Walls that speak: India's campus graffiti

A peek into thriving public art in New Delhi based Jawaharlal Nehru University.


Graffiti or the art of wall-writing on public walls is not a big phenomenon in India, but it is beginning to make a mark on the walls and buildings of metros such as New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

The campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) based in New Delhi has one of the oldest and finest traditions of graffiti. Not surprising, since JNU has one of the most vibrant campuses in the country with a culture of open debates and intellectual discourse.

Department buildings and walls are scribbled with slogans, graffiti and posters by students of various orientations - left, right and centre – using their creative means to convey their messages.

From hostel canteens to university library to various departments, one can find graffiti and posters on all issues ranging from mundane price rise to gender rights, from Naxal politics to international issues such as occupation of Palestine and rise of the global left.

The wall writings give a running commentary on the state of affairs in the country and the world from the issue of privatisation and so-called multinational onslaught to issues of broader gender divide to corruption and terrorism.

From Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died recently, to the long-dead Chairman Mao Tse Tung of China, the walls of the campus resound with their anti-imperialist rhetoric.

Named after India's first Prime Minister, the university is known for its disciplined and highly political conscious student community who come from across the country.

The university, founded in the late 1960's, is dominated by leftist ideology and left student groups have managed to remain at the centre of the campus's political life.

Despite being a highly politicised campus, there is no history of violence in JNU and its more than 7,000 students are said to be one of the most mature in India.

One set of slogans is answered by another set and they are placed on assigned spaces as per university guidelines. Printed posters are not allowed, only hand-made posters are used in the campus.

For Nehru, a university stood for "humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth", and the culture in JNU seems to have maintained the argumentative Indian tradition pretty well.