When the artist Allen Shaw was six, his most prized possession – his bicycle – was stolen. Growing up in Jamalpur, Bihar, riding a cycle was more than just a fun way to pass the time for Shaw – it was the only way for his family to get around. His father, a priest, had saved money for three years in order to buy the cycle. For a week after the incident, Shaw remembers sitting at the main gate of his house, watching bicycles passing by, trying to spot his own.
Years later, once Shaw was old enough to earn and travel, he moved around primarily on trains, cars and planes. He could afford a cycle of his own, but he didn’t need one, and the memory of those stolen wheels became one that he associated with deprivation – people who rode bicycles, he decided, were people who could not afford any other means of travel.
In 2008, when Shaw moved to Germany, he saw bicycles everywhere and realised he was wrong. “In Europe everybody was using the bicycle,” he said. “It had nothing to do with class. I myself started riding a bicycle again because the roads were friendly and I felt reassured that I won’t be seen as poor if I rode a bicycle here.”
But the association between cycles and India’s working class remained strong in Shaw’s head. In 2012 he returned to India, and decided to undertake a 900-kilometre bicycle ride from New Delhi to Udaipur, Rajasthan, to reacquaint himself with the bicycle culture of India.
The watercolour sketches he made on this trip, of people loving their cycles, will be displayed this November at the Indian Embassy in Berlin as part of his exhibit, Bicycle Stories from India. The sketches will be accompanied by 10 Hindi poems penned by his father, Julius Ashoka Shaw.
“You tend to gain more perspective about things when you look at them from a distance,” said Shaw. “When I was in India I took the bicycles everywhere for granted. On this trip, I saw my own country in a different light. Thousands of businesses are running on bicycles here – the postman, the masala seller, the milkman – all come on their bicycles. They aren’t doing it because it’s cool, this is a necessity for them and they, unknowingly, are contributing to the environment in a big way.”
One of his favourite sketches is that of “Chacha Ahmedabad”, a school teacher in the old city who would drag his bicycle to a school for underprivileged children every day and then drag it back in the evening. In the image, Chacha Ahmedabad sports a chequered lungi, white kurta, skull cap and bright red shoes. “It was the bright red shoes that caught my attention,” said Shaw. “It was such a contrast with the rest of his attire. It was also amusing that he never rode the bicycle but always dragged it alongside, using it as something to hang his bag on.”
Shaw also captures how cycles can be immensely freeing for some. In 2008, while teaching a class in presentation technique at the Kala Raksha Vidyalaya, a design institute for traditional artisans in Kutch, Gujarat, Shaw noticed that a few students had bunked his class. He found them outside, learning to ride a bicycle stolen from one of the school’s workers – laughing and having the time of their lives. Instead of admonishing them for missing his class, he pulled out his sketchbook and captured the moment on paper. “In that moment, they had become rebels,” said Shaw. “That is also what I was trying to teach them – the importance of expressing oneself. There is a third girl in the frame, watching excitedly as her classmates break the rules. It also gave her a sense of freedom.”
Many of Shaw’s sketches are snapshots of everyday scenes – children going to school, a gas cylinder delivery man dragging a cycle weighed down by bright red cylinders, a cotton candy seller with soft packets of the pink threads decorated on a pole. He also recreates the classic Bollywood scene of a couple riding down the road, as the man pedals and the woman sits on the bar in front.
The idea behind Shaw’s project, he said, was to acquaint Germans with the bicycle culture of India. “I want people here to look at it as a social project. Germans love bicycles, but they have no idea that in the case of many Indians, bicycles and livelihood go hand in hand. I’m planning on approaching NGOs in India through whom we can set up a system where people from Europe, who are always talking about wanting to help or send money to Africa, can sponsor a bicycle for one person in India. Here, a bicycle costs about €500 [around Rs 38,000], while in India, it would cost about €20, something that people living here could easily afford, but in order to do that, they first need to be aware of the culture.”
Shaw’s most recent exhibit was at the Velo Classico vintage bicycle event in Ludwigslust, Germany, on September 16 and 17. The illustrations by Shaw at that exhibit were a throwback to the 1950s, with characters in vintage dresses and sun hats riding their bicycles in the old city of Ludwiglust.