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The Art of Auto-Mobility : Vehicular Art and the Space of Resistance in Calcutta
Swati Chattopadhyay Journal of Material Culture 2009 14: 107 DOI: 10.1177/1359183508100010 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Vehicular Art and the Space of Resistance in Calcutta ◆


University of California, Santa Barbara, USA Abstract The article examines the images and texts on privately operated public buses in contemporary Calcutta as a form of popular culture. By situating the vehicular art within the larger socio-political milieu of the city, this paper analyzes the manner in which the artwork acts as a unique mode of communication and everyday resistance. A close reading of the relation between the images and texts enables us to grasp the spatial logic by which subaltern groups make room for themselves within the bourgeois frame of the city. Key Words ◆ Calcutta ◆ popular culture ◆ public bus ◆ subaltern ◆ vehicular art

Brilliantly painted vehicles in many third world cities – jeepneys in Manila, long-distance trucks in Rawalpindi and Buenos Aires, buses in Port-auPrince and Calcutta, and baby-taxis in Dhaka – are exceptional for the labor and artistic skill employed in enriching the experience of the automobile in daily life. The socio-economic and expressive concerns that animate the production of vehicular art in the Philippines, Pakistan, Argentina, Haiti, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and India are quite different from automobile culture in the USA or Europe (Bolton, 1979; Pritchett, 1979; Rich and Khan, 1980; Meñez, 1988; Learmonth, 1991; Estenssor, 1992; Glassie, 1997; Lasnier, 2002). In large measure this has to do with the conditions under which the automobile as a vehicle of modernity has been adopted in these countries. In an essay on Pakistani decorated trucks, one author has argued that the new tradition of elaborately decorated trucks in Pakistan is derived from all those craft traditions that became obsolete with the advent of the modern building industry (Kazi, 2002).
Journal of Material Culture Vol. 14(1): 107–139 Copyright © 2009 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC) [DOI: 10.1177/1359183508100010]
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J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 )

Facing a livelihood crisis, artisans shifted to a new industry and created a demand for their skill. If vehicular art in the third world is a means of creating a niche in the modern economy and making automobile culture one’s own, the specific conditions of production and reception in each location require in-depth exploration. The approach to such study must also be suited to the specific graphic form found in such vehicles. The graphic art on privately operated public buses and minibuses in Calcutta is characterized by a profusion of texts next to images culled from various sources placed in well-defined areas (Figures 1 and 2). It is both a means of subsistence for craftsmen who occupy a marginal economic position, and a means of communication between the bus owners/ artists/operators and the city’s residents. They bring the three meanings of art – aesthetics, skill, and cunning (Webster’s Dictionary, 1996) – together to produce a remarkable structure of communication and resistance. There are at least three ways one could approach the study of Calcutta’s bus art: by studying the form and lineage of the motifs and texts, focusing on the sources and precedents used by the artists to devise these images; by documenting the artists’ or owners’ intentions, analyzing their reasons for undertaking such art work; and third, by analyzing how their art works as a form of communication. Rather than emphasizing art historical provenance, which deserves separate and specialized treatment, or delving into the specific intention of the indiF I G U R E 1 Front view of privately owned vidual artist, in this article I public bus in Calcutta, 2003. emphasize the communicative potential of the graphic form. By situating the art within a larger socio-political milieu, I explore the spatial dimensions of this phenomenon. This involves the spatial arrangement of texts and images, their meaning, and the possibilities of communication inherent in their formal attributes, as well as the urban context of bus art. The latter requires an introduction to the nature of public space in the city as well as the sites of production. I am primarily concerned with the act of reading, viewing and recognizing bus art as a form of urban popular culture. In the next two sections I provide

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sagepub. The craftsmen. operators (drivers and conductors) are a varied constituency F I G U R E 2 Rear view of Calcutta cutting across a large section of the bus. for housing and welfare the evil eye. The question. The choice of images and texts are made by the bus owner. However. they are also usually members of labor unions or cooperatives. Bus owners and operators. They work from a cultural repertoire that is as varied as the socio-cultural make-up of bus owners and operators. builders.1 Most reside in the urban fringes of the city in modest accommodation which are often within squatter settlements. je amake chay’ (‘The one who wants me will show me the way’). have no security of employment. as well as long acquaintance with the city’s everyday life. The falling mostly within what the state painted shoes are meant to ward off would. URBAN SUBALTERNS AND POPULAR CULTURE The argument presented here is based on field documentation in Calcutta and its suburbs between 2002 and 2007. the bus operators – drivers and conductors – are not the owners of the bus. This is by no means a homogenous group. In most cases. artists. Some bus owners as well as builders make a good living from the business. and survive on fluctuating incomes. and there is no reason to assume that they all have the same investment in the production of bus art. They all have had some access to education.M O B I L I T Y a methodological and theoretical explanation as a form of ground clearing to launch the material examples that are at the heart of the argument. Many have gone to high school and a few even have some years of college. or in slums within the metropolis. painters and artists work on a contract basis and earn subsistence wages. and sometimes by the operators (if they happen to be supervising the body work) within the overall framework mandated by state authorities. Calcutta’s bus owners. are often on opposing sides of the employer–employee relationship. exactly whose voice 109 Downloaded from mcu.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O . purposes. at University of Southampton on June 17. artist. designate as the ‘economically weaker sections’ of society. The bus operators typically work long shifts as casual labor. 2003: ‘Amake shei path dekhabe so-called lower and middle classes. but even here there is a large socio-economic range. 2013 .

