As the saying goes, the walls have ears. Sometimes people speak in whispers lest someone hears! But have you ever heard that the wall itself can speak?
It may seem like an exaggeration but your perception will change as soon as you set foot in Jahangirnagar University (JU). Red brick buildings are spread throughout this land of natural beauty, 24 kilometres away from the capital Dhaka. And with brush strokes, various types of murals and graffiti have emerged on those walls.
Looking at the walls, it feels like they are alive and are about to speak up.
Sometimes, as a language of protest and, sometimes, to adorn the blurred walls littered with posters, a group of university students painted the murals.
One of them is Abdullah Mamur, a student of the 2012-2013 academic year of the fine arts department of the university. Most of the walls of the JU campus have come to life with the brush strokes of his hands.
After stepping on the JU campus, Mamur saw the glittering red brick walls on campus were covered with slogans from various political parties, BCS coaching posters, mess rentals and other advertisements. In addition, students used to ruin walls by writing their batch names with spray paint, which did not sit right with Mamur, a fine arts student.
"So I thought it would not be a bad idea to paint on a red wall. There are no rules for writing or drawing on campus walls. But when I saw that the walls were being made ugly like this, I thought something needed to be done," Mamur told The Business Standard.
Thus, Mamur and his fellow artists started the project of painting the walls.
As soon as you enter JU through Prantik Gate, you will see a passenger shelter (bus stop) built in the shape of a strange animal. It looked completely different, covered with BCS posters, before being painted.
The concept of graffiti is not new.
From the earliest times of human civilisation, murals have been regarded as a means of communication or a memento. One can only imagine how old the history of graffiti is by looking at the paintings of a pyramid thousands of years old.
However, in modern times, the concept of graffiti has become popular since the 1970s as a form of protest in many Western cities, including in New York in the United States. But in most cases, drawing on a wall without permission is considered a punishable offence.
This is why Dhiman Sarkar, a lecturer in the fine arts department of the university, was also asked whether there were any restrictions on murals by the JU administration. He said the university administration has never stopped students from doing creative work.
"The administration has given tacit consent so that the students of Jahangirnagar can learn and develop creatively," added Sarkar.
"Often the government or the state system is mocked through graffiti. But there is no such thing in JU murals. That is why it is being given implicit approval," he added.
The teacher of the fine arts department also said that aesthetics are the most important aspect of these paintings.
Artist Mamur said neither he nor his team faced any hurdles from the administration. Instead, their artwork has been appreciated everywhere inside and outside the campus. Every time a wall is painted, a festival of taking pictures takes place in front of the wall the next day.
Jahangirnagar University, the only residential university in Bangladesh, was established in January 1970. Since then, graffiti made by students has made its way to the campus walls at various times.
Although there are no exact statistics on how many murals have been built so far, Mamur said he and his team have made more than 45 graffiti across the campus since 2013.
There are also cracks on many of these walls and several artworks have been completely destroyed.
In this regard, Sarkar said that students of different batches have made graffiti at different times. Many images have been destroyed due to lack of care so it is difficult to give proper statistics on their numbers. However, he also said that for the last three to four years, the paintings of Jahangirnagar have been gaining popularity.
Visiting the campus, one will find numerous graffiti or murals. A passenger shelter may seem like a galaxy, and while walking along the road, you can see a Royal Bengal Tiger, an Apsara of Heaven or Rabindranath coming out of the forest.
Sohag Mishra, a 3D artist, is said to have painted 3D pictures on the trees out of interest in doing something extravagant. Sohag, 2013-14 academic year of the fine arts department of JU, is a fan of Salvador Dali and the now well-known artist Banksy in the world of graffiti. He is currently pursuing postgraduate studies.
"After enrolling in the university, I came to know about the works of many artists. Everyone has tried to portray their own style or novel ideas through art. So I also wondered if I could do something similar myself," said Sohag.
Responding to a question on how to draw on a rough texture like a tree, Sohag said, "There are some trees in Jahangirnagar which are as smooth and beautiful as canvasses, drawing on them is no problem at all. The entire campus is full of trees. So I wondered if these trees could be used as canvasses."
Sohag also said the colour used on the trees is long-lasting. As a result, graffiti is unlikely to decay easily in rain or hostile weather.
Protests and graffiti
Protests were also seen erupting on the walls of Jahangirnagar. Graffiti has been painted on the walls of the campus at various times as a form of protest against issues ranging from the university's own to international ones.
In November 1987, photographer Shahidul Alam's camera captured graffiti of anti-authoritarian protests by several political parties of different ideologies. The photographs garnered appreciation at home and abroad.
In addition, several murals have been built in memory of the dignitaries.
Rabiul Islam, a student of the 42nd batch of the university, said that ordinary students are also proud of these paintings. "JU is unique in terms of graffiti. On most other campuses, murals are used as political posters. But in our university, this has been taken to an artistic route," he said.
The question that may come to the mind of the reader is, where do the students get the money to make so many graffiti or murals? Mamur said that initially he and his companions had painted some of the graffiti out of their own pocket money.
However, due to lack of money, their project stopped at a point. Then some current and former students of the university stood by their side. Mamur and his team started painting the walls once again with the support of senior batchmates and alums.
Sohag is one of the exceptions, who is continuing his work with his own pocket money. The price of each colour box is Tk500. He bears the full cost of other necessities.
In Sohag's words, "I finish my work before dawn. I do it out of a kind of aesthetic value at my own expense. There is no commercial purpose or any financial benefit of my own."
When asked how much it costs to make graffiti on a tree, he said, " Art, to me, is priceless.. The entire 700-acre campus is my gallery, the trees are my canvases, and I am an artist. This is how I want to paint the trees on campus," he added.
Another graffiti artist, Arpan Adhikari said that he joined the team to make graffiti to spread art among the common people. Since being admitted to the university, he has worked as a collaborator in at least 25 to 30 works of art in different parts of the campus.
Farzad Dihan, another student of the university's fine arts department, has also painted some of the campus walls with Mamur. When asked how many people have to work to make a mural, he said it depends on the wall.
He said, "Four to six artists have to work together to paint a medium-sized wall. But if it is small-scale work, then two are enough."
Jahangirnagar University, known as the capital of culture, has many festivals, one or the other is always taking place throughout the year.
Thematic graffiti is painted on the walls on the occasion of Him Utsav, Basant Baran Utsav, Natyaparvan or various festivals arranged by different organisations. Besides, artists (such as Mamur, Sohag, Arpan, Dihan and a few others) continue painting the campus walls.
The historical significance of graffiti and murals as a means of spontaneous expression of the emotions of the people can be easily felt by looking at the walls of Jahangirnagar.
Lecturer Dhiman Sarkar said, "Starting from our struggle for independence, graffiti has been and is being used as a means of protest against various social issues. So it cannot be bound by law."
"Graffiti is a medium for expressing one's opinion. So I do not think it is right to shut it down. It can be curtailed if there is a risk of social harm, but I do not think it is reasonable to shut it down or make it completely illegal," he said.