly report on the physical dangers posed by these ubiquitous images to pedestrians struggling to navigate their way around them (as these are often placed across pavements and footpaths), and to drivers unable to see traffic signals that are obstructed by such billboards. Furthermore, it is claimed that young viewers in particular are distracted by the stunning, frequently eroticized, stills taken from new movie releases. In 2009, in the wake of extensive criticism about the defacing of public and private walls by political parties and others, the Chennai city administration attempted to intervene in the elaborate visual encroachment on its streets and initiated campaigns to regulate the ‘pollution’ caused by unauthorized forms of pictorial displays within the city. From mid-2009 onwards, the city decided to enforce a ban on posters, murals, and hoardings on two of the main roads running through the city. Billboards were pulled down and walls cleaned of posters and whitewashed, covering up the remains of the once ubiquitous murals. To beautify these roads, artists were commissioned to cover the walls with images of Tamil cultural heritage and natural scenery (figs. 04-06). Chennai's Mayor M. Subramanian declared, “Images of various cultural symbols would be painted on compound walls of government property on the two roads. …This is intended to keep those who paste posters away and improve aesthetics. Posters are an eyesore” (The Hindu, Chennai edition 29/05/2009). Anna Salai and another road in the city were chosen to launch pilot projects for a larger beautification initiative. On the success of the pilot, the project was extended to the entire Chennai Corporation limits a year later. Today, more than 3000 public walls are prohibited from being used for posters and the like.3 Moreover, Chennai is being more and more "embellished" with beautification murals: main roads, junctions, and flyovers are decorated with images of cultural and natural settings, providing parts of the city with a new look.


As can be understood from the Mayor’s words, the reason given by the city authorities for installing the beautification murals is the rising agitation over an alleged absence of what is deemed to be aesthetic, and over the excessive display of hoardings and other public imagery. In this essay, I argue instead that the needs of Chennai’s growing neo-liberal economy have catalyzed this "beautification" plan. The new murals are in fact part of a larger beautification and gentrification initiative by the city, in which Chennai is clearly presenting itself as being on its way to becoming a "world class" city. I explore how the new beautification murals can be linked to three interrelated processes that are part of this "neoliberal turn."

The first context of change is Chennai’s positioning as a "world class" city that will attract capital investors, and, related to this, the emergence of increasingly affluent neo-liberal middle-class publics."World class" can be understood as a global imaginary expressed, for instance, in architecture and the built environment, spectacular and exclusive public spaces such as shopping malls, as well as in the aspirations towards cosmopolitan life styles or globalized consumption (Brosius 2010). The imagination of "world class" seems to have become the incentive for many beautification and urban renewal projects. This has lead to the new middle classes becoming more visible in urban space, as well as brushing away selected parts of the city such as slums, or inhabitants such as street vendors, who pose a problem for such an image. The gentrification of the city is part of new "spatial strategies" in the urban environment that create or reinforce social distinctions (Deshpande 1998).

Second, following Abidin Kusno (2010), I propose that the new beautification images seem to constitute social and political identities as well as reinforce old political ideologies. The particular history of image display in Tamil Nadu, in which urban space has been used extensively for political and cinematic publicity purposes, is strongly entangled with the conventional political practices of the State. Now, just as public space demands gentrification and beautification in order to attract foreign investors, the political system demands an image cleanup as well, as populist politics are deemed inappropriate in a neo-liberal environment. Therefore, the visual environment as backdrop for conventional political practices has to be cleansed to brush away suggestions of populist politics. At the same time, however, the beautification murals with their focus on Tamil or Dravidian history and their mural form seem to reinforce the parties’ focus on ideological Dravidian origins and identity, only now more focused on a generic Tamilness.

This brings me to the third process. The murals are aimed at rebuilding present-day Chennai and its image for an aspired future. At the same time, they embody nostalgia for the past rooted in the image of a collective history and identity. As the city aspires to become a world-class city through urban renewal and novel architecture, the beautification murals mostly refer to the "traditional" past. I suggest that the murals figure as monuments of collective identity and memory (Rowlands and Tilley 2006) through which a uniform, idealized, and consumable history and future can be (re)installed or (re)created. As hyper-real objects (Eco 1990; Baudrillard 1994), the murals seem to cater towards the desires of the new, affluent middle classes to consume "tradition" in a simplified "postcard" history, a process which I will refer to as neo-nostalgia (Ivy 1988; Hancock 2008). As consumable historic narratives, they actually become more potent than that to which they actually refer. Moreover, this history, assembled from fractions of cultural values and moralities, is deemed lost by the city authorities in urban lifestyles, and thus in need to be instructed as well.

Taking these three processes together, the production of murals indicates a move on the part of the city authorities to embrace neo-liberalism and its publics through an emphasis on the aesthetic and the traditional while sidelining conventional political practices and loyalties. The murals turn the city into a postcard spectacle; a spectacle of aspirations, nostalgia, beauty, tradition, and moral pedagogy. They show a shift from more common uses of public space and taste to elitist visualities. In the meantime, unauthorized or "spontaneous" uses of public space are being replaced not only by sanitized, beautified images, but also by new, other imaginings and desires regarding what the future, history, culture, and beauty should be.

1 I have presented this paper on different occasions. I would like to thank all who responded with comments and questions that helped me shape it to its current form. I would particularly like to thank Christiane Brosius, Steve Hughes, Kajri Jain, Sumathi Ramaswamy, Patsy Spyer, S.V. Srinivas, A. Srivathsan, Mary Steedly and A.R. Venkatachalapathy for their valuable comments, suggestions, and insights.
2 For an elaborate account on the use of cinematic imagery in political discourse, see Jacob 2009.
3 Public walls are compound walls of government property.

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