In other words. they have the cultural resources and political acumen to negotiate their location in the city.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) – the owner’s. though not all the texts on the buses have literary allusions. until recently. but such samples cannot be generalized to a larger population with any degree of cultural significance. We may identify three factors that have contributed to the shifts in class domains and linkages in post-independence (post-1947) Bengal that have helped to establish this form of popular culture: mass-education under a state system of schooling – no matter how imperfect its application. I will expand upon these points later in the essay. the culture and politics of the bus artists. at University of Southampton on June 17. It is thus appropriate to mention at the outset that while literary sophistication may not be part of a common parcel shared by those involved in the production and operation process. As such they would not fit the classic definition of the subaltern. The builders’. struggling to make a living within a rapidly globalizing economy. 2013 . drivers’ and conductors’ groups that I interviewed were extremely articulate. constituting in turn a new domain of the popular. the formation of a new class among the peasantry demanding urban amenities (one result of the changes in the system of land tenure during three decades of communist rule in Bengal). It can be determined in individual cases. I merely want to emphasize that the typical bus artist and operator in contemporary Calcutta indeed constitutes a new figure of the unprivileged.and early 20th-century Calcutta (Banerjee. in both resistance and conformity. and urbane in their thinking about their own marginality and social mobilization. They also differ from the urban subaltern in Calcutta of a century ago. 1989). Many. despite having nominal access to education and a democratic polity. seeking possibilities of reading the vehicular art within the urban milieu. and a political culture that eschews civil society in favor of what Chatterjee calls ‘political society’ (Chatterjee.sagepub. Throughout this essay. who does not have access to means of representation. 2004). builders and operators is intricately tied to middle-class and urban elite culture and politics. they substantially differ from the image of the tribal and of the peasant. however. artist’s or bus operator’s – the bus art represents is not easily resolved. politically conscious. The boundaries of cultural institutions that the Bengali middle-class had considered peculiarly its own have been 110 Downloaded from mcu. cited in scholarship as the exemplary subaltern.2 Therefore I pose the question of meaning in terms of ‘What work does the bus art perform?’. I will refer to theories of subalternity to explain my core argument about the spatial logic of marginality as I find the concept of subalternity useful for thinking through certain processes of marginalization. builder’s. In contradistinction to the wide gulf that scholars had assumed to have existed between lower classes and the elite in 19th. which was. completely cut off from channels of social mobility.

(Chatterjee. Since 111 Downloaded from mcu. bus art as popular culture remains undocumented and untheorized.3 As there is no space here to launch into a detailed discussion of popular culture in India. both middle class and plebeian cultures in the city have been transformed from their 19thand early 20th-century versions. We see the symptoms of this cultural transformation in spectacular form in popular dance and music shows on television.sagepub. 1983). I contend.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O . As a consequence. (Chatterjee. Mass media – radio. THE SPATIAL LOGIC OF MARGINALITY Discussing the political life of the great majority of the population in the world. The term ‘people’ here includes the broad swathes of both the lower and the middle classes. 2013 . cinema. in the design of pavilions that occupy the city’s public space for Hindu religious festivals (the puja pandals). and in sports venues. Bus art is among the everyday instances of this change. They often make instrumental use of the fact that they can vote in elections. it conveys critical elements that may help explain larger patterns of urban marginality within the bourgeois framework of the city – how space and power are negotiated by people who find themselves marginalized in the city. Bus art.M O B I L I T Y breached by a wider socio-economic constituency. perhaps with political parties and leaders. For the most part. Partha Chatterjee has mobilized the idea of ‘political society’ through which the governed negotiate their rights to habitation and livelihood with the state on a political terrain: on the one hand. What is useful about thinking through forms of popular culture is that they are sites where class and group boundaries are necessarily blurred. 2004: 40–1) Of particular relevance to this discussion are two examples from Calcutta cited by him. mutating into new formations of the popular. is one such artifact that requires rethinking culture as constituted by strict class at University of Southampton on June 17. First is the example of residents of a squatter settlement situated yards from the railway lines on public land. particular population groups receive attention from those agencies according to calculations of political expediency. it will suffice to recognize the popular as carrying the sense of both widely disseminated and ‘belonging to the people’ (Williams. 2004: 40) Chatterjee notes that these underprivileged groups have to pick their way through this uncertain terrain by making a large array of connections outside the group – with other groups in similar situations. and television – have performed a critical role in extending the cultural and political sphere. with government functionaries. on the other. with more privileged and influential groups. governmental agencies have a public obligation to look after the poor and the underprivileged and.

The very idea of public and private spheres and their nominal correlation with a corresponding public space and private space collapses under the pressure of political society. and to mobilize popular support. and state claims. However. While many settlements established by squatting on private land in the late 1940s in the wake of the partition of the country have been given legal status. The negotiations are conducted not on the basis of ‘rights’ but on the basis of ‘entitlement’ and are highly contingent on the ability of the squatters to create lines of communication with middleclass residents and government functionaries. 2013 . Repeated attempts have been made by the ruling parties and municipality to rid the sidewalks of these vendors. in 1996. the marginal socio-economic status of its residents have meant that squatter colonies next to the railway lines exist with the ever present threat of eviction. is largely due not simply to an inability to acknowledge the ‘new’ democratic process but also to the poverty of political and urban theory that is ill equipped to discuss the spatial logic of marginality. exercised as resistance and recalcitrance. There are several corollaries to these politically negotiated practices that I wish to point out. 112 Downloaded from mcu. after a few months of absence and negotiations the occupants managed to return. water supply and public toilets from the municipality. Such negotiations throw into disarray a whole set of spatial relations that were supposed to remain inviolate within modern state formation. What replaces this ideal is a complex spatial layering of individual. group. For example.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) the 1940s the residents have been able to hang on to their tenuous claim to the land. the communist-led state government launched ‘Operation Sunshine’ that destroyed the illegal structures on sidewalks. by cultivating political relationships with the ruling party and tracking the corridors of the welfare state that is obliged to extend services to the community despite its illegal status. What appears as confusion and incoherence. and a governmentsponsored child-care facility. facing criticism from a certain section of the city’s elite residents and in their desire to attract foreign investment.4 Very little attention has been paid to uncovering the formal logic of such ‘dis-order’.com at University of Southampton on June 17. goods and services to a vast number of people. often visibly indexed in the use of public space. obtaining electricity from the State Electricity Board. carrying on a vibrant informal economy that provides livelihood. Chatterjee explains these processes as a ‘constantly shifting compromise between the normative values of modernity and the moral assertion of popular demands’.sagepub. This conflict is between the ‘high ground’ of modernity (aligned with civil society and the constitutional state) and democracy ‘on the ground’. by the majority of the population. Chatterjee’s second example are vendors who illegally set up shop on sidewalks along the major arteries in the southern part of the city.

