On a hot and humid afternoon, a polar bear stares at the jostling sea of heads in Mandi House Metro Station. Is there anyone staring back at him? No. Just two girls sitting with their backs to his illuminated photograph.
When asked what she thinks of the animal’s image behind them, (part of a series entitled “Because we all love our homes”), a startled Ishita Kataria, 19, student, Amity University says: “Oh! It hadn’t caught my attention. Now that I’m looking at it, I think it’s a great idea to convey a message through the medium of art. But I think people are too busy rushing to get from point A to B in a Metro station to stand and appreciate creativity.”
Sitting a few yards away from Kataria, 39-year-old garment businessman, Shakeb Khan, counters: “It’s a fallacy that people are too busy to appreciate the finer things in life. They don’t mind making time to WhatsApp strangers, but when it comes to looking at art, they can’t fit it into their schedule.” He underlines, however, that such exhibits should be arresting; otherwise, they don’t serve their purpose.
Part of the drive to take art out of the rarefied atmosphere of galleries and bring it to people in public spaces, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Ltd. (DMRC) has teamed up with India Habitat Centre (IHC) for such periodic exhibitions within its premises. As Anuj Dayal, spokesperson DMRC says: “Delhi Metro, being a socially responsible organisation, accords priority to promotion of art, culture and heritage at Metro stations. In pursuance of the same, DMRC has allotted mutually identified bare spaces to India Habitat Centre at Mandi House and Jorbagh Metro stations, to display artworks.”
There is no quarrel about DMRC’s intent to make art accessible to the hoi polloi. Everybody is lauding the decision. But how is it being received by the general public? Is the Delhi janta getting better sensitised to art because of this? Or, is everyone so wrapped up in the humdrum, that it goes unnoticed?
To grab eyeballs, a lot therefore depends on whether space and content are in a happy marriage. Execution of the ‘intent’ is perhaps what some may have issues with. One such issue is where the “mutually identified bare space” is. In Mandi House station, for instance, artwork is displayed in areas that don’t have adequate passenger traffic.
Aditya Chauhan’s reaction is a case in point. When accosted, this 22-year-old, Delhi University student was intently looking at his cellphone while pacing up and down the station. Embarrassed he hadn’t noticed the image in front of him (this time it’s the picture of an owl - part of the same series on environment conservation) until he was asked whether he had, he says: “It’s heartening to see artistically done representations of social issues in Metro stations, rather than those of TV serials, chips and chocolates. But these images may be better noticed inside metro compartments than in stations. People are too focused on the transit in Metro stations to look around at artwork. I think such displays should be along passages where passenger traffic is maximum.”
A lot also depends on the type of work displayed. The broad spectrum within which Alka Pande, art consultant and curator, Visual Arts Gallery, IHC, selects from is: “That it is aesthetic, and adds cultural, social and creative capital.” Adding to what should be kept in mind in the process of curation, AGK Menon, architect and former convener, Delhi Chapter, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) comments: “You are not working in a museum. You are working in a place where people are running up and down. You need to pick accordingly. If you happen to be in Moscow’s Metro stations, you will see the kind of attention and resources they have invested towards the space and kind of artwork exhibited. As a result, even if you are passing by in a hurry, you are bound to notice the displays there.”
INTACH too has been provided space in Metro stations. Currently, in the Jorbagh station, there are several images of monuments that dot the nearby Lodhi Garden. Explaining how this serves as an identity marker for the geographical areas, Bindu Manchanda, head, heritage, community and craft, INTACH, says: “The idea was to showcase the amazing heritage outside, inside. This has brought the attention of many to the heritage that surrounds them, which they were not aware of earlier.”
A visit to the station around 5 p.m. on a week day reveals the following: A visually appealing display, complete with interesting vignettes of information to complement the images, line the walls of the station. Unfortunately, the exhibition is in a secluded area, and there are illuminated hoardings that beguile as they hang adjacent to it. A couple of interesting paintings with the caption “Don’t drop the girl child” by artist Veena Khanna also nestle between the entrance and the INTACH exhibits. Call it confusion or just bad timing, but there was no one looking at this mosaic of images.
Closer to the entrance of the same Jorbagh station is the IHC mounted “Death of Architecture” exhibition. A potpourri of drawings, photographs and literature on the subject beckons a niche audience. Reacting to whether the abundance of text is appropriate for an exhibition situated in this space, Pande says: “You have picked only one exhibit in the last four years which has a lot of text. The exhibit merits it and there are many who are interested. It is also a thinking, insightful display. People have a choice. They can opt not to read all the text, but sometimes for a meaningful exhibition, it is our duty to provide extra information.”
In the quest to make art easily accessible to many, perhaps a one-size-fits all approach needs to be fine-tuned. It also needs to go hand in hand with a closer look at where, what and how it is offered to the public. As for how commuters are reacting to these periodic exhibitions, Pande says: “In the West, for a long time now, people have been exposed to art in public spaces. Showing art within Metro stations is not even six years old in Delhi.”
Let’s give Delhiites some time to acquire a taste to transition from class to mass art. Of course, a little help from Delhi Metro and its partners would go a long way.