the great escape

I look around and eye the **exit** my great escape, the red flashing sign, the word EXIT, written up, loud and clear, I eye it. And I make a run for it. The two hosts grab me before I even take a step, each with one arm locked into mine, they **crack a joke** about me, the audience laughs. They hand me a metal statuette, I hold it --the heaviest thing I’ve ever held on to-- it falls through the stage, through the wooden floor, with me holding tightly onto it, through and through. “Ladies and gentlemen we just witnessed **a great escape** for the first time in the history of this event, has the winner escaped in such a dramatic fashion, and without giving a speech either.”

Friday, September 11

The Mass Media Billboard Frenzy and the Urban Scape

It is true that all cities have a unique character; in Lahore that character has almost become synonymous with expansive billboards jutting out of the infrastructure in all different directions: calligraphy running down the walls, English written in Urdu, and Urdu transliterated in English, together with huge spelling faux pas proudly held up to unimaginable heights, and, of course, images ranging from families and cooking oils to women on mattresses in sultry poses. We have free markets, deregulation, and rent-seeking behaviour to thank for this boisterous explosion of urban infrastructural mass media that some would argue quite aptly represents what Lahore and Lahoris are all about.

That said, it would be evident that we’ve come a long way from the grandiosity of the Badshahi Masjid, a jewel for the Mughals, or the Mall Road, the pride of the British. Historically, the look and feel of the city would be an expression of the dominant force within that city. Administrators would take pride in giving the city their personal touch. Then how did we get from there to here? Well, if the Emperor was sovereign during Mughal times, and the bureaucratic institution was administrator par excellence during the British Raj, then it is a natural conclusion that the corporation reigns supreme in the times that have happened to grace us. With ever flashier modes of urban display, LED screens, and plasma projection units, and millions and millions in advertising budgets, our cities will indeed become the mass-communication extravaganza that the corporate identity of Lahore would imagine.

Unlike the British, the Mughals and the Sikhs, and whoever else has laid claim to Lahore in the past, the corporations don’t act on a unitary urban aesthetic. Rather, their mode of operation is chaotic at best, as they respond to each other with bigger, more flashy messages to induce those driving by in an instance. Nothing speaks more loudly of our reclaim of British areas of architectural finesse like Tollington and Davis Road than the sprawling colourful signboards, mounted all over shop edifices.

As shop owners and those in possession of lucrative property jump into this frenzy, the city begins to emulate a glamour magazine with a 20:80 content-publicity ratio. Questions of taste and aesthetics then get bundled up with the heavy handed marketing departments’ and ad agencies’ assessment of the mood at large.

Of course, appearances count more than truisms in these parts. At the end of the day, it isn’t accuracy they’re going for, but sensation. One would argue that the two elements unmistakably present at all major traffic signals, i.e. beggars and billboards (the subject of many snapshots clicked by bemused foreigners) represent the huge disconnect between appearance and reality that is being fed to the masses on a daily basis. How does the large shampoo billboard relate to the urban condition of the rickshaw driver? How does the supermodel superimposed on a whitening cream ad relieve the frustrations of the pubescent youth on a disappointingly fruitless prowl? It is quite evident that the publicity billboards that seek to attract all attention at every stoplight and flyover constantly bombard the inhabitants of the city with the chasm that exists between reality and product-oriented idealism.

full version readable at my post on the Dawn Blog