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Befriending the humble bicycle

chandigarh Updated: Nov 09, 2014 08:15 IST
Nirupama Dutt

A chance meeting with photographer Ranbeer Kranti who was getting ready to showcase his photographs at the Alliance Francaise, Chandigarh, is enough to send the mind reeling and the heart humming. What ignited the mind and soul thus were some evocative photographs of bicycle riders and the human-powered machine. I found myself recalling a poem written in this city of ours by Amarjit Chandan. Originally written in Punjabi, it went thus: While cycling/I feel that/I am not alone/20 million cyclists of this great motherland are with me/the factory workers/the high and mighty clerks/the pedlars/the students/and even the bicycle thieves…

Ah! My thoughts next moved to the 1948 Italian film The Bicycle Thief, directed by Antonio De Sica, that tells a moving story of Antonio and his son Bruno who go out in search of their stolen bicycle, bought by pawning household linen because it was necessary for the job Antonio has finally found: pasting posters around the city. Frustrated as their search comes a cropper, Antonio decides to steal an unattended bicycle.

A two-wheeled human-powered vehicle was first envisioned by Leonardo Da Vinci in a sketch made in the 15th century, but it was not until much later—in the 19th century—that the cycle as we know it today was actually introduced. The bicycle, a name given by the French, became the companion of the young and the working class as well as young women who wanted to escape Victorian restraints by pedalling their way to freedom. While the aristocracy had their horses, carriages and gigs, the bicycle a integral part of the commoner’s life, so much so that in 1892, Harry Dacre even wrote a song proposing marriage to a young woman Daisy Bell: “It won’t be a stylish marriage/I can’t afford a carriage/ But you look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle meant for two… While Daisy Bell refused, singing: If you can’t afford a carriage,/You can’t afford a marriage/And I’ll be damned if I’ll be crammed/On a bicycle built for two…

Ah! The willful American lass. In sharp contrast, heroines of Hindi cinema merrily romanced and loved on bicycles. Meena Kumari sang Sanware salone aaye din bahaar ke on a double-pedal bicycle with Sunil Dutt as their baby remained snugly nestled in the basket on the handle bar in Ek hi Rastaa (1956). Nutan led a gang of girls on cycles singing Banke panchhi gayein pyar tarana in Anari (1959) till she happily collided with Raj Kapoor. Mumtaz encircled in Dev Anand’s arm as he takes her for a ride, singing Eh maine kasam li in Tere Mere Sapne (1971).

One of Kranti’s photographs is titled Outside Frame. It captures a bicycle belonging to a South Indian female daily labourer with an iron platter used to carry mud hanging at the back and a tiffin box in the front. In Chandigarh, not just women but most men and women rode bicycles back in the fifties, the sixties and the seventies: that is, until cars took over. Today, however, the lovely cycle tracks in Le Corbusier’s city lie abandoned. In this mad-mad-mad rush to make it on time using fast-moving vehicles, I stop for a moment and wonder what happened to my lovely blue bicycle bought on a loan given by the newspaper office. Is it still around somewhere or sold as scrap as I moved on as past as life took me? Why did I give it away?

(The writer is a prominent art and culture critic.)