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German artists recently painted across walls in Bangalore, leaving behind colours and the central question: should India have graffiti just because it’s cool in the West?




ROLL OVER, BANGALORE: Auto Insect by George Mathen is a comment on the frenetic autorickshaw

wenty years ago, teenagers in Germany and elsewhere in the West were jumping fences, sneaking up in the shadows of the night to descend on disintegrating walls with spray cans in their gloved hands. In the streets of Malleswaram, Bangalore, H Ramesh Babu was selling fruit. Today, 42-year-old Babu and his stall are still around to stand witness to the way the times have changed. The wall opposite his stall was part of a building that came up in 1947. It later became a small complex of shops. Later still, the structure was abandoned. Beaten up by time, it looked like an unmarked grave of its former self. Just when it seemed ready to collapse, it was electrified. For the dark art of the graffiti that prowls through creaky subway tunnels, lonely lanes and the lost ruins of modern cities, it was the perfect canvas. The man responsible for its facelift is Kessel-born German street artist ECB or Hendrik Beitrich, one of the key figures of the street art subculture in the mid-nineties. His art has taken him to forlorn and forgotten places — demolition sites, wastelands, abandoned industrial areas, train tracks and train yards. He believes that graffiti purifies the streets. It doesn’t vandalise. It chooses the very spots a city rejects and then resurrects them.

For Indian graffiti enthusiasts, just picking up a spray can isn’t all that easy. They’re expensive at Rs 200 per can and probably not even worth the money ECB along with other German graffiti writers and Indian artists painted murals in Bangalore as part of Urban Avantgarde, a month long celebration of public space aimed at expanding urban cultures’ modes of expression. Drawn to the dying wall on 6th cross, Sampige Road, Malleswaram, ECB painted a seven-foot-tall mural titled The face of ignorance. Similar to his larger-than-life monochrome works in places like Shenzen, Hamburg,

tiatives in Bangalore. Bangalore’s dubious effort at beautification initiated by the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagar Palike (BBMP) on August 15, 2009 came with the following words on its website: “This Independence Day, Bangalore will wake up to a colorful morning, with walls painted with different colorful designs.” Retrospectively, it seems easier to imagine it as a cold sarcastic threat delivered by a Bond villain. Muralist and illustrator Jas Charanjiva who lives and works in Mumbai concurs with Mathen that “proper street art barely exists” here. “It’s done for fun, to add colour to our streets, as a project, but it’s nowhere close to Berlin, New York, Amsterdam,” she says. “Even the best murals in India, like those on Chapel Road, Bandra, are those done by outsiders from France or Germany.” The one advantage in India though, she says, is that people are open to it and it’s probably

risk the graffiti artists or ‘writers’ as they are called take on demonstrates the depth and intensity of their dedication to art. It’s sort of like a self-examination to see “how far one goes for one’s art”. Swiss artist Harald Naegali aka ‘The Sprayer of Zurich’, whose work was displayed as part of the recent art exhibition in Max Mueller, Achtung: Asphaltkultur, German Graffiti Avantgarde, usually carries around a plastic bag with his colours on Sunday mornings. He leaves his wire frame drawings on walls when most people are still nursing hangovers. Caught by the police in 1979 and labelled an infamous vandal, he sought asylum in Germany. He was deported and given a six-month prison sentence. “Should we even be comparing our streets to those anywhere else in the world? We shouldn’t force graffiti, if it evolves it does, if it doesn’t it doesn’t,” says Mathen, “If you imita-

SOULSPEAK: The vacant stare of ECB’s 7-ft-tall mural ‘The Face of Ignorance’ provides a stark contrast to the bustle of the street

