Public Art in the Delhi Metro

Whizzing across the cityscape like its veins and arteries, the Delhi Metro is like a participatory artwork in motion – an image of the modern urban Indian experience – oceans of people (and a few sniffer dogs) dart in and shove their way out of a train that halts for a precious few seconds. But before the train arrives, people must wait in this place of suspended motion. A frenzied entry into a coach could be preceded or followed by unconsciously eavesdropping into other people’s conversations, imagining while seated on a station bench that people move to the rhythm of a chart-buster playing on your mobile phone, sometimes restlessly pacing up and down, only to ram into people or to chance upon an old neighbour. The station, a place between source and end, is a shared community space, a public property that democratises public space in a city of stark inequalities. People of both genders and a myriad class identities are brought together at one locale by the Delhi Metro.

The government commissioned several pieces of artwork that adorn the metro space and enhance the vision of technological utopia. Public art is a combined property of the community and not the possession of an individual collector, hence, its meaning and identity is produced by its interaction with the daily commuters of the rail service. The murals, photographs, installations and handicrafts at select stations make art available outside the white cube for democratic community viewership.

The Delhi Metro Museum at the Patel Chowk station carefully charts the genesis of the idea for the institution, the history of construction and the workings of the transit system. Photographs of smiling workers against the background of huge machines used to bore trenches, a model of the Tunnel Boring Machine, soil samples collected from around the city and helmets of different colours used at construction sites and the prototype of the metro train are all displayed like war spoils. The museum invites visitors to take away a bit of the metro experience by purchasing souvenir tokens and models of the metro. The museum is aimed at making the spectator marvel at the genius of the technological feat, projecting an image of efficient and ethical work culture. Not a word is breathed about people’s livelihood and the dwellings displaced during metro construction, the trees that were felled or the workers and others who were killed in mishaps during metro construction!

The work “You are here…” (take a look on youtube) at the Central Secretariat metro station is an ironic appropriation of the Delhi metro map. It was created using mirrors that were used to give the viewer a feeling of being at various places all at once. In a celebration of the speed of the metro it reproduces the ephemeral experience of spaces subsequently produced. In a recent interview with the author, Shubhra Chaturvedi, one of the artists commissioned to create this work, said that her work simulates “futuristic…time travel adventure.” Another work at the same station titled “Illusions” are prints of two photographs by Vibhor Taneja taken in Ladakh, one of the snowy peaks and another of a long winding road. Absurdly placed in an ornamental rust-coloured clay frame, the art seems be at complete odds with the culture of the city. There are no references to or distinct identifying features of that area in the city included in the work.

The corridor of handicrafts displayed at INA metro station has fifty-eight panels of handicraft and handloom work created by craftsmen from different states across the country. A few examples are a mithila painting from Bihar depicting girls on a swing, a boat race in Keralite straw work and a mural of terracotta tiles from Rajasthan depicting a village scene. It is an effort aimed at showcasing the rich and varied arts and crafts of India, creating a discourse of unity in diversity.

The Commonwealth Games saw the metro adorned in the theme of the games. The walls of the metro were plastered with the CWG mascot, Shera. Gymnastics, swimming, wrestling, and other sports were depicted on hand-cut mural art tiles. The Khan market station features a mural-sized digital print of a sketch that portrays an exoticized view of India — women with downcast eyes in colourful jewels and veils.

Most of the public art works at the metro are merely paying lip service to urbanization and thereby reiterating the status quo. What we need is public art to create a civic dialogue and contribute to the regeneration of the ‘urban’. This form of art should encourage public participation and critical engagement with the idea of the ‘public’ and the imagined community the work celebrates as well as evokes. Public art projects are meant to destroy the claim of art as a private act of contemplation, a matter of personal taste, as that which belongs to an aesthetic realm that only the occupant of the proverbial ivory tower can create and comprehend. Art is taken over by commercials in ways overt and covert. In the purview of increasing encroachment on public space by corporate interests and the dehumanization effect of consumerism that reduce us to desiring machines, there is a pressing need to think harder about how vastly disparate communities combine to form what we call a ‘city’ and its identity.

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