Ec­cen­tric chief’s color scheme

Politi­cian’s or­der to paint all of Kolkata in her trade­mark hues raises de­bate about her lead­er­ship style.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Shashank Ben­gali re­port­ing from kolkata, in­dia

For more than three decades, this city of tum­ble­down slums and de­cay­ing colo­nial relics lived un­der the red ban­ner of In­dian com­mu­nism.

Four years ago, Ma­mata Ban­er­jee, a rab­ble-rous­ing politi­cian who dab­bles in the arts, ousted the com­mu­nists to be­come leader of the state of West Ben­gal and quickly de­cided its cap­i­tal needed a makeover.

Drawing in­spi­ra­tion from her pro­le­tar­ian wardrobe of hand-wo­ven white cot­ton saris with sky blue trim — and blue-and-white rub­ber flip-flops — Ban­er­jee de­creed that Kolkata be re­painted in those colors.

And she meant all of Kolkata: Gov­ern­ment build­ings, po­lice sta­tions, curb­sides, over­passes, bus stops, food stalls, bridges, taxis, tree trunks, traf­fic cones and even trash com­pactors have all been coated in cerulean blue and pris­tine white.

To make a base­ball com­par­i­son that would be lost on cricket-mad In­dia, this city of 5 mil­lion, for­merly known as Cal­cutta, has been done up a bit like Dodger Sta­dium on open­ing day.

In a coun­try of pell-mell

cities that of­ten lack even the most ba­sic ur­ban plan­ning, it is a civic project of un­usual thor­ough­ness — and it has sparked a spir­ited de­bate over Ban­er­jee’s strong-arm lead­er­ship style and aes­thetic sen­si­bil­i­ties.

“New gov­ern­ment, new colors,” Dev­nath Man­dal, a po­lice of­fi­cer posted at one end of a bridge span­ning the Hooghly River, said as he watched mo­torists weave through steel traf­fic bar­ri­cades painted blue and white.

“The city looked a bit old be­fore,” Man­dal, a 20-year vet­eran of the po­lice force, said through be­tel-stained teeth. “Of course, it cost money, so maybe it’s not to­tally worth it, but change makes peo­ple feel good.”

Not ev­ery­one finds the two-tone uni­for­mity ap­peal­ing.

“Many peo­ple’s view is that it’s ec­cen­tric and slightly ab­surd,” said Ruchir Joshi, a prom­i­nent writer and film­maker in Kolkata.

Worse, some say, the money spent on re­paint­ing could have been bet­ter de­ployed to im­prove living con­di­tions across Kolkata and West Ben­gal, a state still buried un­der about $30 bil­lion in debt from the com­mu­nist years. Of­fi­cials have not dis­closed the price of the project, but just re­paint­ing the river­side city’s 1,000-plus miles of roads and bridges would prob­a­bly have cost mil­lions of dol­lars.

Ban­er­jee, 60, has said the idea came to her af­ter a visit to Jaipur in north­ern In­dia, dubbed the Pink City for its ter­ra­cotta-painted his­toric quar­ter.

Red and green — the of­fi­cial color of her cen­trist All In­dia Tri­namool Congress party, whose name means “grass roots” — were too po­lit­i­cal, she said, so she chose blue and white. Kolkata au­thor­i­ties also an­nounced a tax ben­e­fit for home­own­ers who re­painted their res­i­dences in the fa­vored hues.

From his of­fice in the 15-story tem­po­rary head­quar­ters of the West Ben­gal state gov­ern­ment, Malay Ghosh, chief en­gi­neer in the state’s public works depart­ment, looked out over a criss­cross­ing se­ries of re­painted high­way over­passes. The pat­tern seemed de­signed to dis­ori­ent driv­ers: all-blue rail­ings, blue­and-white rec­tan­gles along the curb and large blue di­a­monds stamped across the con­crete bar­ri­ers.

(The street signs also were blue and white, but Ghosh said those pre­dated Ban­er­jee’s or­der.)

The blue, he said, stands for the sky, which is lim­it­less, while the white con­notes peace.

“It’s ex­clu­sively the CM’s wish,” said Ghosh, us­ing the ab­bre­vi­a­tion for Ban­er­jee’s ti­tle, chief min­is­ter. “She de­cided, so we did it.”

He added quickly, “I think it’s nice.”

Ban­er­jee, whose of­fice did not re­spond to re­quests for an in­ter­view, has a rep­u­ta­tion for bold ges­tures. Born into a mod­est Kolkata fam­ily, she burst onto the na­tional scene as a young stu­dent ac­tivist in 1975, when she led a protest against a so­cial­ist politi­cian by danc­ing on the hood of his car.

