A classical dancer striking a traditional pose before a Rajasthani fort, with a camel sneaking from behind. An android leaping straight out of science fiction. These contrasting images are part of an ongoing online exhibition at the India International Centre, celebrating the bus art of Tamil Nadu to mark the sapphire anniversary of the State.
Shot by multifaceted artist Vijay Jodha, the images are interesting in the context of any discussion about high art versus low art, refined versus kitsch, and where the bus art fits in. Vijay has tried to go beyond simple documentation to capture the interplay between the images and the audience, in this case the driver, conductor and the people travelling in these buses.
“Just as bus art is a legitimate art form in itself and by extension these are akin to galleries on wheels that go to the people rather than the other way round, you have what would be a counterpart to an art gallery visitor,” says Vijay, who shot at least 100 buses for the project over almost a decade.
Vijay has had the opportunity of interviewing and doing films with some of the biggest artists India has produced. Some of his work has been displayed at top art venues in India and overseas. “I had a lot of close exposure to so-called high art. Then there is the other non-gallery art that attracts sociologists rather than art critics. Some of them are even called kitsch and dismissed as unworthy of critical attention. The bus art seems to be at the lowest end of that category. Despite being on the margins, it is so vibrant and imaginative. It is that part that attracted me because most of my work has been around marginalised people, marginalised issues and practices.”
Hand-painted hoardings culture
Unlike the decorated trucks, cycle rickshaws and other vehicles seen across India, Vijay says, artwork on Tamil Nadu buses are not hand-painted. Even though machine-produced, he finds their presence a tip of the hat to the large hand-painted hoardings culture of Tamil Nadu. “It was a unique and signature public art of modern Tamil Nadu. Sadly, those have been displaced by printed hoardings for years now. Even when they were around, they weren’t seen as a worthy art form vis-à-vis the work displayed in the galleries. I think M. F. Husain was the first artist to notice them and he created a whole body of photographs around them back in the 1980s,” recounts Vijay.
He hopes that bus art will become a vehicle for creative expression. “The coming of good quality and relatively inexpensive digital printing has democratised the hoarding business. It is no longer the monopoly of the famous and the powerful such as politicians and film stars. If you were to travel across Tamil Nadu, you will find digitally produced hoardings put up in the smallest of places and for all kind of reasons, including somebody’s birthday or wedding. In fact, I recall somebody once sent me a picture of a hoarding put up to publicly congratulate a youngster for getting a visa to study in America,” he laughs.
But the downside, he says, is like many other parts of India, these inexpensive and widely accessible printed hoardings have dealt a body blow to the State’s traditional hoarding painters’ community, which, as you may recall, was one of the most accomplished, producing some of the most spectacular work in the whole country.
Fortunately, he notes, the community of artists has started to make a comeback and is finding new avenues through public art. “I hope the private bus owners or the State transport authorities in Tamil Nadu take a cue and get these artists to work on buses soon. In Delhi, the Metro authorities have done that with respect to some of the metro stations.”
Not only, he adds, would this address their livelihood issues, it would also take their art to the masses across the State and beyond. “That’s a deep desire with any artist – that her artwork travels far and wide, gets seen by as many people as possible.”
Platform for artistic expression
Having been involved with setting up of a museum of everyday art of traditional India in New Delhi decades ago, Vijay feels, he can say quite authoritatively that the idea of aesthetic concerns and artistic expressions is a non-elitist, close part of daily routine and everyday life intrinsic to Indian civilisation. “Even simple water storage facilities such as our centuries-old stepwells display the most intricate and beautiful carvings. So, this idea of vehicles serving as a platform for artistic expression is probably a yearning rooted in an ancient sensibility. It manifests itself with decorated trucks across India, on the back of cycle rickshaws in Allahabad, on the sides of these buses in Tamil Nadu, to cite three instances,” points out Vijay.
One doesn’t see why this bus art of Tamil Nadu cannot be replicated in other places. “It is for the transport authorities to give it a push. The way the Delhi Metro has done with some of its stations, for example, and got artists to do these murals. Or somebody can take the lead among the private transport companies. Aircraft used to look pretty dull too, until Richard Branson and his Virgin airlines appeared on the scene.”
Vijay hadn’t had the opportunity to meet any of the artists behind the striking work but that is the next step in this project. “So far it was only travelling and shooting in bus stands at Chennai, Nagapattinam, Dindigul, Thanjavur, Tiruchirappalli and Puducherry. The artistic choices and practical issues that lie behind the art are certainly worth exploring. But even without meeting them and having seen and photographed scores of buses across Tamil Nadu, it is apparent to me that they have deliberately stayed away from the staple of billboards in Tamil Nadu – politicians and film stars. It seems almost like that is the turf of the other artists. The bus artist’s turf is the rest of the area that begins with architecture and dance from an ancient Indian past to androids from the world of modern, western science fiction.”
But even within these very visually pleasing and apolitical graphics, Vijay spotted a political statement in the form of many visuals celebrating Jallikattu — a Tamil tradition that was briefly banned by the courts and continues to attract the ire of certain groups.
(Colours Unlimited: The Bus Art of Tamil Nadu is on view until Nov. 14)