Indian Billboards and murals
Ali Akbar Mahdi
November 7, 2004
Billboards are obnoxious advertising tool that you
cannot simply avoid. As a pedesterian or a driver on public
roads, you have
no choice but to catch a glimpse. If you live in a highrise
apartment or work in a tall building, you cannot miss the billboards,
unless you pull down your curtain or decide not to look outside.
In Indian cities, the things that catch anyone's eye
are huge murals on the walls and raised billboards on the sidewalks.
It is quite normal in the United States to see huge signs
on the highways and rural roads. In India, it is the reverse. It
is in the city, where majority of the population move during the
day, that you see these billboards. But you do not see just large
billboards, you see monstrous boards overshadowing much of the
city. If you happen to be standing below, they look quite intimidating.
People in Chennai pride themselves on the fact that
they have the largest,
and most clever billboards in
the world. Granted, some are really clever, some ordinary, and
some too sophisticated in taste, appearance, or in the message
they convey for ordinary Indians frequenting the area where these
billboards are located. (Indians who think they have the
largest billboards should visit neighbouring China.
After all, Chinese have more land, more people, more money, and
more ambition to be number one in Asia!)
signs and billboards are neither new nor unique to India. Making
large signs for public view is as old as writing
in human history. In ancient Egypt, laws and treaties were publicized
on tall stone obelisks. Traditionally, advertisements were painted
directly onto the walls of buildings, houses, barns, roofs (especially
in the Western countries where roofs are covered by designable
shingles), and mud farm walls in the Middle East.
It is the invention
of lithography in 18th century that gave birth to posters and later
modern billboards. Modern billboards are quite distinct from billboards
of the past because: (a) modern science is used in crafting effective
and influential images and messages for selling products, ideas,
and people (politicians, judges, clergy, grus, and even prophets),
(b) modern techonology is used in designing images that could not
have been produced before, and (c) they are governed by ordinances
affecting their size, lighting, and places where they are installed.
Also, modern billboards have moved away from the
use of purely text messages to images and shorter, memorable, and
that viewers can carry with them away. For a passing driver a picture
can be absorbed a lot faster that 3 sentences with 15 words!
Looking at Indian billboards on the streets, you are amazed by
their size, and the way in which they crowd the streets. They capture
your view quickly and give you an essence of being encapsulated
by their presence. You often wonder why they are so big in such
narrow traditional streets? Given the unruly traffic in Indian
cities, you often wonder about their targeted audience? The drivers
or the passerbys?
The largest and biggest billboards are related
to jewelry, even though the streets are full of poor people. That
is not hard to understand, given that India is a traditional society
in which social status and wealth are exhibited by the amount of
jewelry a person wears, especially women.
In addition to their size, what really differentiates Indian billboards
in Chennai from billboards in other places around the world is
their sole commercial character and loose regulations governing
their placing within the city. There seems to be no rule governing
these outposts! They go over each other and block vistas and buildings
so badly that you feel bad for the owner of the buildings whose
views and windows are blocked without much room even for a breeze!
They are a major obstacle in the way of the wind, thus allowing
for fumes to stay still in narrow streets and crowded neighbourhoods.
Despite these misgivings, I have to admit that these
billboards provide a panoramic view of the colorfulness of life
Most have something unique about them that counter the negative
impact of their size, crowding, and sight blocking.
A word about
murals too: most murals in Chennai have a religious or political
character. Religious murals have ancient Indian
mythological motifs representing religious and historical characters
To an outsider like me, it is the aesthetic composition of
these murals that grabs you.
While city murals are recent and often
of direct message, murals in temples are very old and with
religious and mythological motifs. Some are as old as over
a century depicting Hindu gods and goddesses.
The one street
mural I love
the most, indicative of Indian multicultural and multireligious
society, is the one
illustrating symbols of Islam, Christianity,
and Hinduism. This mural represents community efforts for
raising religious tolerance, bringing together diverse ethnic
groups together, and reducing ongoing tensions in the country.
Ali Akbar Mahdi is a Professor at the Department of Sociology
and Anthropology in Ohio Wesleyan University. Homepage.