Belgrade, Brooklyn and Koblenz, it’s a portrait of an unknown face marked by empty eyes. ECB says it shows a spirit contrary to that of the people around and therefore the message ‘Ignorance is the blindness of the soul’ is on it. Meanwhile, HR Babu, who has a fly-on-thewall perspective of the wall, says that it is pretty much a hit. College students pose and click pictures, neighbourhood kids are regulars and his customers are curious about it. Whatever it means, it brings joy to those around, he says. ECB smiles as he recollects the reactions of people on the streets while he painted. He worked on the mural for six hours every day for four days. “I was offered coffee, food and even a ladder. This would never happen back home,” he says. The biggest difference between Indian streets and those in Germany is the omnipresence of graffiti in Europe: “It is everywhere,” he says. “It is the strongest influence in the look of any city or village. Two of the world’s leading spray-can manufacturers are from Germany.” Like ECB, Robert Kaltenhauser, curator in the field of graffiti and counter culture, grew up in Dusseldorf, where graffiti is an everyday part of the streets. He reinvented the term Asphaltkultur (asphalt culture), originally a derogatory term used by nationalists to denounce ‘impure’ modern urban culture, as a word that stands for street art. He says one reason graffiti thrives in Europe is because it doesn’t belong to any one particular economic group. “I can be a graffiti artist and then at home be a rich businessman, a respectable dentist or a college kid,” he says. “As a kid you probably won’t appreciate contextual art in a museum, but you can see graffiti on the streets and can easily pick up a spray can yourself. It’s simple but it’s brilliant.” For the German artists, getting their equipment together in India wasn’t that easy. “The

spray cans here are 20 years behind,” complains Gabor Dole, one of the artists of the Urban Avantgarde programme. Dole is still severely traumatised by the six-week-long bureaucratic combat he underwent to buy and import 700 spray cans at the cost of 5000 euros. “In Germany there is an entire industry for artists who work in public spaces. The colours have a higher pigmentation, they dry much faster. With cans here, you are limited. For example, you can never cover black with yellow paint here.” For Indian graffiti enthusiasts, just picking up a spray can isn’t all that easy. They’re expensive at Rs 200 per can and they’re probably not even worth the money. “Forget spray cans, we’re a poor country and even latex exterior house paints cost a lot,” says graphic novelist George Mathen or Appupen. “Why will anyone paint a wall when he isn’t getting paid for it? Life here is still about making a living. While graffiti started as sort of a counter culture, underground movement, in India we are approaching it from the other side. Our first exposure to it has been from big brands like Levis or Fast track. This was the most underground thing they (the brands) could connect to, they think it’s cool and want to look cult, so they use it. These are the very things graffiti is trying to defy in the first place.” On the streets of India, painting on public walls has been restricted to recent enthusiastic art projects (Delhi wall project, Bangalore Wallflowers, municipality-organised painting sprees in Mumbai) and some government ini-

ANIMAL FARM: Two monkeys by Jas Charanjiva in a Malleswaram playground and ‘Bangbang’ (above) by the Goethe Institut

Street artist ECB recollects the reactions of people on the streets while he painted. “I was offered coffee, food and even a ladder. This would never happen back home in Germany,” he says not as dangerous or difficult. “If you walk up and ask someone if you can paint their wall, the response is likely to be positive.” Mathen isn’t so convinced and feels that he might end up in a sticky place if he tried to paint a wall on impulse. However, he does agree that the art of graffiti involves some serious risk taking. “These guys work in secret, they have lawyers, they wipe all traces of fingerprints and even in their houses they don’t have cans or any proof of having done graffiti,” he says. According to Kaltenhauser, the

te it just because it’s cool, we’ll create a mess.” Kaltenhauser believes that with the world shrinking, it’s impossible not to be influenced by what’s happening elsewhere. But he knows mimicking art is a bad idea. “In Brazil, a unique style of latex graffiti evolved because people couldn’t find spray cans. It’s your own limitations and differences that will create a unique vocabulary,” he says, “The real spirit of graffiti is to look at what is around on your street.” Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learnt. 

‘I don’t have a single enemy in India’ PRITAM THAKUR

What was it like to sing for Hindi films? My voice is not fit for Hindi film music and though some of my songs have been used in films, I never aspired to become a playback singer.

