Paromita Vohra: Commuting in beauty

Paromita Vohra ColumnThe last few months have taken me travelling around, and running up and down airport corridors has become my token exercise. This also means much time spent at Bombay’s Terminal 2, so I’m on familiar terms now with some of its reportedly 7,000 pieces of art. Even when rushed, I look out for the video installations or cooler pieces I like. I habitually shake my head at the pieces I don’t, and also see people taking selfies in front those very pieces. So, different strokes for different folks!

Paromita Vohra Column
Illustration/ Uday Mohite

Even in the middle of the night, you always see some people pausing in wonder to check out the art work, even touch it. What a pity it’s restricted to a selective space like the international airport instead of spread through the city in a genuinely public way.

Many big cities are known for their public art. The London Metro has poetry and poster art. Karachi has wall-art painted by an arts collective working with street artists. Mexico city has striking murals painted by famous artists like Diego Rivera and Hose Clemente Orozco and their students. Since a decade, Melbourne has a city-funded Public Art Program that fills the city with whimsical art pieces in parks and street corners.

We have mostly statues and the occasional painted cow. And why not? Statues stand for a history of power, or significant political and cultural contributions. But must they be our only public art?

Spontaneous street art in the form of fanciful hand-painted signs and posters, whimsical taxi and rickshaw decorations, still exists. As the hand-painted yields to the machine-made, people find ways to express themselves through decoration. Auto rickshaw upholstery is inadvertent retro-chic, red lips on white vinyl, pista-green seats with peach panels. Taxi doors and roofs are psychedelic panoramas of printed rexine. Fruit baskets — orange papayas with shiny black seeds, smugly plum green grapes, cheeky red watermelons — extravagant bouquets of roses and daisies and sometimes or more sober chequerboard of the Apple logo.

The State meanwhile only offers us drab buildings and transport in the most unattractive colours. It’s as if no one can decide on a common Indian aesthetic so they end up with no aesthetic at all, rather than choosing from the rich cultural diversity present in our city.

The insides of our public transport are dedicated only to stern warnings from the authorities and advertisements, almost emblematic of what our culture is increasingly becoming — a loudspeaker for establishment political views and commercial exhortations.

In 2004, I was part of an artist’s collective that volunteered at the World Social Forum. One of the things the collective did was rent the surface space of two local trains. Artists, like Atul Dodiya, Sudhir Patwardhan and Nalini Malani, along with art students, painted the outside of the dabbas, creating a gorgeous moving art gallery.

People’s faces lit up with pleasure and excitement as those trains pulled up on platforms and they jumped on with an extra spring in their steps.

When the one month of rental time was up, the paintings were simply painted over. It’s hard to imagine when such a lovely thing might happen. It’s harder to understand the imagination which wouldn’t want to preserve something so special — or replicate it.

Think of a commute surrounded by the lyrics of Narayan Surve, Sahir Ludhianvi and Nissim Ezekiel. Think of a walking to work, with beautiful art giving you a moment or three of beauty in a day full of care. It could give you a whole new view of the world.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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