27/09/2019 9:05 AM IST | Updated 27/09/2019 9:05 AM IST

A Bengaluru Artist Is Tracing How Pro-Kannada Groups Use Flex Banners To Assert Power

Despite the Karnataka HC order, outdoor advertisements have far from disappeared from Bengaluru’s skyline.

Banners put up by various Darshan Fans Associations for the release of his film Kurukshetra.

Long (machete) in the hands

Song on the lips

Turn around and see

The Darshan boys gang 

These lines were emblazoned on a giant flex poster on the Venkateshwara Cinema in Bengaluru’s Magadi Road, celebrating the release of Kannada film star Darshan’s movie Kurukshetra in August 2019. Made by a fan club of D-Boss, as the actor is popularly called by his fans, the poster featured an image of the superstar—playing Duryodhan in the mythological film based on the Mahabharata—surrounded by a battery of well-wishers and admirers.

Artist Ravikumar Kashi recalls theatre authorities looking alarmed as he photographed the poster as part of a long-time project. In August 2018, the Karnataka High Court directed the city’s municipal corporation, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), to remove all flex banners and hoardings in the city, citing environmental concerns. While their popularity decreased after the directive, these outdoor advertisements have far from disappeared from Bengaluru’s skyline.

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In his new book Flexing Muscles, a visual reading and analysis of the imagery and medium of flex banners in Bengaluru, Kashi notes that almost a year after the court’s directive, the banners have begun to visibly resurface. “This is especially notable at the edges of the city—where the ban is not imposed as strictly—with the trend slowly navigating its way back into the city as well,” he writes

At a time when the death of a 23-year-old woman in Chennai has revived the debate around illegal hoardings, Flexing Muscles traces a link between flex banners and the pro-Kannada groups that have emerged in Bengaluru in the last few years owing to an influx of people from other states to the IT city. Most of these groups have Sene (army), Pada (force) or Shakti (courage) in their names. Kashi lists around 34 such sene in the book but there are many more.

The groups espouse the cause of Kannada land, language and culture, using the inexpensive flex medium to assert power and influence. “Their strategic placement and size also make a point,” Kashi said, pointing out that the image of lions, representing power and aggression, can be found across banners. 

A person engaged in the business of hand-painted hoardings, who did not want to be named, said that while many printing presses were shut down after the court’s directive, a large chunk that remained were owned by politicians. “I can’t name the politician but one of our former mayors, not too long ago, once had about 184 hoardings in the city,” he chuckled.

It is perhaps no coincidence that huge banners come up on the birthdays of prominent leaders. One of Kashi’s photographs shows a banner installed to celebrate the birthday of Narayana Gowda, president of the popular pro-Kannada organisation Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (KRV). While Gowda’s image is placed prominently on the banner, a series of photos of members of KRV—their size determined by their seniority in the organisation—occupy most of the remaining space. Just above Gowda’s image are photos of actors Rajkumar and Shankar Nag, both considered strong symbols of Kannada identity. A photo of Kuvempu, regarded as the greatest Kannada poet of the 20th century, occupies another corner.

Bengaluru-based political analyst Sandeep Shastri said that there has been a visible rise in these senas in recent times. “They have become stridently aggressive groups espousing specific causes. Political parties have conceded these spaces to such groups by not responding to or taking a clear stand on these deeply emotive issues,” he said. “It also reflects the inability of opinion makers to articulate public apprehensions and perceptions on local and highly emotional issues. Parties and leaders also offer support to such outfits in the hope of a future political dividend.”

In 2016, violent protests broke out in Bengaluru after a Supreme Court order directed Karnataka to release 12,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu, the latest in a long-standing and volatile dispute. Protestors torched school buses and bus stands, and attacked private vehicles with TN number plates. These protesters were believed to be linked to pro-Kannada outfits KRV and Jaya Karnataka. The organisations said they were leading the protests but denied engaging in violence.

In August this year, a month before Home Minister Amit Shah’s remarks on Hindi Diwas triggered a spate of protests across South India, a pro-Kannada group allegedly vandalised Hindi banners at an event organised by the Jain community in Bengaluru. 