Ban­er­jee, widely called Didi, or el­der sis­ter, is known as a po­lit­i­cal bruiser who has been on the re­ceiv­ing end too, hav­ing sur­vived phys­i­cal at­tacks by com­mu­nist op­po­nents dur­ing her decades of ag­i­tat­ing.

Her 2011 elec­tion victory was a wa­ter­shed for the state. One news­pa­per ran a full-page il­lus­tra­tion of a fist smash­ing through Writ­ers’ Build­ing, the im­pos­ing, colon­naded seat of state gov­ern­ment whose brick fa­cade is fa­mously red — com­par­ing the com­mu­nists’ de­feat to the fall of the Ber­lin Wall.

When Ban­er­jee’s ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced in 2013 that the 18th cen­tury ed­i­fice would un­dergo ex­ten­sive in­te­rior ren­o­va­tions, lo­cal broad­caster NDTV asked, “Will the chief min­is­ter stop at fix­ing fire and se­cu­rity prob­lems at Writ­ers’ or does she also have a new color scheme in mind for it?” (Of­fi­cials say there are no plans to re­paint the ex­te­rior.)

Crit­ics charge that Ban­er­jee has in­dulged an au­thor­i­tar­ian streak, and that to get some­thing done in West Ben­gal, it is some­times enough to say, “Didi wants it.”

She has long fan­cied her­self an artist and poet — aides say she paints in an an­te­room off her of­fice — and some city arts pa­trons have be­gun pay­ing top dollar for her de­pic­tions of flow­ers and Hindu icons. A few years ago, in an ef­fort to please Ban­er­jee, a tem­ple com­mit­tee draped the Hindu god­dess Durga in the same blue hues for the city’s big­gest re­li­gious fes­ti­val.

The fusty gen­tle­man class that rose to promi­nence when Kolkata was the cap­i­tal of Bri­tish In­dia looks down on her as “the coarse leader of Ben­gal’s hoochdrink­ing un­der­class,” jour­nal­ist Sam­bud­dha Mi­tra Mustafi wrote last year in the In­dian news­magazine Car­a­van. To them, the blue-and-white mo­tif is the lat­est ex­am­ple of Ban­er­jee im­pos­ing her crass aes­thetic on their city.

Oth­ers say her cos­metic changes di­vert at­ten­tion from West Ben­gal’s per­sis­tent eco­nomic and se­cu­rity prob­lems.

“She’s done noth­ing on the slums in the city, for ex­am­ple,” film­maker Joshi said. “If there had been some im­prove­ment there, one could for­give her th­ese lit­tle ec­cen­tric­i­ties. But the city is as chaotic as it was, the con­di­tion of the poor is as bad as it ever was, vi­o­lence is grow­ing — and mean­time ev­ery­thing is be­ing painted blue and white.”

Months af­ter Ban­er­jee took power, a 37-year-old woman was gang-raped in a car in the vi­brant Park Street dis­trict, the cul­tural heart of Kolkata. Ban­er­jee’s im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion was to ac­cuse the vic­tim, who re­cently died of menin­gi­tis, of in­vent­ing the story to ma­lign her gov­ern­ment.

Akhil Ya­dav, a taxi driver whose shabby bum­ble­beeyel­low sedan stood in sharp con­trast to the bright new curb­sides, said petty cor­rup­tion hasn’t im­proved un­der Ban­er­jee’s lead­er­ship. Po­lice of­fi­cers still stop cab­bies in parts of the city af­ter night­fall, de­mand­ing small bribes of about $2, he said.

Ya­dav, a mi­grant fa­ther of two from the poor state of Bi­har, said it would have been bet­ter if au­thor­i­ties spent the money on the city’s need­i­est res­i­dents.

As he sped past a painted bus stop, he caught sight of a bank of food stalls that had re­cently been branded with loud blue stripes and sighed.

“It’s dis­tract­ing,” he said. “The whole city looks the same.”

Pho­to­graphs by Shashank Ben­gali Los An­ge­les Times

KOLKATA BUS STOPS, gov­ern­ment build­ings, po­lice sta­tions, curb­sides, over­passes, food stalls, bridges, tree trunks, traf­fic cones and even trash com­pactors have all been painted blue and white.

THE CERULEAN BLUE pat­terns along road­ways some­times seem de­signed to dis­ori­ent driv­ers.

A TAXI near the Hooghly River hews to the city’s new hues, man­dated by Ma­mata Ban­er­jee.

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