The walls have black and white pictures of Indian literary greats such as Toru Dutt, Devaki Nandan Khatri and Nagarjun. The teakwood shelves are stacked with hundreds of titles in over two dozen Indian languages, and the tastefully done interiors are illuminated by soft, low-hanging lights. On a LCD TV in a corner are playing the recorded interviews of famous regional writers.
This Sahitya Akademi bookstore is not part of a literary festival or a book fair, but located at the concourse of the busy Kashmere Gate Metro station.
The commuters are rushing towards the escalators, and inside the shop one can hear the continuous rattle of the trains departing and arriving at the platforms above.
Opened in February this year the bookshop, called Sahitya Akademi Metro Bookshop, is Akademi’s first ever shop outside its premises at Mandi House. Last month, the Akademi opened another bookshop at Vishwa Vidyalaya station.
Delhi Metro is becoming a hub of literature and art at a time when book shops are fast closing down in the city. Dr. Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari, president, Sahitya Akademi says, “The idea behind the bookshops at Metro stations is to introduce literature in regional Indian languages to the common man. In fact we have also started a book club at our metro shops. While we offer a 15 per cent discount to all metro card holders, book club members get 25 per cent,” says Tiwari.In fact Metro first took a literary turn in 2013 when much to the delight of book lovers, the National Book Trust (NBT) opened its bookshops at these two stations.
Rita Chowdhury, director, NBT says that Metro station bookshops are a great platform to take books to a whole new readership. “There is a relationship between reading habits and accessibility of books. We may soon have book shops at MG Road, Gurgaon and Botanical Garden station in Noida,” she says.
While Munshi Premchand is among the best selling writers at Sahitya Akademi’s book shops, it also attracts Chetan Bhagat fans. “I have a hard time explaining to them that we do not keep Chetan Bhagat books,” says Pawan Kumar Arya, who manages Akademi’s shop at Kashmere Gate station.
In fact, not just a literary destination, some of the metro stations are also turning into innovative art spaces. Take for example Mandi House station which currently has artworks from a mythological tale displayed in lightboxes and on a wall with explanatory text.
Anuj Dayal, executive director, corporate communications, Delhi Metro, says that setting up of the bookshops and display of art works at select stations is part of its effort to use the Metro premises to promote Indian art, culture and literature.
“We have collaborated with many independent artists and organisations such as IHC, Indian Council for Historical Research for displaying art at Jor Bagh and Mandi House stations. Some Phase 3 stations will also have panels displaying art,” says Dayal.
Art in metro seems to be a hit with commuters. One can see people stopping and looking intently at exhibits throughout the day.
“I love art but do not have time to visit art galleries. I believe that art should not be confined to galleries and museums. In fact, art on the go is a great idea; the new Metro stations have pleasant interiors is a good place to introduce people to art. But exhibitions at Metro stations should change frequently,” says Akhil Mathur, a software engineer, who walks past the arts works at Mandi House everyday where he changes trains.
Alka Pande, consultant art adviser and curator, Visual Arts Gallery at IHC, responsible for exhibiting art works at the two stations, feels that displaying art at Metro will help democratise it. Installing of art works, conceptualising and curating exhibitions for a cross section of people as public art, she says, is a challenging task.
“In such busy places, keeping art works intact is a challenge in itself. Initially, we want to make the best use of whatever spaces are available to us, and showcase art which is immediate and has a strong cultural significance,” says Pande. “We are looking at themes which are global and cosmopolitan in nature. Our aim is to add an aesthetics of travel and bring joy to the ennui of everyday travel.”