Even amid a dampened mood in the city owing to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the five-day Durga Puja festivities in Kolkata this year do seem ‘festive’ enough for everyone except perhaps the most insufferable of Bengalis. Despite several restrictions thrust upon them by no higher authority than fate, Pujo committees across the state have managed to come up with unique ideas and themes for the pandals. From Maa Durga slaying Chinese President Xi Jinping to a migrant goddess — we’ve seen it all, even though a few eyebrows were raised in the process. If West Bengal’s enterprise seems exhaustive enough, think again. It would be a shame to miss out on the graffiti on walls (“dewal likhon,” as they are known as in Bengali), that almost runs as a parallel artistic tradition in the city’s cultural psyche.
Scribbled along a nonchalant wall just ahead of the lane leading to the Santoshpur Lake Pally Pujo in south Kolkata are the words, “Eating luchi-torkari here is not permitted.” It seems like an odd choice of words for even the most rabid ‘neat freaks’ concerned about defiling their holier-than-thou wall.
(For the uninitiated, the Bengali “luchi” is a deep-fried flatbread made of Maida flour, a fancy string of words put together just to make it abundantly clear it is in, by no means, related to the abominable north Indian “puri”, which is deep-fat fried and made of unleavened whole-wheat.)
But what kind of a lunatic would not want people to have a harmless plate of luchi-and-torkari (the bread is usually coupled with a choice side dish not necessarily vegetarian) in front of just another wall in the city? The answer lies in Kolkata’s cultural underbelly and the bygone tradition of dewal likhon.
Growing up in Kolkata during the ‘90s would mean chancing upon the very familiar sight of graffiti-strewn walls at every nook and corner of the city. Most of them would be politically-charged, holding mostly impish but often the witty slogans that made the lone citizen chuckle.
The earlier generation would often quote their favourite dewal likhon from years ago: “Haatey niye sten gun, eshe gelo Ghani Khan, jonogon shabdhan” which loosely makes a play on Congress leader A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhary’s name. The Congress was not this pally with the CPI(M) in those days, evidently.
The people, who witnessed a time even earlier, recall fiery slogans from the Naxalbari era, all throughout the late ‘60s and the ‘70s, when communist cadres, hunted by the police and state machinery, would paint the walls with charcoal from the pyres of their dead comrades. The letters conveyed their deepest passions and fears, as well as a sense of style, calligraphy and design. The art of graffiti didn’t come easy. It required training.
Even as a socially-aware citizenry clashed over their politics, Kolkata’s subconscious was being shaped by wave upon wave of polemic borne by the walls of the city. It is these city’s walls which politely asked people not to urinate in public spaces, and it is these city’s walls which asked people not to stick advertisements on private property. The language reformed over the years, till in the mid-2000s, the state government issued a directive ordering a blanket ban of graffiti, no matter what the property is — public, private or corporate.
It didn’t stop anyone, of course, not really. It’s not easy to impose such a ban, especially in a city informed by decades of impassioned politics which perchance found an outlet across the walls. So what does a city, so vehemently opposed to the neoliberal idea of a squeaky clean metropolis with its squeaky clean walls, do ahead of the year’s annual festivities? Defile the walls with nonsensical captions, hoping people would be kind enough so as to not defile it in turn with vegetable stew, of course.