27 March 2009

Turning Tables: Classroom Subversion through Table Art

All through its long, chequered and shadowy history, graffiti has been a tool of supposedly anti-social articulation. As an artistic form of expression predominantly in the public domain, it still carries with it connotations of rebellion and subversion…

In the classroom, table graffiti serves as one of the effective mode of subversion. This paper will analyse how the almost unlimited creative license afforded by this form of cultural expression enables the student-artist to give a free reign to his/her imagination, critiquing not just the immediate context of the teacher and the class but also umpteen other current and past issues, related as well as unrelated to their own socio-cultural context. It will examine the table as a neutral space which allows students to adopt different identities in order to articulate things which they otherwise leave unsaid…

It will begin with a short history of graffiti as a subversive medium of expression. Thereafter, it will move on to examine graffiti in the immediate context of Ramjas College, particularly in rooms 8, 6 and 27. It will also discuss some of the factors which motivate students to adopt this form for expression. It will conclude with an overview of the arguments so presented.

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Coming from the Italian graffiato, graffiti, as defined on dictionary.com, refers to “markings or inscriptions, as initials, slogans, or drawings, written, spray-painted, or sketched on a sidewalk, wall of a building or public restroom, or the like”. By this very virtue of being “markings or inscriptions” in the public domain, graffiti’s origin cannot be traced back to any single era. Indeed, from


wall paintings of pre-historic, cave dwelling humans to

the inscriptions preserved on the walls of Pompeii, from the carvings on the temple walls of Tikal to

the verses immortalised on the Qutub, the diverse range of graffiti makes it difficult, and also unnecessary, to draw a unilinear history of the same.

Long though its history is, graffiti’s strong association with subversion are only recent. We can see graffiti emerging as a tool for the anonymous oppressed when we consider


Victorian London and its chalk writings. Slogans against colonial rule during our own Indian freedom struggle too can be considered as graffiti.
In the Second World War, Kilroy made an appearance all across Europe and the US and baffled one and all.



However, modern graffiti as we know it was born on the subway trains of New York in the late 1960’s. Using spray cans, the new age graffiti artists let loose their imagination on staid subway cars and deluged the Metropolitan Transport System with a riot of colours. Taki183 will always be remembered as an early pioneer of spray-can art whose influence led to a boom in graffiti the world over.


Teens and young adults followed his example to ‘get up’ by having their name in as many places as possible. Graffiti also became one of the integral elements of hip hop and a favourite medium for political activists to express anti-war, radical feminist, anarchist and, in general, anti-establishment messages.

The mid-80’s saw graffiti declining as New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority ushered in its Clean Train Movement to win the so-called war against graffiti. Municipal authorities the world over continue to perceive graffiti as a threat to peace and graffiti artists as wanton vandals who deface property. Nonetheless, graffiti is slowly gaining acceptance as a legitimate art form- this is apparent not just through spurt in graffiti style art on/in T-shirts, posters and computer/video games but also through the fact that some communities have actually designated places for artists to express themselves (like Stroud).



Though well past its golden age, graffiti survives as an art form being increasingly accepted as a part of urban street architecture.

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Just as street graffiti enables the artist to ‘get up’ by breaking through rigid societal boundaries and categorisations, so does table art allow the student-artist to subvert the teacher-student hierarchy by silently, yet creatively, breaking through the fa├žade of discipline imposed upon him/her by a largely uncaring, indifferent and insensitive system. Research in the previous decade has shown that doodling carries messages from the unconscious, with different symbols and patterns suggesting different personality needs. However, table art is not just about doodling when bored in class- it encompasses or addresses a whole range of issues, from tabooed sexuality to concerns about pollution to mimetic beauty and truth.

By virtue of being a neutral, unbiased public space free and open to all, the table is first and foremost ground for articulation of dislike, hatred and other such baser passions. Be it the teacher who’s boring or irritating the artist to death or be it some other personal enemy, the table acts as the canvas for expression of the artist’s pent up emotions. Responses may range from


simple, straight forward statements of disgust like “BMS sucks”


to cries of despair like “I am bored/Being bored”



to supercilious, sarcastic instructions like “Get a life RGM”

to threats like “Ishaan, you better mend your ways”
to lampoons in rhyme, like-

“There was a boy named Anshuman
I would have shot him, if I had a gun
I’ll shoot him that day
When I find out that he’s gay.”

