Eighty-two-year-old Shanu Lahiri laughs when you label her “anti anti-establishment". She doesn’t deny the tag though.

Twenty-five years after the artist completed her first graffiti wall in Kolkata—an inoffensive portrayal of teen life outside La Martiniere for Girls school—the many walls Lahiri has painted since then have reminded viewers of a subtler sensibility in a city scribbled with aggressive political graffiti.

Public art: (left) Artist Shanu Lahiri’s first graffiti was a portrayal of teen life outside La Martiniere school for Girls; and a graffiti-laden wall near Elgin Road, Kolkata. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint

In the late 1970s, when Lahiri joined Rabindra Bharati University (RBU) in Kolkata as a reader in the visual arts department, the city’s walls bore testimony to the socio-political turmoil of that era. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun", “China’s chairman is our chairman", “Down with the bourgeois" were some of the dominant statements scribbled on walls. Amid such a chilling call-to-arms, Lahiri plotted visual and psychological relief.

“This was the Naxalite period and most political graffiti provoked bloodshed. I feared for children growing up under the shadow of violence. I realized the same art that incited violence could be used to create something beautiful," says the artist, who studied fine arts at Kolkata’s Government College of Art and Craft and art theory at the Louvre in Paris.

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With the help of her students at RBU, Lahiri’s cartoonish creations added colour to the fish market at Sreebhumi, distinctive expressions of animal life graced the walls inside Fort William, a roadroller at Rabindra Sarobar got a facelift with asymmetric patterns, and the “blood for blood" sloganeering post-Indira Gandhi’s assassination was replaced with figurative and decorative images at Amherst Street, as part of a residents’ project under Lahiri’s supervision.

Most of her creations now survive in photo albums stowed away in her charming Lake Town home; a lone 220ft-long wall of graffiti at Justice Chandra Madhav Road, majestically illustrating the coexistence of man and nature, has survived the elements and municipal neglect. “I used Indian subjects over foreign ones. That added to the appeal of street art," she says.

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Kolkata, from being the erstwhile graffiti hub of India, is currently debating—endlessly debating—a ban on what many consider defacement of walls by political parties. For the city’s growing pan masala-chewing public, graffiti has also come to mean images of Hindu gods and goddesses used as a preventive mechanism against indiscreet spitting.

Damayanti, Lahiri’s artist daughter and “freelance dissident", rues that graffiti art in India is nowhere close to achieving the ingeniously rebellious spirit inherent in the street art of Banksy.

The mysterious Britain-born creator of iconic graffiti art has upped both prices and interest in street art—Sotheby’s auctions saw his works selling for around £96,000 (around 70 crore), and he has had celebrity endorsements from patrons such as actor Kate Moss and singer Christina Aguilera. Not just this, Banksy returned urban graffiti art to its subversive roots with his nine paintings on the Israel-erected West Bank barrier in 2005.

Graffiti is said to have existed from the time of the Mayan and Roman civilizations, but its emergence in modern industrialized society was mired in controversy, with the widespread markings and name tags painted within New York’s subway network and mass transport system in the 1970s. The following decades saw street graffiti being appropriated by hip hop and gangsta rap artists, and it became even more identified with a non-conformist, guerrilla agenda.

It found its footing in art and assumed an altogether altruist character with the many unsigned stencil and spray can artworks done on the Berlin Wall, both before and after its fall in 1989.

For artists then, graffiti in public or private spaces—done with or without consent—is an alternative form of expression, be it for members of the black community, immigrants, political parties, apolitical parties, anti-consumerism or anti-capitalism forums. For civic authorities, however, illegal graffiti art is often little more than a sign of vandalism and anarchy. Considering that many graffiti artists work under the cover of darkness, infamy is often achieved overnight.

In a world of free-flowing movement of thoughts and ideas, it is this element of covertness that Shalini Sawhney, director of The Guild art gallery in Mumbai, wants to incorporate in the latest project of the art gallery, I Think Therefore Graffiti... The indoor graffiti art initiative, which began on 4 August, has around 20 artists working on a wall inside the premises, while public participation will be invited on a gallery wall to maintain the tradition of the form’s grass-roots appeal. “Most artists will work at night, in keeping with the spirit of graffiti art, which is often created undercover and in a hurry," says Sawhney. DJing and B-Boying performances were also scheduled as two vital elements of a graffiti-hip hop tie-up.

Walls in Mumbai’s Bandra area have seen graffiti displays. In Bhopal, graffiti outside the erstwhile Union Carbide factory has communicated the plight of victims of the 1984 gas tragedy. But the buzz around graffiti is now finding an outlet in an India united in cyberspace. The Wall Project, for instance, started with one wall in Mumbai. It now has active members in Mumbai and Delhi, and chapters are coming up in other metros. The Wall Project—Delhi’s Facebook site counts 1,500-odd members who conduct energetic discussions on the next dull city surface to colour.

One of the most prolific graffiti artists in India, whose abstract and often psychedelic paintings can be found in places such as Delhi, Manali and Leh, goes by the name Bond. A foreigner, Bond offers a bird’s-eye view on graffiti’s future in India. He believes the spread of hip-hop culture in a city such as Delhi may draw more people to graffiti, but the cost of spray cans (around 200 each) could prove a deterrent. “So rich kids are the only ones left who could start a graffiti movement out of boredom, in search for new kicks," Bond said in an interview given to Blog.knowledge-must.com

“Street graffiti comes from within a bohemian community. It cannot be created if the artist is not part of the subculture," reasons Anshuman Das Gupta, a member of the art history department faculty at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, who has worked on “site-specific" public murals within the Kala Bhavan campus.

His former student, Dhrupadi Ghosh, who is currently engaged as an associate fellow at Sarai in Delhi, thinks she fits the subculture bill. Ghosh was hauled up by the police in 2007 after she passed caustic remarks on the walls of a cinema hall in Bhowanipur which was to be razed for a shopping mall. She used coloured chalk, spray paint and charcoal mixed with glue to get her message across. “When I did my graffiti work, I wasn’t thinking about its Western origins. My work came from my own response and my need to question the establishment," says the 25-year-old.

Every year when Graffiti Kolkata—a group of “alternative writers" who are inspired by the works of the controversial and once-banned Hungry Generation literary movement in Bengal in the 1960s—sets up stall at the Kolkata Book Fair, visitors are allowed to scribble all over. “Amidst the outburst of free speech, a disappointed elderly visitor wrote ‘Limitless monkey business’. It is only when you get diverging views that a graffiti is complete," says founder-member Sharmy Pandey.

In India, graffiti possibly came closest to it radical ancestry when unsigned paintings appeared on the walls in Shillong in June. The images lampooned the Meghalaya state government, the police and the Church, indicting them for corruption and immorality. “It was intelligently done and organized overnight. Shillong woke up to a new form of activism," says Renee Lulam, Shillong-based independent researcher and writer. “There was a huge outcry from the Church and administration. But nobody missed the point that the communication was very effective."

I Think Therefore Graffiti... is on till 8 September at the Guild Art Gallery, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, Mumbai.

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