The explosive and I should say, atrocious urbanization on the Shillong landscape is given an interesting aesthetic tinge with the sporadic appearance of graffiti work in various public spaces around town. Mysterious appearance of politically provocative graffiti in June 2010 targeting Christian hypocrisy regarding corruption, uranium mining loving governor and silence of Pope Benedict XVI on child abuse made front page news in Shillong and elsewhere. Police even managed to file a case against the anonymous artist provocateur under Section 295 (A) of IPC for “deliberate and malicious act intended to hurt the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. The messages were explicitly political, the entrance to Don Bosco Technical Institute and St Anthony’s College had paintings of Pope Benedict XVI with a message: “Arrest this man”. Caricatures of the governor appeared in several parts of the boundary wall of Raj Bhavan with the words: “Hagne die uranium (uranium sold here), How much? One of the graffiti, with a picture of snake painted on the boundary wall of the office of the deputy commissioner, read, “Need uranium? THLEN at your service”. There were pictures of cockroaches on the walls of the Raj Bhavan. There was also an image an young boy which read “Sngewbha Seh Bah thied ine i kot jong nga (please buy my books).
But a lot has changed since then. No, I am not referring to the wonderful Government-sponsored ones like those produced during the 18 Degrees Festival and the social and environmental campaign launched by the North East Development and Financial Institution. These, as we are aware, are skilful ways in which the Government is deploying in-vogue facets of popular culture in order to gain access to perhaps, an alienated public; but these are also living evidences of the appropriation of the subversive by the State.
Amidst the sponsored subversion, the works of Shillong street art that has bombarded us recently are those done by a group which identify themselves as Small Axe. As the name suggests, this group of artists is heavily influenced by the philosophies of the Wailers (“Small Axe” being the title of a Bob Marley and the Wailers song) KRS-One as well as John Lennon, which are popularly recognized for their radical politics of peace and love. When asked about the point of their work, Small Axe emphasized that their messages were mostly directed at the youth of the city and that their art is simply an attempt to communicate ideas of social harmony and fairness.
In the comfortably settled and silent city of Shillong, where elements of critique and dissent often take a right-wing turn, either echoing parochialism or liberalism, the appearance of graffiti such as that by Small Axe is tremendously refreshing.
The content of their work, some running themes like police brutality and oppression of the youth, articulate political and social concerns of the local context which become significant interventions in the socio-cultural milieu and public arena of Shillong as a whole. As one of the Small Axe members admit, “This is vandalism, no doubt,” but one if combined with a bit more contemporary political consciousness, I would say, has great potential in de-stabilizing the urban experience of many of the otherwise thoughtless and complacent walkers and gazers of Shillong city.