Having gone through some horrendous experience her/him self, the artist warns the world at large to be ware of some person. One such piece clearly warns us, for reasons unknown, to be


“Beware of/ Rengleen/ English Hons, II Yr”

On the other side of the spectrum, there are expressions of admiration and love, things fit enough to gratify anyone’s vanity. An unknown and unknowing suitor immortalised her/his love for me thus-


“I love Anubhav Pradhan!
Thank you immensely
But would you care to reveal your identity”

It is, of course, very possible that this is subtle sarcasm.

However, it is not just unrequited love which finds its way onto the table. People happy in love too express their joy in blank verse-

“Coz u bring out
D best in me
Lk noone else can do
Dats why m by ur side
Dats why I love u!”

Moving on, the table allows the artist to adopt another identity, to put on another hat so as to say and in this guise explore his/her hidden sexual needs and desires.



Nudity,

swear words,



and violent demands for intercourse

comprise this genre of table art.

Similarly, in an arena as (supposedly) liberal and forward-looking as a Literature class, there are sexist and misogynistic, or pseudo-misogynistic comments like


“Gals are all bad/Guys are all good”. Another sexist remark claims that


all but 2 of the girls in a particular year are boring and hence should be kicked off.

Taboos like homosexuality and oral sex are also brought up. For example, in room 27, constant attempts are made to establish one Tarun as gay.



Normally, this can be identified as a perverse form of ragging by differentiating or ‘other-ing’ a student, or a group of students, from the majority of the heterosexual population. In this context, however, it is interesting to note that this group of students, with Mr. Tarun as their head, actually wish to project themselves as gay and therefore these open declarations of their sexual orientation. It does not matter here whether the said gentlemen are really gay: no, what matters is the fact that the artist here is clearly playing upon the stereotype by ridiculing society’s fear of the other by openly declaring himself to be one of the ‘other’.

Significantly, even in the midst of seemingly frivolous and obscene banter, the artist addresses a serious issue.


As answer to the question “Kya Gay hai” is listed, amongst others, the name of Dr. B.N.Ray, into whose tragic history one need not go. The artist further adds, with a tinge of unmistakable sarcasm in the tone, that Dr. Ray is his “role model”. An issue of great topical interest is thus satirised by this unknown table artist thus.
Another piece satirises a boring lecture in context of a topical issue, successfully merging the microcosm of the class with the macrocosm of the international issue.


The artist claims that the class is as toxic as Chinese dolls.

The table is also a repository of axioms and truths. Example range from


universally shared emotions like “Hate monday mornings”


to insights like “Beware! Studying Economics is injurious to health”

to truths of life such as “Being happy doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. It means that you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections”.

Then, there are times when the artist introspects. One articulates his/her frustration at being perennially misunderstood and denied the freedom to greater expression, saying “90% of the stuff written here makes sense 10% of the time.” Another mocks his/her seniors while becoming part of the ongoing tradition with “Btw seniors were you guys good enough to never write on tables or were these painted before the term?” He/she therefore mocks not just the seniors but also him/her self and thus shows extraordinary self-awareness.

Lastly, distinct from these scribblers is that class of table artists which draws and sketches. From


beautifully done, calligraphic pieces celebrating the Renaissance


to idyllic scenes from a pastoral, Alpine romance


to good luck Tibetan Buddhist charms,

the table displays many great works of amateur art.

A renowned table artist in the second year class opines that graffiti for him acts an anti-depressant in boring classes and that drawing beautiful things in the midst of the general, overpowering anarchy on the desks affirms his belief in the existence of beauty in even utter Chaos. Highlighting the dynamic nature of table art, he says that he has always found it interesting to see how others have added on to his pieces and given them new directions. The ethos of table art, therefore, makes it possible for his creations to become alive as they evolve in the search of higher beauty and truth.

