Street smart

Auto Tales


Road Dressing: French artist Sophie Jo.

It inspired a Rajinikanth starrer, the auto. Obviously, the auto is more than a mode of transport in Chennai. Like the yellow cabs of New York or the houseboats of Kashmir, the auto is an icon for many Indian cities, and notoriously so in Chennai.

Chennai autos, like Indian trucks, go a mile further in underlining their ‘icon’ status. More than his palm, the Chennai auto would tell you a great deal about the man who drives it.

Autos come splashed with the auto man’s political leanings, his theistic idols or more commonly, the film stars he venerates, the names of his kids; and like a post script, there are curious messages and an inevitable phrase or two on public welfare, like “We two,
Ours two”, and so on. In fact, one curious tourist visiting the city wanted to know if these messages are statutory. No, sir, Chennai autowalas are just very expressive.

The relationship between man and machine needs no words. The Chennai autokaran (autowala in Tamil) feels it in abundance. But then, why adorn the Chennai auto, colourful as it is already? Well, if Switzerland can have a cow festival, then can’t Chennai have an auto festival, seems to be the rationale. Remember that India now boasts of a cross-country auto race, and this auto art initiative would not be difficult to fit into the jigsaw of our cities’ colourful chaos.

Not so curious then that Apparao Galleries held an ‘Auto Project’ to take creativity to the streets. “Chennai, the home of Kollywood is a treasure of artistic decorative ideas. From handmade rexine seat covers, to the billboards that used to adorn Mount Road, to tinsel decorations, to cow neck cords, to glass stickers on vehicles and so much more — and all available in markets of Triplicane, Jam Bazaar and Chintadripet. Hence the ‘Auto Adornment Project’ ”, Sharan Apparao says.

The idea was also to take art to the streets and allow people from different walks of life to enjoy art in autos. The tradition of elaborately decorated bill boards and the banner artists as a group of highly skilled urban craftsmen are fast disappearing from the city, and Sharan hopes that this idea may engineer a new trend to create a livelihood for them.

So autos were allotted to artists, fashion designers, students, and to the auto drivers themselves too, of course. The group came up with a kaleidoscopic result. Take the auto done up by Sophie Jo, French artist. Sophie gave the auto a sky blue base, and painted the front of the auto with the back pose of an Indian village female, complete with thick and midnight black braids, flowers and a clay pot on her head. “It is an image from my earlier series; it looks much flatter on the auto,” she tells me, observing her own handwork. But then the auto looks so much groovy now, with Sophie’s village damsel hurtling through the streets. Luckily, Sophie was given a private auto to work on, so the auto will be able to blaze through Chennai lanes with all this colourful deco.

Fashion designer Upasana Asrani and her daughter gave the auto they were allotted a sequinned animal print interiors. They call it the ‘Disco Shanthi’ effect. “This look was the fashion of the 80s that’s why we thought of Disco Shanthi, the famous film dancer of that era,” Upasana explains. Others like interior designer Rohini Shankar opted for balloons and flags for auto art, while yet another auto was plastered with Rajini slogans all over.

“The city I learnt art from is no longer here. Ten years back, there were huge, hand-painted hoardings and banners looming over the city. Now the city looks rather bare,” Chennai based artist N Ramachandran feels. I wanted to create a memory of this city’s colourful past, he shares.
Using duco (normal paint used for painting exteriors of vehicles) and enamel paint,

Ramachandran gave his auto a green base (“more to soothe the feelings of the auto owner”). He decided to give his auto the philosophic treatment. Ramachandran decided on the ‘snakes and ladders’ concept, and the auto has snakes and ladders popping up all over the place, with other images in between. “I think snakes and ladders are present all the time in our lives. We keep climbing up and sliding down all the time,” he says, adding,

“It is only for three seconds that any of us would glance at an auto. The challenge I had set for myself was to present the concept to the viewer within that time.” A great job, sure; one only hopes that the auto will not skid off the omniscient potholes in Chennai’s streets very soon.  

The city’s roads and the Chennai autokaran’s penchant for reckless driving is such that the auto travel in the city is seen as a necessary evil. Take an auto, if you can’t afford an amusement park, is a standard joke in the city.  

The other discordant note here seems the Chennai autokaran himself. Granted, an auto driver’s life is hard — making a living riding through crazy traffic, deafening noise and constant pollution, day after day can be trying. But over the years, auto drivers in Chennai have created a bad name for themselves, and become (in)famous for fleecing passengers. All autos in the city sport meters, but none of the vehicles use their meters.

The notoriety of Chennai’s autos is such that even international travel guides warn visitors about them. However, auto driver Abdul Rehman, one of the men whose autos got a makeover at this fete, tries puts it in perspective, “In Tamil Nadu, not only do we need to shell out a lakh more rupees for buying an auto (auto manufacturing plants being based in Maharashtra), we also need to pay Rs 65,000 for a permit, unlike in states like Karnataka and Kerala.” But then, commuters in the city have adjusted to autokarans’ demands and coevolved a fine art of bargaining on auto fares. Meanwhile, the autokaran’s rendezvous with art continues.

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