the subaltern does not have access to means of representation (Hoare and Smith. I submit that this understanding of the political must address the nebulous zone between subalternity and popular at University of Southampton on June 17.M O B I L I T Y Chatterjee’s insight is not in itself new. Studies of urban marginality conducted since the late 1970s have raised many of the same issues (Castells. I am interested in the kind of communication and space the urban subalterns establish among themselves. His identity amounted to the sum of his subalternity’ (Guha. My use of the term takes into account two aspects of the definitions offered by Guha and Spivak. Chatterjee hints that these more recent processes of democratic politics are not usefully analyzed through the lens of subaltern studies because of their entangled nature: we can no longer so easily talk about a clear split between the domain of elite politics and the domain of subaltern politics as one could in the context of the anti-colonial movement. 1983: 18). because the ‘democratic process in India has come a long way in bringing under its influence the lives of the subaltern classes’ (Chatterjee. and those groups who are not easily assimilated within the logic of the state and capital. but as a network of horizontal connections forged by subaltern groups. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has insisted that the term be used to refer to those who are removed from all lines of social mobility: ‘subalternity is where social lines of mobility. being elsewhere. the term subaltern has been used to refer to peasants. Chatterjee’s contribution is to shift political theory’s emphasis on civil society as a mediator between the state and the family to a new constellation of the political. tribal peoples. do not permit the formation of a recognizable basis of social action’ (Spivak. particularly in the study of urban social movements. the difficulty of recognition (recognizing social action) implied in both these definitions. and culture. by pushing the assumption that subalterns do not have access to means of representation – understood both 113 Downloaded from mcu. 2004: 39). However.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O .5 In the work of the subaltern studies collective. their understanding of subalternity as a space – location – within/outside the structure of domination and subordination. status. Ranajit Guha used the word to refer to a differential in power relationship: the elite made the subaltern ‘aware of his place in society as a measure of a distance from themselves – a distance expressed in differentials of wealth. 2005). In Gramsci’s classic formulation. What is important here is the need to think of the urban process itself not from the bottom up (as did marginality studies ending up in dependency theory) or from the top down (as do the bulk of urbanization studies working within a developmental paradigm). 1971). and between themselves and the elite on an everyday basis in the city. If the new entanglements (leaving aside the problem of how these entanglements are structurally different from those of pre-independence days) demand a new notion of the political. only intermittently connected to state and government functionaries. 2013 . First. 1984). and second.

with its dominant textual at University of Southampton on June 17. But there is more to it. The following words were painted on its rear: ‘jabo bolei to dnariye acchi’ (I am standing because I intend to go). does indeed speak. literary and otherwise. This article then is not so much an exercise in quoting interviews as audible marks of subaltern subjectivity and intention. CONTRADICTIONS OF MODERNITY Three years ago. recites tradition. while stuck in traffic in Calcutta. I begin the analysis of bus art by placing myself as a reader/viewer. the phrase ‘jabo bolei to dnariye acchi’ is marked by an absurd (causal) inference. 1988). Vehicular art is performative. rather this is an explication of the conditions that make the voice/subjectivity in material culture recognizable to the researcher. then in material culture and performance. it is important to remember that the problem of studying the culture of marginalized groups resides not in the absent voice of the subaltern. I was confronted with vehicular art’s power of communication. the scholar or social scientist. I was alone in the back seat of the car. In other words. At a basic level. A small fan pointed at me was whirring in an unsuccessful attempt to ameliorate the heat of the Calcutta summer. as is the customary practice of many ethnographers.sagepub. It is a possible take on the title of a well-known Bengali poem by Shakti Chattopadhyay 114 Downloaded from mcu. my objective is to attend to both the class lines that do exist in our performance within city space and notice the occasions where they are blurred. If the ethnographer’s habit of citing voices from interviews conducted with builders and artists insinuates a claim to authenticity (‘this is what they think’). consciously delineating the position I occupy in that milieu of popular culture. and deserves closer scrutiny to recognize its significance. The difficulty rests on the part of the authority. even its role as a form of communication. Calcutta’s bus art. and to highlight the class positions of different actors in the city’s public venues.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) in the sense of description/inscription and political participation – I try to render complex the problems of location and recognition in understanding the conditions of subalternity. It is our inability as scholars to hear what is being said that is the crux of the problem (see also Spivak. It made me smile. The fact that you are standing carries no evidence of your intention to go. this analysis does not exhaust the study of bus art. My driver in the front seat was leaning out of the window trying to gauge the depth of the traffic jam. it shouts out warnings. if not in oral and written traces. My viewing of bus art brings me in dialog with the bus artists and operators independent of what they might say about the function and meaning of such art. Voices of the marginalized have always been present in one form or another. conveys messages. I was late for an appointment. My eyes shifted to the bus in front of us.6 Needless to say. 2013 .

