Some commuters in Mumbai may have taken a ride in one of the 17 taxis whose interiors were custom-designed by Taxi Fabric to tell stories about the city and the driver to passengers. The project involves refurbishing the upholstery and ceilings of the iconic black-and-yellow taxis and showcasing some of India's budding design talent.
Now, five more taxis with fresh, one-of-a-kind designs for the interiors have been added, and this time, each of them tells a different story. A social message, to be precise.
The project, which started out as a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year, has tied up with TEDxGateway to redesign five taxis in Mumbai, each working on a specific theme to spread awareness though conversations with commuters.
Take the latest of the five, called "Special Friends". It worked as a colouring book for students of Mann, an institute for individuals with special needs. The video above shows the children filling in colours and interacting with this taxi.
Says Shruti Thakkar, designer of this particular project, "The route we have taken comes from the insight that we got from the teachers at Mann, where we were introduced to real-life issues that differently-abled people face every day. And what I’ve tried to do, and hopefully will succeed with, is to spread awareness about these issues by integrating them in my design."
Explains Yashraj Akashi, Senior Ambassador and Curator for TEDxGateway, "This year, for the first time there will be a special display of the taxis from the project that tells the story of Mumbai. They will be touching upon subjects ranging from the Indian Sign Language to Truck Art inspired Driving Safety messages."
Another unusual work from the new lot of five is designer Roshnee Desai's ironic "Only for Men" taxi, modelled on the "women only" zones found in public transport and places. The thought was to "make men of Mumbai think of how they treat their women and encourage them to be more sensitive towards their freedom," Desai says.
"The different standards in Indian society for all our people, be it women, workers, etc., has always intrigued me and caused me to rebel. The Fakt Striyansaathi graphic, Only For Women, outside the women's compartments in trains has always been on my mind. I decided to turn the concept on its head, and create a men's compartment in the taxi, giving me a perfect way for me to rebel graphically," she adds.
"Indian Sign Language", by designer Harshit Vishwakarma carries the sign language alphabet alongside its English counterpart. So, in the course of a taxi ride (video below), a passenger can learn to sign basic greetings and pleasantries. A little-known fact that Vishwakarma points out: India has the largest population of deaf people in the world, at about 15 million.
Vishwakarma says, "After having experienced the prevailing gap between the deaf and the hearing communities in my college years, I wanted to intervene. There are more sign language users in Bombay than in all of Europe. Taxi fabric was an opportunity to create a fun, engaging way for deaf as well as hearing individuals to learn how to finger spell in Indian Sign Language, especially the alphabet. So the next time they meet a deaf person they don't feel tongue-tied."
"The idea of doing it in a taxi was extremely interesting. Instead of people making an effort to learn the language, the language comes to them. It was a conscious decision of not taking the route of sympathetic sensitisation of people about the deaf community but to invite them to a conversation."
He also believes that sign language can be a lot of fun. It’s what you can use to "talk in libraries, at places with loud music and even underwater."
Taxi driver Rampal Kailashnath says, "Interacting with these kids was a life-changing experience and I talk about it to every passenger who asks me about these signs in my taxi."
Through his design "Homegrown Innovators", designer Mayur Mengle tells stories of people who defied personal odds to ensure a happier present for children. His design is an ode to those who make educational toys for underprivileged children. Speaking of his encounter with the person who inspired his design, Mengle says, "I stumbled upon the work of Arvind Gupta, who makes educational toys from trash for underprivileged children. I was greatly inspired by his work and the way it was contributing to the world. A curious mind made me look up for more such small scale innovators and was surprised at their presence in such huge numbers in India. This is what encouraged me to tell their story to the world – Taxi Fabric became my canvas."
A taxi offering the message of road safety through a design titled "Keep Distance" by designer Shantanu Suman was inspired by truck art in India. Suman says, "Brightly painted vehicles are a long-standing tradition in many countries around the world including India. Some drivers do it to attract new customers and businesses while others do it to express their personal thoughts and ideas."
"By using these well-designed fabrics, the taxi’s status is elevated from being a piece of artwork and uses design and storytelling to fulfil a practical and social functionality, thus using automobile decoration as a powerful medium for socially-responsible design," he says.
The driver of the taxi, Shantaram Kuthvad, made a request to mention his village when this project is written about. "I’d like to mention that I’m from Bhor Taluka in Pune. When you write about this project, please mention it. I’d like people to know that a resident of Bhor is now being written about on the Internet."
Says Sanket Avlani, the curator of Taxi Fabric, “We are a new medium, but from the reactions we have received so far, we believe that passengers are noticing and enjoying our designs on Taxi Fabrics. Passengers are getting into the taxi, getting amused by the taxi fabric and then understanding the purpose either by spending few more seconds observing the fabric or by having a conversation with the driver. They have also been clicking pictures and sharing the communication forward on social media."
A seemingly simple idea, using seat covers to tell stories of the city and of taxi drivers, goes beyond being easy on the eyes. The video above, which is part of the campaign, tells you what people on the street think of design and how a piece of a city's culture, like Mumbai's taxis, have room to say so much more, quite literally.
Ankush Yadav Khade, the owner of the renovated "Homegrown innovators" taxi says, "The passengers are amazed by the colours and designs once they get in. Most of them read about the innovators and then ask me about it as well. I tell them about the project and also ask them to go to the website to find out more. I feel very good that I am spreading the word about these inventions!"
The campaign's informal tagline, "Design can take you places", is true not just for the taxis but also for everyone who has never considered design as offering anything more than functionality.