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What’s yellow and black and has art all over?

Answer: Traditional taxis in Mumbai and Delhi that are looking sprightly and bright with a special makeover

brunch Updated: Feb 24, 2018 22:06 IST
Nidhi Choksi
Nidhi Choksi
Hindustan Times
Kaali-peeli,taxis,autorickshaws
The tiny tales and happenings in and around the life of Mumbaikars is reflected in this taxi design(Photo: www.taxifabric.org)

In a tiny, crowded workshop in Lower Parel, artist Ashvini Menon is crouched over sheets of paper, focused on drawing and painting the Mumbaikars that Mumbaikars forget to see.

Birds, animals, trees and flowers swiftly appear on these artworks that Menon names The Wild Mumbaikars. They are incredible, amazing – and you won’t see them in any gallery ever. You’ll only see them if you happen to hail Mohammad Anwar Hassan’s Wadala-based kaali-peeli taxi and he agrees to take you where you want to go.

These kaali-peeli taxis are being given a new lease of life by designers

Menon is the latest of a number of artists who have used the ceilings, doors and seats of kali-peeli taxis and autorickshaws as canvases for their talent, transforming their drab interiors into spaces that sing stories. This one of a kind art project named Taxi Fabric was dreamed up by 28-year-old designer Sanket Avlani in 2015, giving Mumbai’s humble kali-peelis a new lease of life.

Caution: Artist at work

At Taxi Fabric’s Lower Parel workshop, Avlani, Hassan, an in-house designer from Avlani’s team, and a tailor are gathered, watching Menon work, and sharing technical advice with the artist who needs some guidance about passenger behaviour so she can display her work at its best.

Menon is very clear about what she wants to do in the cab. “When you think of the city, you think of high rises, or even Bollywood. But the wildlife of Mumbai is rarely remembered. These animals are important to us and we should, at the least, have knowledge about which species exist in our neighbourhood,” she says.

Ashvini Menon drawing out the ‘Wild Mumbaikars’ design (Aalok Soni)

She’d selected the Premier Padmini as her vehicle. “When you think of a Mumbai taxi, the Fiat (replaced by the look-alike Padmini) is the first thing that comes in your mind,” she explains.

“I used to illustrate with ink on a white background, but I had to change my style a bit when I was told that white won’t work since the seats might get dirty,” she says. So The Wild Mumbaikars are brightly depicted against vibrant backgrounds.

Menon is also advised to use Hindi for her captions because all passengers in the cab may not read English – and in fact, Hassan definitely does not.

The mechanics

Taxi Fabric artists work on stencils of the interiors of the vehicle of their choice, so they know which areas to use in their design and which to leave out. Once the design is complete and approved, it is printed on polyester at Taxi Fabric’s printing workshop in Cotton Green and used to upholster the cab.

A taxi being given a colourful makeover (Aalok Soni)

Hassan watches eagerly as Menon works. Like all the taxi drivers who have agreed to supply their cabs for this project, he was randomly asked by Avlani’s team if he’d be interested in coming on board.

In some cases, the artist first meets the cabbie and then works out a concept based on the story of the taxi and its driver; in others the artist simply decides on a concept ahead of time. The level of the taxi driver’s involvement is entirely up to him.

Hassan has met Menon only for the first time today and he’s keen to know what his taxi will be showcasing. He’s been given payment that equals what he’d earn in a day, so he’s content to let the process take its time.

Delhi’s heritage is reflected in this quirky design in an autorickshaw (Photo: www.taxifabric.org)

Putting it together

After she’s done with her design, Menon tells the tailor which panel goes where. The ceiling depicts birds, the backseat backrest depicts arboreal animals, and the backseat depicts animals on ground. The left door shows a leopard footprint and the right door a smooth-coated otter and its personality attributes.

The back of the front seat illustrates animals from freshwater lakes in the city, the front of the front seat depicts animals in the mangroves, and the front seat itself portrays dolphins. “I really wanted to add reptiles as well, but I realised that passengers might get freaked out,” laughs Menon.

A design inspired by the psychological role of colours that counteracts the bustle of Mumbai (Photo: www.taxifabric.org)

The front left door tells the story of the reducing number of house sparrows, and the front right door shows the Karvi, a flower that blooms once in every eight years at Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

As the tailor cuts the fabric and stitches, a man dismantles the insides of the taxi. When the panel for the ceiling is ready, it is brought to the fitter who glues it up. This takes anything from four hours to a full day.

Over the past few years, Taxi Fabric has expanded its line of projects with collaborations, such as one with search engine Google India in 2016 that commissioned 75 taxis to be revamped with Bollywood posters design. The popularity of taxi designs extended to that of auto rickshaws in Delhi as well, encompassing the legendary heritage that the city has to offer into design, rightly making the mode of transport a ‘chalti firti art gallery’, as one of their Delhi projects is aptly titled.

From HT Brunch, February 25, 2018

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First Published: Feb 24, 2018 21:04 IST