Paintings that interpret the city, the region and its culture are ideally suited for display in urban rail stations

In Tokyo, they say: “Enjoy the station, enjoy the region.” In Brussels the city government is emphatic that art begins with the Metro. Even the unsung Kolkata Metro has art displayed in stations. So what will the stations of the Chennai Metro offer us when they open?

Will it be antiseptic and soulless granite and walls, or will it be a showcase of art?

Chennai’s public spaces have some iconic displays of art and sculpture, such as the labour statue on the Marina and several others on the stretch to the lighthouse.

More recent attempts to put up artwork at traffic islands in Gemini, Nungambakkam and so on have been less impressive because they have been neglected. Cheap displays of assorted figures installed on road divider medians some years ago were predictably short-lived.

As a major renaissance of transport infrastructure in the city takes place, the 36 stations planned in the first phase of the Chennai Metro offer opportunities to be turned into centres of art displays.

Taking the Tokyo example, where the urban rail system covers more than 195 km of lines, each station has the opportunity to tell the story of the region, aesthetically using colour and visual symbolism.

Paintings that interpret the city, the region and its culture are ideally suited for display in urban rail stations, as they do not interfere with the movement of passengers. Coupled with sensitive lighting, they enhance the ambience with lively colour.

A good example of an old facility that tells a historical story is the Concorde station of the Paris Metro. This busy location serves the famous square of the French Revolution where the guillotine was stationed.

What is interesting is that it has the Declaration of the Rights of Man displayed on the roof of metro line number 12, each tile bearing only one letter. Another example is the 80 works of art that have been on display in the Brussels Metro for four decades.

It is perhaps too much to expect that Metro stations in India reflect the magnificence of those in Moscow, arguably the most beautiful — and therefore the most photographed — in the world. Begun in Tsarist times and developed in subsequent decades, the stations are brilliant works of architectural design and illumination.

Yet, Chennai could aspire to stake its claim as a city that is supportive of the arts by devoting its newest public spaces to showcase them. Of course, the contrast with what exists today in the form of decrepit, suburban rail stations splattered with kitschy posters would be glaring, but that should give those in charge of these stations something to think about.

Squalor and dereliction are common characteristics of public spaces in the country, and Chennai is no exception — although it is a vibrant and functional metropolis.

There is no reason why the city’s stations, bus termini and road margins should present a permanently broken down, garbage-infested, run down appearance. They remain so because of the indifference and cynicism of those at the helm.

Now that there is the opportunity to do something different with a whole new way of navigating Chennai, the stations of the Metro system should be turned into works of art.

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