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Art and Train Stations in India: Recognising the Symbiosis

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on September 26, 2016 at 01:18 PM

Street art, per se, might not be a new phenomenon. Indeed, as old as human history itself, art in the public realm has been as rich a source of historical record and contemporary communication as any out there. From ancient cave paintings to regional traditional art forms, to government sponsored campaigns, advertisements or graffiti, the public space has always offered itself as a huge canvas for artistic expression. But, recently, there has been a revolution of sorts in our country, where art has found a new purpose and arena in the public sphere. Not only streets, but public places like train stations are hosting art forms varying from traditional to modern, professional to amateur and folk, involving artists and lay citizens to not just add a vibrancy to the space, but contribute to the national effort of cleaning up our cities and towns under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Swacchh Bharat’ movement. 

© Courtesy of internet resources

Sawai Madhopur Station, Rajasthan: Booting the Idea (images cover, 1 - 6)

Being the gateway to the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, Sawai Madhopur town receives many tourists, who arrive by train at its tiny railway station. The World Wildlife Fund – India (WWF-I) and well-known conservationist Valmik Thapar conceptualised an idea to make this station an apt gateway to the Reserve, which they proposed to and accepted by the Western Railways through the favourable support of the Chief Minister Smt. Vasundhara Raje Scindia. Funded by the WWF-I and supported by the Indian Railways, a group of 20 local artists let by Shri Gajendra Singh has thence worked for close to two months to paint the 7000 sq. ft. of walls at this station, converting it into a vibrant art gallery depicting the wildlife of Ranthambore. 

As the beautifully painted flora and fauna of the region bring to life this old heritage building of Sawai Madhopur station, every visiting tourist alighting from a train here gets a vibrant welcome and a sense of having arrived at the sanctuary itself. The wildlife depicted on the walls include life-size tigers, bears, leopards, crocodiles, deer and hyenas along with birds and other creatures set among scenes of Rajasthan’s rich landscape and architecture, catching the fancy of even the locals who get themselves photographed in this exquisite setting.

The legendary banyan tree that has a spread over a couple of kilometres of Ranthambore is depicted over the walls, pillars and ceiling of the arrival porch, along with all the creatures that take refuge in it, creating a splendorous welcome. The scheme also includes painting the Bharatpur Station with scenes from the Bharatpur Birds Sanctuary, as well as the coaches of the Kota-Nizamuddin Jan Shatabdi which is the train bringing in the bulk of tourists from New Delhi.

Other Train Stations, Rajasthan: Showcasing Rich Variety

Having booted this wonderfully successful idea of displaying art on railway station walls, the Rajasthan Government thought of extrapolating it to other train stations in the state and issued circulars to that effect. The initiative included around seven more stations like Jaipur, Udaipur, Bikaner and Ajmer among others, in localised themes involving local artists and art forms.

Seeing an opportunity to revive dying local art forms, they have been used as themes for their respective stations, like the Banni Thanni of the Kishengarh school of miniatures or the Pichwai painting tradition of Udaipur which adorns the Udaipur station (img 9). While Jogi Art is the chosen style for the main Jaipur railway station (image 7), the city’s two smaller stations are being painted with images of puppets themed on the local ‘kathputli’ craft. The floral motifs from Badal Mahal adorn the walls and ceilings at Bikaner railway station (image 8). The theme for Ajmer station is secular calligraphy, while the one for Kota is stylised natural motifs from the Bundi School of art.

Thus the initiative spontaneously sprouted a series of new art galleries all over the state which, in addition to employing local artists and rescuing their dying art, were almost free of cost as they were already existing buildings. These buildings, on the other hand, gained not just in terms of fresh artistic adornments, but also a cleansing and revival, and renewed interest and sense of ownership among its users. 

Local Train Stations, Mumbai: Cleaning Up with Art (images 10 - 12)

As if on cue from Rajasthan, Mumbai city recently witnessed the initiation of a similar drive to clean up and decorate some of its famously filthy local train stations with artistic contributions, mostly from the student community. With some initial experimentation at Matunga Station, leading the way were Borivali and Khar, where 500 volunteers of the ‘Make A Difference’ (MAD) foundation decided to paint the staircases, pillars and walls with vibrant colours and vivid scenes of landscape, animals, games and patterns. The purpose of this was, beyond just cleaning up once, to beautify and liven up the place such that it invokes a sense of ownership and responsibility among the users, consequently restraining them from littering the public space and inspiring them to make positive contributions towards its upkeep.

The success of this initiative has led to furthering the drive to provide a similar face lift to a list of 21 stations on the western line and 15 on the central line. Under the aegis of the programme named ‘Hamara Station Hamari Shaan’ citizens from across Mumbai have been invited to take possession of and pride in their city’s train stations by enrolling themselves under the programme to splash them with vibrant colours and designs in a weeklong drive from 2nd to 8th of October 2016. 

A few other cities like Chennai, Bhubaneswar and Govindpuri Metro station in Delhi have already witnessed such successful drives of beautification and revival of railway stations through an unleashing of art on them in the past. Whether it is a case of professional artists of dying art forms getting their due recognition, or citizens and amateurs getting a chance at artistic expression, the gain from this exercise seems to be a mutual one for the stations and the users. We, as citizens, need only to appreciate the benefits of this symbiosis to be inspired to act on it. After all public buildings and facilities are public property, indicating that their maintenance, upkeep and beautification should be the responsibility of the public at large, and shouldn’t simply end at paying taxes. Painting of train stations is surely proving to be one of the most successful exercises in citizen participation in city maintenance, and will hopefully lead to participation drives in many other aspects of our cities. After all, the cities are ours, and we ourselves must initiate the changes that we want to see. That this exercise can be so attractive and generate so much fun is only a bonus!

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