I will take you along. even if he might favor the sentiment expressed in the text. Rickshaws. but why should I? I’ll remain in the service of Kolkata’ (De. 2013 . kintu ekhoni jabo na tomadero sange niye jabo ekaki jabo na ashomoye. Shakti’s refusal. but why should I?’ The latter is a meditation on one’s existential crisis. ‘I can go. A quotation from the same poem was used for a similar purpose on the back of a hand-drawn rickshaw in the city: ‘jete pari kintu keno jabo. and surely makes fun of the utter seriousness of Shakti’s line. only some of whom would ‘get it’. The reference to disappearance here is made in the context of a plan by the Calcutta municipality some years ago to prohibit hand-drawn rickshaws in the at University of Southampton on June 17.) The writing on the bus is both a commonplace address to drivers and passengers in other vehicles. hovering on the possibility of leaving or the threat of having to leave. (I will go. ‘why should I?’ is turned into a disavowal that mocks modernization’s interrogative premise. are operated by those who are in an even weaker socio-economic position than the bus operators. but not yet. it throws back at me (a member of the middle class) the well-known line drawn from the reservoir of Bengali intellectual thought in a form that is distorted. stuck in traffic. and at the same time could be interpreted as a brilliant exposition of the contradiction of modernity. In the poem these choices are portrayed as promises that would likely not be kept: jabo. They hardly make subsistence wages and have only a rudimentary understanding of Bengali. I will not leave by myself. The objective was to communicate to a larger public. progress. of the impossibility that resides at the very center of the values we hold dear: mobility.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O . development. and the logic of cause and effect. tongue-in-cheek. Kolkatar shebay robo’. it is useful to mention here.sagepub. untimely. An intentional ‘misquotation’. but it turns out to be a refusal to comply with the suggestion to move on or move out. I can go. This disavowal might read as acquiescence. Shakti’s verse has been appropriated more directly in another instance of vehicular art in the city. The poem is a critique of modernity in its insistence to carve out the power to choose when and with whom to move on. It perhaps did not matter to the owner/artist whether the rickshaw puller could read the verse or understand the literary allusion. A large majority of hand-drawn rickshaw pullers in Calcutta are immigrants to the city.M O B I L I T Y – ‘jete pari kintu keno jabo’. 2002: 105). The unevenness of literary knowledge 115 Downloaded from mcu.

7 At another level they are sufficiently exceptional and errant (and prolific) to have become the subject of prohibition. 2013 . Calcutta) 116 Downloaded from mcu.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) among the population at large does not prevent the use and appropriation of literature. Recently. it is the utter ordinariness and ubiquity of these acts/ signs that make them powerful modes of communication and resistance. Also. hardly ‘political’. Calcutta. occupy. and hawkers – along the main arteries and bus termini (Figures 3 and 4). But my objective is precisely this: to study the minor acts and signs through which a large majority of city residents navigate. make sense of. 1970s. 2004). (Source: Chitrabani. and defy their location in the city.sagepub. as well as the physical spaces occupied by petty businesses – food stalls. There are some communicative aspects of bus art that may be useful in thinking through a whole range of related urban cultural practices such as wall posters and political wall writings. the Calcutta municipality ruled that all public buses be uniformly colored light blue with a FIGURE 3 Food stall on the pavement. these are the very practices that threaten the social and political order of public space (Rajagopal. This is an extremely variegated matrix of the informal economy in which one inhabits and cultivates the unauthorized. auto-mechanic shops. At one level. even frivolous interventions in public space. In the eyes of planners and the state. knowledge of the exact provenance of the quotation is not critical in this scheme of at University of Southampton on June 17. The graphics and writings on buses and the activities associated with these spaces may appear to be minor.

the election commission banned political writing on walls.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O .com at University of Southampton on June 17. 2013 .M O B I L I T Y FIGURE 4 Repair shop and spare parts. (Source: Chitrabani. Specifically. the uniform blue color of the buses is designed to simulate 117 Downloaded from mcu. Calcutta) plain yellow stripe running across the sides. Calcutta. and on the eve of the 2006 assembly elections in West Bengal. 1970s. The prescribed yellow and blue color of privately operated public buses is part of an effort by municipal and governmental bodies in metropolitan cities across the country to make the public sphere and public spaces more ‘legible’ by discouraging visual heterogeneity.sagepub.

It is perhaps ironic that contemporary artists in India have come to use the pictorial and spatial elements of vehicular art as material for their artwork at a time when these practices in reality are becoming obsolete. the new regulations suggest that certain forms of graphic practice have come to be viewed by the state and municipal authorities as ‘deviant’ acts. They are one of the few modes of transportation (along with lorries and auto-rickshaws) that have retained the crafts approach to graphic design. contrasted against the silver aluminum siding. The prohibitions on wall writings and new color regulation for buses would eventually mean a loss of employment for thousands (Biswas. 2006). and the writings on buses became more elaborate and challenging shortly afterwards. dark blue and red.8 For minibuses. those many signs of our backwardness and unmodernity. which has been described as ‘visual pollution’. Such visual streamlining means that the varied colors applied to the front and back of buses – deep green. when in reality the sides are composed of discrete panels nailed onto aluminum strips. Typically these are done by the same artists. This is certainly true for wall writing with its explicitly political objective. There is a direct connection between the art on vehicles and political wall writing (Figure 5). privately operated buses have until recently relied on relaxed government specifications. also. Recently the Regional State Transportation Authority has made the color guidelines for minibuses more stringent.sagepub. the cherry color with yellow border of minibuses had been mandated when first introduced in the early 1970s. This recent drive for visual homogeneity as clarity is of course. from the early1970s. more expensive than the ordinary public buses.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) an integrated body panel. 2013 . government regulations have been strict from the very beginning. It is useful to mention here that as the cheapest bus transportation available in the city. and cheap labor to run at a profit. a wish to erase ‘difference’.9 118 Downloaded from mcu. with the proliferation of privately operated buses and minibuses to meet the paucity in state-operated public transport. 2006). inexpensive finishes. low repair costs. unsettling. incommensurable with civic virtue (Chatterjee. matured in the politically tumultuous environment of the city in the1960s. The conflict goes to the core of the right to representation and the modes through which such representation is concretized. with a desire to enforce stricter conformity. But this is clearly difference that is threatening. The new color guidelines that enforce visual homogeneity discourage artistic flourishes and improvisation. as opposed to computergenerated color schemes and stenciled patterns simulating computerized designs that have become the vogue for the more expensive long-distance coaches. It is perhaps significant that political wall at University of Southampton on June 17. In a wider sense. bright yellow. as well as glitter effects with tinsel decoration – will cease to be part of the artistic repertoire. which began during the anti-colonial nationalist movement.