This piece illustrates this point about artistic evolution, showing how various people added on to his original sketch of Hitler, thus enriching the entire piece with multiple perspectives…(the cross, the goggles, the names of concentration camps on the left, the swastika above, the messages below and on the right, all of these have been added to the original by numerous, unknown artists).
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Whatever the form or genre, table graffiti strikes at the very heart of classroom teaching. Indeed, the very act of even thinking to take up one’s pen to doodle, scribble or sketch goes against the basic premise of this system which demands the student’s undivided attention to be centred only on what the teacher is saying in class. Further, the artist’s use of sms-language helps him/her to ridicule and easily break through communication barriers. This becomes of even greater subversive import in a Literature class wherein the barricading of communication by the mainstream, so-called legitimate body of language is all the more rigid.

The amount of table art in a room may, therefore, be roughly taken as an indicator, qualifying not just the teacher’s calibre as an engaging instructor but also the receptiveness of the student community as a whole. The anonymity and the resultant scope of the form give students freedom to not just indulge in bloodless vendetta but also to bring down teachers from their high pedestals and hold them up for universal ridicule. Student-artists therefore create an inverted world order in which hierarchies are suspended: a surreal, anarchic, macabre world where teachers, and everybody else, are/is at the mercy of the student and not vice-versa. It is through this, the absolute break down of reality and its fusion with fiction, that table art subverts all norms of classroom education and, by extension, society at large. It is because of this that I now end this paper with this last piece- “I love graffiti”.

12 March 2009

Being CR

To Myself,
Bickering & Bitching,
Gratifying my own Vanity…
(…is this surprising? don’t delude yourself!)

I’ve been a good CR (class representative for the uninitiated). Yes, I have been quite an efficient, fair and unbiased CR who’s done his work as conscientiously and honestly as possible. I’ve been democratic and open and have always tried to maintain a balance between the interests of the class, the teachers and myself. Yes, I’ve been a pretty good CR.

But I’ve had my bad points as well. I’ve been too efficient, too caring, too considerate, and in being all of this, I’ve spoilt my class, spoilt the whole blooming lot of them. In telling them each and every thing; in meticulously planning out schedules, carefully arranging classes and religiously sending out messages to every single one of them, I’ve made them complacent, assuming and overbearing…

For example, just because I feel everybody has an equal right to know what is happening shouldn’t make people feel that they have an-equaller-than-thou right to treat me like a bloody (or bloodless!) walking, talking, living timetable! First, they can’t call. No sir, they needs must message you! But do try and understand their situation: poor outstation students from small towns surviving on shoestring budgets, living their miserable life somehow or the other away from their home and family…oh how tragic! How moving! Don’t you see, cruel heart, and still more cruel reader, that they have to save, they have to economise, they have to message? How else will they live their life of utmost drudgery? How else will they survive?

So, they message. And pray, when do they message? At the bewitching hour of 12, at 3 in the morning, at nine in the night! Dinner, lunch, tea, study, do what you will, the messages will follow you like that accursed pug, you and I in this god forsaken world! You might be deep in Indian mythology, you might be going along Chaucer to Canterbury, you might be walking with Socrates, but all in vain! Trrrrrrring-tin-tin! A message out of nowhere, a call back from the twenty-first century, rudely waking you up…

And what do we want to know? “hey!r v hvng d 8:40 cls wth bms tomrrw?”

Bloody hell! First you disturb me, you rudely pull me back to the reality which you poison with your presence and then ask me questions in such a preposterously sickening language! Damn you! You spoil my Romantic/Elizabethan/Medieval/Victorian/Augustan dreams with this! This! THIS!

And what if I reply, which I, out of a sense of duty, always do? What then? Nothing. No sign of gratitude, not a single thank you (or “thanx” as you type it!)!