On a recent trip to Chennai, ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali took time out to talk about how full life is at 71 KRISHNA KANTA CHAKRABORTY TIMES NEWS NETWORK You trained under Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and his three brothers — Barqat Ali Khan, Mubarak Ali Khan and Amanat Ali Khan. How did that happen? It was my father’s doing. One day, he took me to Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali saab and asked him to take me on as his ward, but the Ustad straightaway denied him saying his residence was much too far from my native place in Sialkot. But my father kept on requesting him and finally Ustadji said, “Theek hai, aagar ye mujhe kuchh suna de toh main soch ke batayunga.” (Okay, let him sing something so that I can decide.) I was 14 years old, and his proposal made me shiver. But guruji made me comfortable and said, “Beta, daro mat, gaa ke sunao… (Don’t worry, son, just sing.) I sang one of his famous thumris — Saiyan bolo tanak mose — and he liked it very much, and my classical training started from there. I spent 16 years with him and three of his brothers. When and how did you think of merging classical music with the ghazal form? Since I have had heavy classical training I wanted to carry on with that. But it was my guru, Amanat Ali Khan, who induced the interest of

light classical ghazals in me. My first recorded ghazal — Shaam ko subh-e-chaman yaad aayi — was a classical one which gave me instant fame in Pakistan.

Who are your favourite singers and songs? There are many. Mehdi Hassan saab and Jagjit Singh were tremendous singers .

Sometimes you approach the same song in two different ways, as was the case in ‘Kabhi kaha na kisi se, na jaane kaise khabar ho gayi zamane ko’. How difficult is it? It’s not just me but many famous ghazals singers who do that. We have some brilliant lyricists in Pakistan. When they approach me to compose music for their songs I try to do justice to them. But when I have free time, I recompose the song to give a different taste to my listeners. The general notion about the ghazal is that it is an Urdu product. But you have sung in Punjabi, Bengali and Nepali as well. Music has no language barrier and I have sung in so many different languages without knowing them, and I have never had any difficulty. Many of my ghazals are written in mixed language — Urdu, Parsi and Arabic. For example, Zehal-e-miskeen makun taghaful, duraye naina banaye batiyan. Kafi is a popular form in Pakistan, mostly in the Punjab and Sind regions, and poets like Khwaja Ghulam Farid, Baba Farid, Bulleh Shah, Shah

And who are your favourite lyricists? The list is never-ending. I’m fortunate to have worked with outstanding poets like Nasir Kazmi, Ahmed Faraz, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Hasrat Mohini, Saleem Kausar, Khatir Gaznavi and many more. A few words about the late Jagjit Singh. He was like my brother. I first met him in London in 1976 and we became friends. His life was filled with sorrow but he would never let you feel that when he was around. He was a great human being and a terrific singer. Hussain, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and Sachal Sarmast have a huge fan following. Your guru Bade Ghulam Ali also sang quite a few kafis. Are you interested in this form? Yes, I have done a number of kafi albums too. Kafi is a devotional music form and is very popular in my country. Some of the great singers like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Hussain Bakhsh Gullo have made it immortal.

You also love thumri. (Smiles) Yes. All my gurus were masters of the thumri and I try to follow their footsteps. And while doing that, I pay tribute to all of them. My thumri album Saiyyan Badesi Ghar Aa Jaa Re was a great hit. Do you ever listen to your own ghazals? Even at 71, my schedule is pretty hectic and I hardly get time to listen to music. Most of the time I’m either travelling or performing.

Relations between India and Pakistan are as bumpy as ever. Please ask the politicians about that. What I can tell you is that I don’t have a single enemy in India and I have been performing here for the last almost 50 years and have never had a problem with the people. We have the same culture, same dress and same food habits, but some differences have been created over time and we all should come forward to build cordial relations between India and Pakistan. 

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