vehicular streets are supposed to be arteries of movement and not supposed to cater to other uses. but open and semi-open spaces that are subject to certain civic rules and are in turn based on certain assumptions about modern citizenship.sagepub. drivers and bus conductors. It provides places to sleep and eat for workers. (Source: at University of Southampton on June 17. but they are fixtures of public space. sidewalks are supposed to remain free for people to walk and 119 Downloaded from mcu. Calcutta.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O . can be sure to find a place to eat or a repair shop at a short walking distance. most of these activities being not strictly permitted by law. These activities depend on and feed into an informal economy that gives public spaces of Indian cities a distinct form. By public space I mean not simply space outside home. taking the standard automobile as a module of measurement. the truck or bus driver. Twentiethcentury modernist cities were supposed to be governed by the laws of the automobile. Calcutta) THE ARCHITECTURE OF ACCESS Public transportation in Indian cities is more than a means of transporting goods and people from point A to point B. for example. No matter where he stays. as well as assumptions about the form and function of modern cities. In modern planning a distinction is made between vehicular roads and pedestrian paths. This implies that a certain relationship between street shape and width is worked out in advance. 2013 . 1970s.M O B I L I T Y FIGURE 5 Political wall writing. These may be insubstantial and even illegal structures.

even when mediated by the automobile. politicians and the police. Most Indian cities. Of course. the displaced groups reoccupied their space after having negotiated their claim on a political territory with city council members. The difference of this kind of production of space from the production of a strictly modernist vehicular artery is that the human body has not been erased or made insubstantiated in the former.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) not meant to be encumbered by shops and illegal dwellings. The body is very much in evidence. This involves the practice of revealing multiple meanings that these forms potentially harbor. are disobeyed.and 21st-century city is apparently a clash of two differing points of view: one FIGURE 6 Typewriting salesmen using a building ledge. until very recently at least. (Source: Chitrabani. disregarded or illegally augmented on a regular basis. One could argue that what we see in the streets of the late 20th. yet. periodic drives to clear streets and sidewalks from ‘encroachment’ are conducted by municipal authorities. It is an old technique of producing space as an extension of the self. 2013 . In other words. each is supposed to carry only one set of predetermined meaning. The basic claim to space is defined by one’s body and then articulated by the placement of artifacts that work as an extension to the body.sagepub. are officially planned to cater to such modernist visions of economy and efficiency. street ledge and even the wall along the edge – is a common occurrence in these cities (Figure 6). sidewalks. however. Calcutta. Calcutta) 120 Downloaded from mcu. in fact. Multiple use of public space along vehicular arteries – at University of Southampton on June 17. 1970s. Such planning intentions.

this framing is analytically helpful for understanding with some clarity the effort of the Calcutta municipality to clear streets of unauthorized occupation and the strategies of pavement dwellers and hawkers for reclaiming this public space. While these uses are precipitated by need. Road to the north.sagepub.T. PRODUCTION The buses are not manufactured in an assembly line. The subaltern response to the bourgeois conception of the city is to turn it around. It is a veritable cottage industry. the bodywork being done under contract for the bus owners. 2013 . and make it its at University of Southampton on June 17.10 The front of the lot is 121 Downloaded from mcu. Some of the oldest and most established workshops are in the neighborhoods of Chetla and Bondel Road.M O B I L I T Y belonging to the upper-middle class. 2004). and not always by choice. or a relationship of definer and defined. retail shops and residences. are in the present suburbs. Given that even small workshops occupy considerable space. as well as in Dunlop and along B. to the subaltern it is primarily a place of habitation. located in Shilpara. a locus of creativity. These choices make the relation between the subaltern and the elite middle class not simply a matter of conflict. most of the workshops. and the other belonging to the urban subaltern who is responding to the frame set by the bourgeois vision of the city (Rajagopal. From the ‘garage’ where it is assembled. infiltrate the frame. Hanspukur. bus termini (in most cases this just happens to be the street space or a patch of open ground at the end of the bus route). to bus stops. and the food stalls and workers’ unions adjoining the bus terminus. The subaltern response to bourgeois modernity involves a hijacking of bourgeois values and inter-spacing these with ideas that produce a fabric of modernity and the political that calls us to rethink the popular. what interests me are the decisions made to make these needs bearable.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O . used to be part of the city’s suburbs. They are handcrafted in hundreds of small workshops in the suburbs of Calcutta and rural Bengal. they constitute a network of unauthorized or semi-authorized spatial insertions along a planned artery that is essential for providing transportation services in the city. The performative aspect of vehicular art becomes more interesting if we recognize the various scales and kinds of spaces it potentially links. until the early 20th century. repair shops. armed with its bourgeois consciousness. which. almost pleasurable. Ampara and other localities on and off Diamond Harbor Road on the south. Albeit simplistic. Individual practices of contracting vary widely depending on the volume of business and the capacity of the garage. A small workshop such as ‘Modern Body Builder’ (Figure 7) in Shilpara on Diamond Harbor Road consists of a rectangular patch of dirt covering an area of about 5 katha situated in a dense urban fabric of small businesses. referred to as ‘garages’. but one of a more complex engagement. To the upper-middle-class resident the street is primarily a passage.

As the locality has undergone rapid urbanization in the last two decades. and land values have skyrocketed. The type of engine is specified by the State Transport Authority. at University of Southampton on June 17. Established in 1980. and ironwork. and ceiling height. Two small sheds with bamboo mat walls function as office and storeroom at the back of the lot (Figure 8). spacing between seats. The production involves a small number of mechanics and artisans skilled in wood. A ribbed 122 Downloaded from mcu. Calcutta. which is then finished with woodwork and aluminum sheets. one of whom. 2007. the workshop is owned by two brothers. The only mass-produced components – the engine and chassis – are brought to the workshop site to commence work. electrical. as are the number of seats. Shilpara. In hot weather. Ponds on either side of the site are reminders that these areas were agricultural and marshland not so long ago. there is considerable market pressure on small proprietors and businesses in the area.sagepub.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) FIGURE 7 Entrance to the garage of Modern Body Builder. fabric awnings are stretched over part of the site for protection from sun and rain (Figure 9). aluminum. popularly known as ‘mejda’ in the locality. this family-owned lot became the prime resource for starting a business. noted that not being able to pursue education beyond high school. rented out to another motor repair shop while the back of the lot touches a residential property.11 An iron frame is mounted on the chassis. 2013 .

