What is Art and What is Not: The Laws Relating to Graffiti in India

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There are no express provisions of law regarding graffiti in India. However, the Constitution of India lays down certain provisions in this regard. Kolkata-based Vedatrayee discusses the issue of graffiti and street art, in the regular column, exclusively in Different Truths.

The mundane streets of the City of Joy got an exalting makeover under a beautification project held by Mudar Patherya, heritage activist, and conservationist. The drab-looking electric boxes in a South Kolkata neighborhood were given a brand new look in the form of vibrant paintings of film posters and faces of famous personalities thus making a rich historical facet of the city come alive. These electric boxes which were previously ugly and dubious looking with plasters of not so attractive posters of not so attractive advertisements can be seen in the neighbourhood opposite Rabindra Sarobar. What many don’t know is that this locality has been home to stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, Debaki Bose, Hemanta Mukhopadhyay and others and this has served as an inspiration for this one of its kind public art. Ray’s milestone films like Aranyer Dinratri, Charulata, Joy Baba FelunathGupi Gayen Bagha Bayen and Sonar Kella has been given a new and refreshed look in these vinyl paintings. The streets not only look magical but also serves to be constant reminisces of the pride of the City. One look at these reborn electrical boxes will tell you the success of the project and the subtle line of difference that exists between a public or street art and graffiti. In the wake of this wonderful project, it is won’t be impertinent to discuss what art in the public establishments is actually art and what is not and also the various legal attributes of graffiti in India that remains in the penumbra of legal awareness of the masses.

It is not much rare or unusual to come across names of lovers and phone numbers and filmy dialogues in the walls of historical monuments and public buildings and walls in India. All historical places that are tourist spots are open to this notorious habit of showcasing artistic talent amongst the Indian tourists (please note the word Indian). I have come across people who ask how it affects the historical importance of the places. These are just scribbling, aren’t they? Firstly, aesthetics is a very important factor in human lives. We do spend a lot of time beautifying ourselves and our surroundings but when it comes to the roads and buildings we conveniently forget that the cities are nothing but our extended homes. Regarding the historical importance of monuments and structures, there were no Shusil or Sheetal trying to immortalise their love when the Mughals built the Lal Qila. Legally, graffiti is not per se illegal in India. In fact, graffiti has always been a part of Indian social lives. Graffiti has been there since the ancient times of human civilisation when it existed in the form of stone paintings and wall inscriptions. It emerged in the 1960s as an art when the working class took to the streets of suburban New York to express their discontent with the Capitalist system.  The present-day graffiti art is a result of the explosion of Hip-Hop culture in the 1990s. India there is two types of graffiti – creative and defacing. Art that is used to bring into life the walls of the city with its vibrant colors and joyous concepts are the creative type. Spoiling the beauty of ancient structures are the defacing ones which shall be prevented with greater enforcement. Street Art is gradually gaining importance in India. More and more young artists are changing the city walls with their brush strokes. 

There are no express provisions of law regarding graffiti in India. However, the Constitution of India lays down certain provisions in this regard. The Part IV of the Constitution enshrines the Directive Principles of State Policy and vide Article 49 states, “It shall be obligation of the State to protect every monument or place or object of artistic or historic interest declared by or under law made by Parliament to be of national importance, from spoliation, disfigurement, destruction, removal, disposal or export, as the case may be.” Part IV-A comprises of the Fundamental Duties that are to be observed by every citizen of India and vide Article 51A (f) states that it shall be the duty of every citizen to ‘value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture’. Article 51A (i) states that it shall be the duty of every Indian citizen ‘to safeguard public property and to abjure violence’. These provisions very much encompass the duty of both the State authority as well as the citizens to work towards protection of structures from unwanted and unpleasant graffiti.  These shall include the street art as well. Artistic work on national and historical buildings, structures and monuments are prohibited along with graffiti. 

This tells us the line of difference between art and graffiti is subtle and almost nonexistent but it cannot be denied that there does lie a difference and not only that it must be observed with sincerity by every citizen of the country. To understand what is art and what is not is majorly dependent on the individual integrity of the people. As has been said, “Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure World Poverty, you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss” –Banksy, Banging your head against a brick wall.

(Although I do not support taking a piss on the walls, this shall be inter alia discussed in another issue!)

©Vedatrayee Dutta

Photos from the Internet

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A young lawyer by profession from The City of Joy, Vedatrayee is currently pursuing LLM from Calcutta University. She is a Bharatanatyam danseuse who has won a number of prestigious awards and performed in several National Festivals and Competitions throughout the country. Another passion that stirs her from deep within is the welfare of street and abandoned animals. She volunteers for a sociocultural endeavor, Swatantra, striving for the social, cultural and behavioral empowerment of the population.