Shastri believes there are multiple reasons for the proliferation of these organisations. “There are very few public organisations articulating the sentiments of locals on emotive issues of language and identity. More importantly, those who start such senes see it as a stepping stone for wider political activity and launch themselves in the public domain. This is also a space to gain public visibility and attention and in some cases even to gain financial viability,” he explained. 

The emergence of senes in the world of Kannada films, mostly as fan associations for actors, is particularly striking. These fan associations state their objective as celebrating their idols and performing social service in their name, while denying any political affiliations. Kashi’s book, however, suggests otherwise. A banner put up by Varaputra Dr. Shivarajkumar Kannada Sene, to mark the release of actor Shivarajkumar’s film Anajaniputra in 2017, for example, prominently featured Congress politicians Krishnappa and Priya Krishna.

In 2018, when polemical Kannada activist Vatal Nagraj demanded that actor Rajkumar be posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, he was accompanied in the demand by Sa.Ra.Govindu, a well-known producer and President of Akhila Karnataka Dr Rajkumar Abhimanigala Sangha, Rajkumar Fans Association and and an active participant in the pro-Kannada movement. 

“The presence and collaboration of political and non-political/cultural spheres suggests that there is a lot of give and take and they are not really isolated,” Kashi said. 

Some of these organisations go far back in time. The Vishnu Sena Samithi, set up 30 years ago by revered Kannada actor Vishnuvardhan himself, has 11,500 members and a presence in 26 districts, 160 taluks and 200 gram shakhas today.

Its current president, Veerakaputra Srinivasa, said the late artist was inspired by Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, adding that the members of the organisation are all united by “the love for Dr. Vishnuvardhan”. “Since I am heading this organisation, I feel it’s unethical for me to have any other affiliation so I have stopped using my caste name. Nor do I have any political affiliations. I also don’t take donations,” he said, adding that the Vishnu Sena Samithi keeps the actor’s memory alive by adopting Kannada-medium government schools, planting trees, holding neighbourhood Kannada classes for non-Kannadigas and helping the underprivileged.

The organisation has, however, also taken a firm stand on the Cauvery water issue, as well as assertions of Kannada language and identity, taking out rallies for the Kalasa Banduri (a canal project between Karnataka and Goa) and during the Cauvery agitation in 2016. Srinivasa claims that their expressions are never violent. “If something goes wrong, people will abuse me or Dr. Vishnuvardhan. They will say that I am misusing his name and I never want that to happen,” he said.

KM Veeresh, editor of Kannada film portal Chitraloka, and Executive Committee Member of the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce, believes that these fan associations do much more than indulging in idolatry. “I haven’t seen any fan association’s role just limited to a film release where they will garland the hero’s cutout and do abhishekam. Fan associations have been doing very serious work. Artists are giving back to the society through their fans” he said.

Last month, actor Sudeep took to Twitter to ask his fans to help people stuck in floods across Karnataka. His followers connected with the local fan clubs of the actor to volunteer. 

“Sudeep is our guide and mentor and we will do whatever he asks us to and he always asks us to do the right thing,” Srinivas Gowda of Karnataka Kiccha Sudeep Fans Association said.

The association, formed in 2001, has around 14 lakh followers across various social media platforms. Like many other fan associations, it also holds strong opinions on volatile issues like the Cauvery water dispute and Kannada language. “We have a huge presence on social media, we try to educate people about the issue. We have several fan pages and social media accounts to communicate the message about the issue and why we are supporting it. We are there to support genuine issues,” Gowda said.

Cover for 'Flexing Muscles' and author Ravikumar Kashi

Actors senes have been largely peaceful in Bengaluru. However, in March 1984 when Rajkumar was reportedly attacked while shooting for a film in Tamil Nadu, his fans attacked Tamilians and TN registered vehicles in Bengaluru. When the Kannada icon was kidnapped by Sandalwood smuggler Veerapan in 2000, fans again took to the streets. Even after his demise, they brought the city to a standstill. 

These incidents might be sporadic but Kashi believes that the undercurrents can’t be ignored. “Kannada language and Kannada pride remain a very core issue for them. Their intensity and methods might vary from the pro-Karnataka organisations but they nevertheless talk about it,” he said. “They have always expressed their desire for Kannada language films to get more push. They are very aware of their audience. And as I mention in the book, it has all arisen out of fear of marginalisation.”