FIGURE 9 Work space in the garage under an awning. The paintwork and artwork are done by different craftsmen. the artist often earning four times more than the painter. the doors are never closed during operation. Even in those that have door leaves. Minor repairs are done as patchwork. a 123 Downloaded from mcu. 2007. making repairs more cost effective than having to replace an entire side panel of the vehicle. Typically.sagepub. a primary coat of colored paint is sprayed on the wooden window frames to act as a sealant. In contrast to minibuses which have front-facing seats. work with minimal resources – 4 or 5 colors in small earthenware pots or tin cans. While the craftsmen aim at producing a neat assemblage of parts.M O B I L I T Y FIGURE 8 Rear of the garage with office in the background. suggesting that the door is not to be closed. 2013 . there is no effort to hide the seams. most of the narrow backless seats being set along the edges facing the center of the bus thus creating a spatial configuration in which one is obliged to be ‘face to face’ with others (Figure 11). The artists.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O . and then the graphic designs are hand painted from a rudimentary set of primary colors. the interior of the larger buses are organized to maximize standing room. there are no panels on the door. The driver’s compartment is completely isolated from the passenger space. owners and customers. 2007. The aluminum sheeting comes in narrow panels that are nailed in with aluminum strips. After the body of the bus is assembled. Calcutta. typically male. to streamline the different components into an integrated whole (Figure 10). Calcutta. wood platform constitutes the floor of the at University of Southampton on June 17.

com at University of Southampton on June 17. Calcutta. (‘What is your fear. Written on the rear panel behind the bus conductors: ‘Bhoy kire pagol. Note the patchwork repair to the left. 2003. I am here’). Calcutta.sagepub. 2003. crazy one. F I G U R E 11 Detail of aluminum siding on a bus. 2013 . 124 Downloaded from mcu.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) F I G U R E 1 0 Interior of bus. ami to acchi’.

Many bus drivers and conductors are in the habit of furnishing the images daily with garlands of fresh flowers. images of gods and goddesses. and religious monuments such as the Golden Temple at Amritsar. 13. Unlike buses and trucks in much of the subcontinent (particularly trucks in Pakistan and India. Like wall writings that are meant to be erased after a brief period. Texts on the sides of the bus usually spell out the name of loved ones or hail gods and 125 Downloaded from mcu. natural landscapes. these Calcutta buses are not fabulously and laboriously painted. the doors of the driver’s cabin. The most common image is a masklike ‘monster’ face: an apotropaic image. What makes them interesting is the relation between words and image (Figures 12. The key locations for graphics are the rear end. 14 and 15). and some rags.M O B I L I T Y couple of brushes. and rickshaws in Bangladesh). and the top rim of the interior. Most common are framed chromolithographs or three-dimensional representations of gods and goddesses. After the bus is delivered to the owner. and topical images such as world cup soccer. and the Kaaba festooned with tinsel decorations. The drawing technique used on the buses reveals a certain virtuosity of quick brush strokes.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O .com at University of Southampton on June 17. or the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The artisans who do the body and art. however. cautionary notes. saints. and patriotic as well as romantic statements. These are juxtaposed next to quotations from poems and religious philosophy. the sign and object compel you to see.sagepub. Every couple of years the drawings and writings are painted over. figures that ward off the evil eye. the center of the long sides. but suggest that you look away: dekhbi aar jwalbi. and may be genealogically traced back to pat paintings12 and the decorative techniques employed in a whole range of everyday material artifacts from earthen pottery to tin trunks that have a long history going back to the 19th century. and sandalwood paste. additional decorative and religious artifacts are mounted on the interior of the bus (particularly the front top panel at the head of the bus) and in the bus-driver’s cabin. often sign their work. it is meant to ward off the evil eye. The design motifs consist of floral patterns. 2013 . Kali Temple at Tarakeswar. providing the contact address and phone number. luchir moto phulbi (‘you’ll burn with envy and puff up like fried bread’)! It is clear that artists are working from a common repertoire. mandatory messages prescribed by the State Transport Authority. The more elaborate texts are either painted on the rear of the bus. Often accompanied by written warnings against the jealous gaze – ‘buri nazar wale tera muh kala’ (‘shame on you who gives the evil eye’) – or with old shoes or brooms hanging from the rear bumper. vehicular art is ephemeral. incense. but they are also innovating in line with contemporary demands and political events (‘Remember Kargil!’ was a common slogan during the Kashmir crisis of the late 1990s). or above the ceiling trim in the interior.

‘save green. often misspelt (‘DENGER’!). Mudguards with river landscape and coconut palms. where will you go?’). ‘Blow horn’. ‘sakkharatar kaje jog din’ (‘join the drive for literacy’). A fair amount of profanity (‘buri najarer mukhe lathi’ – mixing languages and metaphors – ‘a kick in the face of the evil eye’) is accommodated with refined literary language (‘sima’r majhe ashim tumi bajao apon sur’. even among 126 Downloaded from mcu. the Indian flag (‘India is great’) and ‘Happy New Year 2003’. A delicately painted ‘Danger’ sign. ‘Keep safe distance’. they have become part of a common language. Rabindranath Tagore). The elaborate texts may be a one-liner. variously arrayed on the backspace. Calcutta. or up to four lines in length. from the utterly banal (‘Don’t kiss my tail’) to the philosophically profound (‘ore pagol jabi kothay?’ ventriloquizing Ramkrishna Paramhansa: ‘You crazy one. Intentionally terse. ‘No smoking’.13 Notifications are minimal: ‘Donate blood’. Thematically they range from the frivolous to the maudlin. (‘Your envy is my reward’). some texts that are recommended by the State Transport Authority and routinely employed by the owners and artists: ‘Drive safely’. There are. you play your own tune’.com at University of Southampton on June 17. however. goddesses. and ‘My India is great’ remain the most common inscriptions on buses.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) F I G U R E 1 2 Rear of bus: ‘Tomar hingsha amar prashad’. ‘boundless within bounds. These texts differ from both bumper stickers (mass produced personal opinion). ‘Danger’. and advertisements (selling a product or service). 2003. 2013 .sagepub. be green’.

