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.


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.


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.


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).

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”.


Prashansa Taneja said...

Wonderfully amusing and the best piece on the blog!

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Anonymous said...

who wrote-beware of Rengleen????i love the article!!