documenting the original art on the ceilings of Mumbai taxis

In Mumbai, India, daily long distance journeys are a given and being stuck in heavy traffic means you may have to spend hours on the road. You can always look out the window for entertainment, but Mumbai reporter Rachel Lopez found a whole new world of creativity looking at the ceilings of local taxis.

Lopez sometimes takes up to eight taxis a day, while she goes about her interviews and her appointments, and it is in the summer of 2017, hailing a taxi (locally called “kaali peeli”) that she glanced at the ceiling. and I saw a horrible chocolate brown background, with purple and green strawberries scattered all over it. She clicked a selfie against him for fun, and silently wondered how many other motives might be on other taxi caps.

“It started off as a joke, but eventually the joke was on me,” she jokes. Lopez wouldn’t have imagined that she would end up documenting as many as 500 designs since. His popular Instagram account documenting the designs and accompanying anecdotes is called The Greater Bombay and has over 11,000 followers.

Lopez, 39, is an editor and columnist and works for the Hindustan times, and also produces a podcast called Wordy Wordpecker, which looks at how words have changed over time.

Mumbai has a large fleet of 55,000 taxis and is the most cost effective and popular way of getting around the city for many. The art that covers the ceilings is not actually a simple decoration or the interior aesthetics of the conductors, but stems from a very practical reason. Since windows are usually left open and dirt and grime can spoil the original felt-covered ceiling, they are covered with plastic or vinyl that can be easily wiped clean.

“This covering is made of tough plastic usually sourced from China and when the taxi is sent to the garage for painting and license plates, the ceiling is also covered in plastic, with patterns that are rarely the personal choice of the driver. , ”Lopez explains.

“Indians love decorative elements like flourishes, patterns and images and tend to cover all surfaces with them. Perhaps we are suffering from what is known as ‘vacui horror’ or fear of empty spaces, ”Lopez explains.

Most of the designs found on ceilings are generic designs that are reproduced on everything from shower curtains to plastic tablecloths. Floral trellises, honeycomb patterns, rose canopies, funky zebra and animal prints with abstract patterns, chessboard patterns, fruit platters, even Bollywood actors and characters from cartoons – original and moving art gallery. Some conductors even add their own touches, pasting flowers or glitzy decorations to the ceiling.

The Instagram account has images of half of Lopez’s face, usually with a scarf covering his head, against a ceiling pattern of butterflies, kitsch fruit, scribbles, or dots.

Lopez says, “What I find extremely hilarious is that when I read about the art on the ceilings of their taxis, most of the drivers growl and are totally disinterested, because for them it’s just a practical aspect of their taxis. They obviously don’t see what we see.

More than 100 images of Lopez’s ceilings were shown earlier this year at the Kala Ghoda Art Festival, one of Asia’s biggest street art festivals, and were met with great public reception. Many locals who take these taxis on a daily basis and even long-time city residents have found that they haven’t paid attention to the ceilings.

Part of the charm of this collection is also in the anecdotes and thoughts that Lopez shares on his account. She deepens her knowledge of art and compares an abstract motif on the ceiling to the art of Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid. She finds patterns that look like “a beautiful printed linoleum rug”, “an artist’s rendering of the coronavirus” and even “a bumpy road after five days of rain”! The funny comments on the Instagram account range from “it goes with your scarf” to “it’s my grandmother’s tablecloth.”

“The typical Mumbaikar ignores the city that surrounds him and only has [a] Superficial appreciation of it, he may not notice the art deco or heritage building in front of him or some mind-blowing street art as he is absorbed in the daily schedule and tasked with making a living. Unless someone documents it, it can be lost forever, swept away by the wave of development, like our old textile factories which are now glitzy malls, ”Lopez explains.

“It’s the same with those taxi caps and their quirky art. Someday you might find them disappearing and we’ll lose this art gallery forever. Until then, I will continue to discover them, one taxi at a time.

Lopez proves that art is everywhere, if only you take the trouble to pay attention to your surroundings.

Updated: January 2, 2022, 7:27 a.m.

Christopher S. Washington