sagepub. Calcutta. Apotropaic face on the mudguards. Calcutta. (‘Life is more precious than time’). 127 Downloaded from mcu. The boy in the foreground tends a food stall at the bus terminus. 2013 . 2003.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O . F I G U R E 1 4 Rear of bus: ‘Shomoyer cheye jibaner mulya anek beshi’. at University of Southampton on June 17.M O B I L I T Y FIGURE 13 Rear of bus: ‘Sthapila amare bidhi prithir lalate’. (‘God placed me on the crown of the world’).

and passage between the country and the city. Notices inside the bus suggest that one is obliged to vacate seats reserved for women. they shout out warnings.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) FIGURE 15 Rear of bus: ‘Traffic ayin mene chalun’ (‘Obey traffic rules’). 2003. pedestrians.sagepub. Often displayed in more than one language. profanity and pledges. 2013 . 2002). the founder of Ramkrishna Mission: ‘Arise. Calcutta. advice. Disparate notes placed next to each other in a continuous sequence often produce humorous effects: ‘Beware of pickpockets’ – ‘God is Everywhere’ (De. They are split between advocating the value of time. bus conductors. a ‘bon voyage’ sign (‘subho jatra’) with auspicious symbols. A significantly large number of texts comment on the importance attributed to mobility in modern capitalism: efficient management of time. On the bumper: ‘Jor ka jhatka dhire se laage’ (‘The fast/hard hit sinks in slowly’). hard work. with inserted ‘DENGER’ sign. quick transportation. punctuality. awake. those with little or no knowledge of English. and those in other vehicles in the busy. loud city. The number of seats allocated for this purpose clearly suggests the restricted place of women and the disabled as minorities in public space. and the at University of Southampton on June 17. the unquestioning desire for the better. Underneath the apotropaic shoe. quest for upward social mobility. contributing to the multi-sensory engagement between passengers. children. and efficiency (favorites are quotations from Swami Vivekananda. and serving as critiques of these same values. Many are direct critiques of the state ideology that 128 Downloaded from mcu. and richer (‘Life is more precious than time’). faster. and stop not till the goal is reached’).

The more elaborate texts are. Muhammad Iqbal – and a smattering of English verse and lyrics.’ The uniqueness and the significance of this plebeian artwork is that it borrows equally from a craft tradition (both rural and urban) and a bourgeois literary tradition. 1993). from one vision to another. with sometimes just that much distortion to evince a response of shock or smile. Vehicular art speaks both to its own constituency. and infuses them with new images and events to create a realm of popular at University of Southampton on June 17.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O .M O B I L I T Y glorify the nation: ‘100’er madhye 99 beiman. sharing a common vocabulary. The latter is an emblem of a philosophical praxis fashioned from the everyday speech of the Bengali peasantry.14 Two primary sources are Rabindranath’s poetry and the sayings of the 19thcentury Bengali saint Ramkrishna Paramhansa. Rabindranath’s poetry was nurtured within the confines of one of the wealthiest families in Calcutta. one that is also radically opposed to western rationalism. In how many ways could you interpret the juxtaposition of Rabindranath Tagore’s verse next to an image intended to deter the evil eye? The elite middle-class philosophy of life now comes back to the middle class in unexpected ways. advocating ways of negotiating and dwelling in modernity. Dwijendralal Roy. illiterate man from rural Bengal. There is some element of irony in this return. 2005). who ceaselessly impressed upon his middle-class followers the need for detachment from worldly desires. tabu amar bharat mahan?’ (‘99 out of 100 are betrayers. and yet my India is great?’) is a response to the mandated and popular slogan propagated since the 1975 emergency: ‘My India is Great. and to the middle class. Vehicular art as popular culture allows us to think of mobility in more nuanced ways. given that the crafting of Bengali modern literature in the 19th century was itself a process of the elites hijacking the speech culture of the Bengali peasantry (Chattopadhyay. The former is the hallmark of Bengali high literature with its refined language and gesture towards a universal humanism. 2013 . fragments of poetry or philosophy removed from its original context and placed in a new context.sagepub. not just as upward mobility. such as by William Shakespeare and John Keats. Kazi Nazrul Islam. Jibanananda Das. Ramkrishna was a poor. Humor (‘sly civility’) is the prevailing mode of communication. but also as passage from one cultural space to another. As quotations. they are meant to do a different work than that envisioned in the original. And yet they register a critical distance. It consists of a good deal of Bengali and Urdu poetry – Rabindranath Tagore. implying a closing of distance. These literary and religious practices as responses to British colonialism speak of two different ways that the Bengali middle classes made themselves at home in the colonial city. after all. 129 Downloaded from mcu. available only to those who read the language and understand its nuances. from one historical moment to another. and from the bondage of service (chakri) in the colonial economy (Chatterjee. Improvisation is the means.

