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Culture

Fare-well taxi art?

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Every day in Mumbai, a few more beat-up black-and-yellow Padminis are put out to pasture. And with them to the junkyard goes a vibrant piece of taxi art that captures the aspirations and aesthetics of a whole generation of migrant cabbies.

Ever since the 2008 Bombay high court ruling that taxis older than 25 years should go off the streets, the battered but iconic Padmini is being steadily phased out, and replaced by a shiny new army of Omnis, Santros, Altos and Marutis. While the new wheels continue to sport some of the old slogans and motifs that decorated the flanks of their predecessors, their neater, sleeker frames do not lend themselves to a full-blooded tarting up.

The taxi is a metaphor for the migrant character of Mumbai, as was painfully witnessed last year when drivers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were attacked and beaten by mobs belonging to a right-wing local political party. Since Mumbai's taxis are driven largely by men from North India, the cab often doubles as office and home. It is, therefore, an intensely intimate and personalised space. The driver sleeps in the back seat with his legs sticking out and prays to the pantheon of gods on the dashboard. The taxi decor thus reflects the personality of the driver, some cabs have minichandeliers and roofs padded with lurid velvet that make one think of bordellos, others have mirrors on their ceiling to espy any naughty action in the back seat and some are overpoweringly perfumed with a burning stick of incense. Others have tessellated rexine mudguards, seat covers range from musty suede to slippery pink rexine, and Sai Baba is often positioned beatifically on the rear windscreen. The sonic atmosphere is provided by the radio, usually playing old Hindi film songs.

The slogans that decorate the body are free of grammatical underpinnings, but they usually work. Inspirational message like 'confi-dance' or 'love is poison' can be spotted on the rear windshield, making one wonder whether taxi art is in fact the grandfather of micro-blogging. Many meters have 'Don't touch me' painted on them in a curling font.

Based on the design of a small 1960s Fiat sedan, the Padmini was named after a 14th-century Rajput princess known for her beauty and courage. Of the roughly 50, 000 cabs in Mumbai today, more than 7, 000 are due to retire. Al Quadros, the mustachioed general secretary of the Mumbai Taximen Union, says that taxi sticker artists are still in demand, but fears that as the years pass, many new cabs may not opt for the folksy decorations. "It's only for those who are truly shaukeen, " he says. Rashid Shah, whose taxi encourages people to 'Forgive and Forget', one hopes the sentiment has nothing to do with Shah's driving skills, feels that new cabs aren't really artfriendly. "They are too low to allow tassels to hang from the bottom of the dickey, " he says. But he's happy that the auspicious nimbu-mirchi (a lime-and chilli hanging) to ward off evil is still popular.
Sticker artist Vinod, who works at Opera House, says he still gets orders to jazz up new cabs. Vinod uses the outdated method of Letraset, in which the lettering is produced manually after the driver chooses a font and colour. Vinod says that a motif of a sad-faced woman with her head resting on her knees saying 'Ab Kab Aoge' is a perennial favourite among cabbies because it symbolises wives left behind in villages waiting for them.

Down the decades, the taxi and its three-wheeled suburban companion, the auto-rickshaw, have inspired writers, film-makers and artists alike. Meera Devidayal held an exhibition in 2007 themed entirely on the migrant taxi driver. "These drivers carry their lives, in terms of hopes and religion, in their taxis, " Devidayal says. "Even if the cars change, the drivers won't and neither will taxi art."

Designer Krsna Mehta, whose kitschy offerings include prints of kaali-peelis, is optimistic that taxi art will reinvent itself. "We're not essentially a culture that knows how to preserve this kind of content, but I'm sure that the new cars will be as exciting," he says. But Kabi Sherman, a ex-Los Angeles cabbie who moved to the city 15 years ago, is a little worried. Inspired to document the changing face of the city, she started 'Meter Down: Kali Peeli Ki Kahani', a blog that records her conversations with Mumbai taxi drivers. "I share tales of migration and document the changing cityscape through the eyes of taxiwallahs," explains the taxiphile, whose sofas at home are encased in a floral plastic sheet and whose standard gift to close friends is a steering wheel wrapped in fluorescent nylon.

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