Visual sale

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, widest, tallest, 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!) 

Outdoor advertising 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 catchy phrases 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 in India. 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 and events. 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 much more 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 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.

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