The Writing on the Wall

Colourful murals in Bangalore hold on to a parallel reality

A man walks up a staircase in Bangalore that bisects a mural depicting dhows at sea. DIBYANGSHU SARKAR / AFP PHOTO
01 September, 2011

TWO YEARS AGO, people began to notice a curious new phenomenon on the streets of Bangalore. As avenue trees fell to make way for broader roads, as buildings tumbled and rose and neverending construction pushed clouds of dirt into the air, paintings started to appear.

On the walls of an underpass, a haphazard juxtaposition of images catches the eye: historic monuments in Karnataka painted alongside native wildlife. Blind statues gaze out at the clogged arteries of the city. Greenery abounds in the parallel reality that the pictures depict. Birds flock in paintings at a traffic light, colouring parts of the city where few birds of any sort are to be found. Some scenes are painted in a cursory manner, a few with delicate attention to detail; colours blend with light, and the bird seems ready to fly out of the stone. In others, the surreality of the animals makes them seem a product of the artist’s dreams.

The paintings grew, it seemed, overnight. They grew so fast and inexplicably that they could almost have been spontaneous organic outgrowths of the city-soul itself. They covered the grey walls around Lalbagh Gardens with animals and trees; within days these images had masked the protest graffiti previously adorning those walls. They covered student scrawls on the walls of government schools with illustrations of proper hygiene. They covered up layers of torn Kannada movie posters, the detritus of years. Murals spanning kilometres of public walls covered up phone numbers for businesses, years-old dates for rallies at Town Hall, declarations of love and affection between nameless forgotten sets of initials, demands for recognition of Tamil Eelam and calls for world peace. They erased dirt and urine stains and illegible graffiti, and they wiped away the green mildew that covers everything after the rains have ended.

To travel along the main arteries of Bangalore (past inexplicable paintings of chimpanzees and frolicking dolphins) is an adventure in not-seeing. We are not supposed to see the roads choked with traffic, but rather the broad highways that are planned in their place. We are not supposed to see the blank windows of partially constructed buildings, clusters of metal rods prodding the overcast sky: one’s eyes should be filled with the towering skyscrapers that they will some day become. We are not supposed to see the half-constructed monolithic pillars that slow traffic to an oozing pace, but rather the metro lines that will eventually zip down those pillars, shiny in their futuristic splendour.

To see the city as it is—and not its presumed future, or its past—can be mind-bending. Bangalore is in a constant state of change. The transient present seems a post-apocalyptic landscape: filled with dust and partially-constructed, mostly-demolished structures, lung-destroying traffic, a rapidly diminishing tree cover and very little left that is truly old. The smoggy vistas that greet the eye are contradictory, often disconcerting, and occasionally strangely beautiful. On a dusty road, a woman walks home with vegetables from the market, sari wrapped around her face against the smoke from traffic. Her figure is silhouetted briefly by vehicle lights against the mural that wraps around a public school—illustrations of how to brush one’s teeth. Traffic is permanently stalled at an intersection downtown: there were trees here once, in place of cranes hanging against the sky, one barely remembers. Piles of dirt and rubble; gaps where buildings used to be. On the entrance to a pedestrian walkway has been painted an idyllic scene of green trees, birds, the sky; against that is written in Kannada in large, hopeful letters, Hasiru Bengaluru: Green Bangalore.