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    Volume 10 |Issue 39 | October 14, 2011 |


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If Walls Could Talk

Sushmita S Preetha

As a child, I remember I would spend my car rides trying to decode Bengali alphabets painted on white, rusted brick walls en route from Mirpur to Dhanmondi. Back then, the walls held political messages, quips and party slogans. My young mind didn't quite understand the significance of those political expressions, but I remember being quite fascinated by the brilliance of the artists who inscribed the messages on the walls. What shapes the letters took! How varied the fonts were! As a child, I thought the bold and beautiful words painted in reds, blues, greens and blacks were an improvement to what to me seemed a very boring landscape. I was convinced I wanted to be a wall artist when I grew up, nothing less, nothing more. To my childish sensibilities, there was nothing more exciting than the prospect of making a visible mark on this city – to be able to jot down my thoughts on a wall and give it consciousness, to make it come alive!

Since then, every time I go visit a new city, I make it a point to read its walls. While my friends head off to museums, shopping malls or concerts, I wander about the city streets, studying its walls with the zealous curiosity of an anthropologist. Be it graffiti, posters, political slogans, advertisements, murals, unauthorised banners or “Do Not Vandalise” signs, the random and not-so-random inscriptions on city walls can tell us a lot about a city and how it conceptualises itself. The detailed and vibrant murals in San Francisco, for instance, narrate a markedly different story than the sterile blank walls of Washington DC. The markings on city walls serve as an interesting vehicle of expression of the impact of broader global phenomena expressed in the context of local (in the sense of geographically anchored communities and cultures) textual practices of narrative and perspective.

The walls of Dhaka University campus are still filled with skilfully crafted slogans.Photo: Zahedul I Khan
Mannan Sirs and Saifur Sirs have spread their
webs all over the city. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Now that I am back in Dhaka, I find myself having to readjust to the horde of images that occupy every inch of available wall space in much of this city. I am filled with a creeping suspicion: are these inscriptions new or have they always been here? I don't remember there being so many elaborate, brightly coloured “6+ ILETS guaranteed,” “S@IFUR'S” or “Learn Guiter” (yes, guitar is almost always misspelled) advertisements on the walls. In one magical (but gradual) move, Dhaka seems to have been transformed into a walking billboard for small businesses, teachers/private tutors, gymnasiums and services. Can these new images (and their replacement of old ones) help us articulate the changes that have taken place in the city within the last 10-15 years?

The political messages that I cherished back in the days seem to have dwindled considerably over the years. The “Ashoon gori shundor Bangladesh” (Let's create a better, brighter Bangladesh together) or “Banglar Shonar Chele Omuk Netake Mukti Din (Free Bangla's Golden Boy, our leader, Y) are no longer visible all over the city as they used to be, but they do retain their old glory in some parts of town. The walls of Dhaka University campus are still laden with skilfully crafted slogans and party propaganda. I was particularly drawn towards an eloquent one: “Still burns the flame of communalism in Chittagong Hill Tracts; still adivashi women are being marginalised. Oppression and land grabbing continues under military rule.” But perhaps it is only I, the romantic outsider, who still seek meaning in the graffitied walls. For most people, the slogans on the walls have become nothing more than clichéd sayings and never-to-be-fulfilled promises of student groups and parties. The political slogans on the walls might have been transgressive in pre and post-liberation Bangladesh, inspiring the masses with their revolutionary zeal. But now, they have lost the power to challenge the status quo, and have become, instead, constant reminders of the debauched nature and failure of mainstream politics.

In some other parts of town, too, the political messages can sneak up on you. For the most part, however, they have been replaced by flashy advertisements of small business firms. Private coaching centres, beauty parlours, pest control companies, electronic products retailers and so on vie with each other for maximum exposure, relentlessly disseminating information on both public and private walls. To the small business owners, the ads on the walls are an inexpensive and effective means of advertising; but to many inhabitants of Dhaka, the incessant “do this, buy that, fix this” ads in flamboyant colours and fonts are an eyesore. One must admit, though, that some of the ads do add flavour to Dhaka's loud, chaotic vigour. If nothing else, the oh-so-obvious misspellings give us something to chuckle at while stuck in immobile vehicles: “Learn Germents/Buging, Fashon Design Merchandising.” Some of the ads make you go: come again, please? My favourite being: “Circumcision done here; dance and signing services arranged.” Some inform you of products you didn't know existed: “Hands sweat? Feet sweat? Socks smell? We have medicines for you!” We all know people who could do with a batch of those medicines!

The ads on the walls offer a fascinating snippet of the changes occurring in Dhaka. The multitudes of ads about private tutors and coaching centres indicate the increasing privatisation of the education sector. Even ten years ago, private tutors were a luxury; these days, at least for Dhaka's middle class, they have become a necessity. So Mannan Sirs and Saifur Sirs have spread their webs all over the city, promising the school and college goers better results, guaranteed success and prospects of a brighter future. There are now “professional” coaching centres for kids, too, to mould them into “geniuses,” for a small monthly fee. These days, apparently, practising ABCDs in your note copies is no longer enough to give you that perfect handwriting; you need to be enrolled in one of the many “Improve your Handwriting” centres.

I'm curious: do people really need these services? To some extent, at least, they must: the growing supply for these products and services should indicate a parallel increase in their demand. These shifts in consumer patterns delineate an emerging middle class identity, defined by its consumerist desires and its wish to compete successfully in the global market. There is a clear demand for Written and Spoken English (with British accents!), and for coaching centres offering IELTS, GRE, GMAT, SAT courses and prospects of higher education in a foreign country. There are opportunities to learn new languages (Chinese! French! German!) and gain computer skills. This focus on acquiring marketable skills and social capital symbolises a shift in the middle class culture, whereby the consumption of these products and services may be viewed and accepted as necessary in order to conform to the evolving cultural standards, even if they do not result in upward mobility.

Of course, no cultural text (in this case, the writing on the wall) can ever fully depict the complexities of a society unless it is studied in conjunction with larger cultural, economic and political practices. But in the process of writing on the walls, and from reading what goes on in it, the wall is transformed from just a wall to a discourse. By redefining public spaces as places for private consumption, the new images on the walls make claims not only on Dhaka's territory but on its evolving identity.

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