Summer 2004

Re-tooling the culture for an empire of signs

Steve Rigley
Overview [EXTRACT]

‘Creative destruction’ and synthesis in the rapidly changing subcontinent

Indian legend has it that the small town of Sivakasi in southern Tamil Nadu derives its name from an aborted journey in the mid-fifteenth century. The King of Tenkasi had been on his way to worship the Hindu god Siva, but finding his path blocked decided to build a temple instead. The town that grew around the temple came to be known as Sivakasi.

Within Hindu culture Siva is revered as the destroyer creator, who will annihilate all worlds at the end of creation. In the meantime he is committed to necessary acts of destruction, cleansing creation of all that would stand in the way of spiritual progress, forging rebirth and renewal.

Sivakasi itself is a small town with a reputation for enterprise. Dubbed ‘Little Putty’ (‘Mini Japan’) by Nehru, the town boasts more than 400 printing presses – mostly imported second-hand from the former eastern bloc – that produce 60 per cent of the subcontinent’s offset printing. Their main output is packaging for safety matches and fireworks for the many religious festivals that pepper the Indian calendar.

The town offers a vision of time collapsed: bullock carts ease pallets of print between vivid fume-belching lorries, while letterpress compositors set URLs. In a small unit off the main street a group of labourers squat bundling labels. Upstairs, in a dusty office, a designer uses Photoshop to paste images of Hollywood icons on to a design for firework packaging. Such work was once the domain of skilled illustrators, who would make reference to a wealth of Indian folk and religious icons. Now they use a fictional English schoolboy wizard to push the brand. The choice is symptomatic of the seismic shift within Indian culture over recent years as the economy opened up, and MTV and other global exponents of youth culture moved in.

The impact is most apparent in the larger cities, which find themselves subject to the competing claims of national and regional identity. Under the influence of the Shiv Sena party in the late 1990s, many Indian cities have had their names changed, and in an attempt to restore Maharastrian identity and pride Bombay was renamed Mumbai. Within the city itself this has been followed – much to the confusion of the traveller – by the renaming of many of the streets and public buildings. The British influence is still evident in the signage for public buildings in the Fort and Ballard Estate areas of Mumbai, yet these have been neglected over the years and now assume a certain elegaic quality.

In recent years new imperialists have moved in, epitomised by the large swoosh on Nike’s flagship store on the Colaba Causeway – rivalled only by a nearby (and equally large) Adidas logo. Such visual invasions have been enabled as much by new technology as by economic expansion. The celebrated hand-painted Bollywood film posters have gone digital, leaving artists either redundant or grappling with layers, dpi and blur filters. Customised shop signs, idiosyncratic and gloriously unpredictable, are being replaced by vinyl, backlit plastic or neon in the colours of familiar global brands.

Further south, the leafy, former retirement town of Bangalore is in overdrive, leading India’s technological revolution and winning vital contracts from the West. The area around Mahatma Gandhi Road is sprouting fast-food outlets, coffee shops and designer bars for an increasingly westernised clientele. Bespoke hand-painted shop signs are now to be found only in the margins, for example, cluttered above small industrial units on nr Road. The vestigial British presence in the signage of older shops, and buildings such as Higginbothams Ltd., the Andrews Building or the Plaza cinema, while increasingly hidden by the sprawling plastic, reminds us that globalisation is hardly a recent phenomenon. Whether through Coca-Cola or the East India Trading Company, we share a history of creative destruction, of cleansing and renewal, of obliterating identities and uprooting existing communities merely to build new ones . . .