Then, nobody has any phone etiquette. You call somebody to ask something, your call isn’t taken, you send a message stating your query and expect the person to at least message in reply- after all, we are classmates…

But no. Why the heck should I care? Why should I answer your question? Of course, it doesn’t really matter that I always answer your questions, but then so what? You’re the CR, aren’t you? You’re supposed to answer our questions! You owe it to us, while we, oh, we are divinities on earth, we are answerable to nobody. We’re in a bad mood, and we won’t reply. We sooo hate phone-calls. We suffer from amnesia and forget you even exist…

Forgetfulness was really endemic. You sent a message clearly specifying when which class is going to happen, yet the night before the class some bugger or the other would send a message asking for further clarification. You sent messages asking people to note down and choose any one of the ten presentation topics, yet there will be some chu-chu who will message late in the night before the presentations asking you to message back all ten of the topics. Oh gods, is it so difficult to understand instructions? So difficult to comprehend plain English? Have mercy on me, ye lords of swarga; have more mercy still on these poor dumb animals, these wolf-toothed sheep of your fold!

Well, ok, not really. There were a few well-mannered stalwarts, like Aastha, Ishaan, Prashaste, Abhimanyu, Meenakshi, Mayoura and Kiran, who would nicely thank you whenever their queries would be answered…Jonathon was the only person who really came up to my expectations of phone etiquette, calling back, and not messaging, to enquire why you had called…people like these made you feel the trouble was worth it. Yet, on the whole, the job has been pretty thankless.

Thankless. Yes, thankless. And they expect you to do more and more for them. Just because your system works well, they expect you to tweak it every now and then to suit them. A professor gave essays to be photocopied. You sent a message telling interested people to contact you within a time frame. You got them copied for as many people as approached you with money and gave the essays back to the teacher. But the very next day, you get a message asking you to “gt dem cpied 4 me,& ill pay u later”. Certainly your highness, certainly! As you like it! Ja exzellenz!

Teachers, of course, can also be high and mighty at times. Dramatic. Goddess-like (we anyways have a matriarchy in our Department of English…). At nine-thirty in the night, you’ll get a message announcing, nay, pronouncing, this shattering judgement- “Class is on”. If I fix tomorrow as the deadline for an assignment, then tomorrow it will unchangeably be. My word is law, my will immutable. What I wish, even the stars shall obey, for I am the liberated woman (no, female- we’re all gender-less in Literature!).

And to add to all of this, we had the Freshers and the Farewell as well. If the third years were prodigiously kind to direct us with the wisdom of their years for the former, the first years are being (it’s still to happen) extraordinarily generous in refreshing our perspective with their pseudo-suicidal/existential/nihilist tendencies. I’ve had a mood swing, so I won’t complete the work assigned to me. We had a meeting today? Oh, but we have a class and we can’t possibly attend- let’s have it later…What? Could’ve informed you we had a class yesterday evening when you sent the message? Well, I’m a little busy these days you know, and I just couldn’t...

Then, there are people who were so very keen to have the Farewell, people who’ve been thinking about it for a year or so. Sure, I appreciate your spirit, but then why the heck weren’t you ready with your plan? Why are you busy getting your act together now? Why, for blessed heaven’s sake, now, when you had the idea in mind for almost a year? Oh, I know you’ll manage to put up something fair in the remaining week, but then most of your work will be last minute preparation with hectic schedules! Why didn’t you plan in advance, so that we wouldn’t have to work at the eleventh hour? Why make my life difficult!

Of course, there were times when you felt everybody was conspiring to make your life difficult. Having an almost non-existent, embarrassingly invisible Dancing Queen as my fellow CR didn’t-doesn’t-help. People don’t expect her to work anyways, and things would inevitably get messy when she would all of a sudden wake up, realise that she had other responsibilities besides giving audience to all the sundry men of her retinue and assert her right to do as she pleased…this the heavy price we humble mortals pay for having thrice-born Queens amongst us…

Oh, I agree, I’m to blame for all of it. I and my stupid ideas about democracy and equality. “The only precondition will be that we do everything by democratic vote and that all of us be as equals.” Thinking that Athenian democratic ideals (yes, you can laugh- somebody already has, and now I’m more or less impervious) would work with a juvenile bunch of college students. What bosh!

Whatever. Que sera sera. It’s been an awfully great adventure being a good CR. It would be an awfully great one being a bad one…
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Actually, I don’t mean all of it…
(Yes, I know: how disappointingly predictable! Yet, I tried my best!)

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