are given the same weight. one noted. Two imperatives. ‘Gate theke jhuliben na’ (‘don’t hang from the doors’) remains an empty prohibition when passengers ‘hang on’ to the bars of the bus door during rush hours. which is separated by a blank space from the inscription ‘Mera Bharat Mahan’ (‘My India is Great’) accompanied by the Indian tri-color. challenging the notions of private and public 130 Downloaded from mcu. but because they have to. has much to do with the fact that state agencies are seen as incorrigibly corrupt. the vacuous and the meaningful. One could contemplate what precisely is the relation between the commonplace patriotism signaled by ‘My India is Great’ and the specificity of the demand or desire for an end to the Kashmir (or Afghanistan) conflict. noted: ‘How is painting a flag on a bus any less disrespectful?’ given the dirt and abuse the buses are liable to receive on their daily passage through the city. maliker acche anek dena’ (‘don’t steal. the owner has lots of debt’). licenses and site inspections invariably involve bribes. one of those mandatory texts. as they are made to play off other texts and images invite closer examination. Underneath it is a panel depicting tents amid a hillscape framed by soldiers with guns. albeit in different tongues. the warning ‘obey traffic rules’ in Bengali is split by the following text ‘churi korona sona. referring to the war in Kashmir (or alternatively. followed by the license plate. The juxtaposition of the contents of the two central panels might be read as a happenstance or a suggestion of equivalence between the state propaganda and the private advertisement. to the war in Afghanistan). referring to a public controversy over disrespect shown to the national flag during a cricket match in 2007. At the bottom of the panel. More than one builder pointed out the well-known fact that all aspects and levels of the transport business are caught up in a shadowy para-legal domain in which contracts. Right next to it is the name and address of the builder: Matri Builders. The play between the serious and the jocular. not because they prefer to. 2013 . The scorn expressed among the builders and artists and often articulated or implied in the art. continues even further. precious. In this context. For example. The owner of Modern Body Builder. in one of the buses the four top panels on the rear are used to provide four distinct sets of information (Figure 16). state demands must be met but not accorded the respect of legitimacy.sagepub.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) From my conversation with the painters and builders it was obvious that a distinct scorn is reserved for the state-regulated warnings and slogans. the delineation of the state-mandated messages. From their point of at University of Southampton on June 17. the observance of traffic rules and the payment of one’s fare. given the inadequacy of public transport. in terms of both their ubiquity and emptiness: the speed limit of 40 km/hr. The picture is overlaid by two text segments on the top left and top right: ‘juddho noy’ (‘no war’) and ‘shanti chai’ (‘peace now’). only works as an exception to the rule. But what if they are read in relation to each other? The first panel contains a ‘STOP’ warning.

Language. During rebellions. 1983: 39). On top is inscribed ‘Good Luck!’ LANGUAGE. Guha has argued that subaltern insurgency in India ‘was a massive and systematic violation of the words. as we learnt from the works of LéviStrauss. Drawing upon Gramsci’s theoretical insight and a vast anthropological literature. 2003. Bourdieu and others. is a means of organizing social relations and locating people in subordinate positions. the typical monster face or shoe that is meant to ward off the evil eye is substituted with naked male figures urinating.sagepub.M O B I L I T Y FIGURE 16 Rear of bus. Calcutta. 2013 . subalterns inversed the codes of 131 Downloaded from mcu. Kristeva. space: on the mudguards at the at University of Southampton on June 17. AND SUBALTERNITY In looking for a vocabulary to describe Calcutta’s vehicular art I am struck by its spatial logic. Barthes. LEGIBILITY. gestures and symbols which has the relations of power in colonial society as their significata’ (Guha.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O .

India. The switch from the subaltern to the popular rests on the problem of recognition – of recognizing insurgency as insurgency. sudden and short-lived. In its initial stages. Studying cultural resistance through very different material and from another point of view. however. The moment they burst into the colonial sign system. heedless of who heard them. at first at University of Southampton on June 17. but chose to read and represent it as crime or deviance. and provides insight for explaining the work done by vehicular art (Hebdige.sagepub. 2003 [1979]). in the radical upturning of the legible marks of social order.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) power and authority imposed upon them by the elites. 1983: 39) The switching of the codes of power – on and off – was. as heightened and systematic violence. the altered figure of violence’ (Guha. if not insolent. is useful here. that the colonial authorities indeed failed to read insurgency as such. State authorities refused ‘to acknowledge. Hebdige’s study of subculture echoes some of the traits that Guha discerned in his analysis of subaltern insurgency. at least. It was only when the rebel peasants could be apprehended within the discursive practices of colonial law and the colonial archive they became political subjects. 2013 . Could we translate this relation between the subaltern and the popular to everyday life by seeing the crisis not as sudden spectacular rupture but as woven into daily transactions as small disjointed events? How might Guha’s formulation help us in understanding cultural processes that do not conform to recognizable forms of revolutionary practice? Guha’s argument. became legible as part of a larger political whole. It was also the moment that marked their entry into the domain of the popular. recalling the atmosphere on the eve of the Sepoy Mutiny: The sepoys on duty at this station had thrown off their customary quiet and respectful behavior. they were representable. Hebdige argues that subcultural styles uproot an object in which its meaning has been naturalized and places it in another 132 Downloaded from mcu. The mechanisms of the state could not comprehend the peasant as having a political consciousness that would lead to rebellion. The subaltern was transformed into a political force that had to be reckoned with during that brief period of insurgency. 1983: 81). scarcely deigning to move to one side for a passing carriage. and subaltern insurgency took exceptional forms. they paraded the public roads in parties. the subaltern gelled into the popular in moments of extreme crisis. In Guha’s study then. the action of a small group of malefactors misleading a submissive peasantry. (Guha. Guha cites a British resident of Saharanpur. and had become forward. the subaltern who was defined by his or her lack of identity. and singing at the highest pitch of their unmelodious voices. momentarily gained the attributes of the popular. fathomed within the logic of representation. insurgency was understood as crime.

The means in the former are subtle and tame in comparison to the latter. He characterizes the stylistic departures as ‘meticulously executed studies in alienation’ (Hebdige. 2003 [1979]: 121. work. [A]lthough the punks referred continually to the realities of school. and tie were stripped of their original connotations – efficiency. Examples include safety pins ‘taken out of their domestic utility context and worn as gruesome ornaments through the cheek. Event/contingency rules over structure/necessity. (Hebdige. . ambition. be grounded. . a history – it refused to make sense. to sanctify the communication beyond the contingent. disturbance. punk style has made a decisive break not only with the parent culture but with its own location in experience. But is it simply a matter of degree or is it a different kind of work? Let us think about the process of putting together the work/style and the difficulties in reading this process. 1966: 22). disembodied. It is also less amenable to appropriation by a culture of conspicuous consumption. 2003 [1979]:104–5). because the class location of the owners and artists within capitalism has a very different history. 2003 [1979]: 105). and valued in their own right’ (Hebdige. . ‘metal combs honed to a razor-like sharpness [that] turned narcissism into an offensive weapon’. entropy . a home. the dislocation and modification involved in punk style suggest a process that involves not merely a disruption of syntax. and there is a self-conscious mockery expressed as humor in the communication.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O . and ‘the conventional insignia of the business world – the suit. bricolage involved creating structures out of events or from the remains of events – ‘fossilized evidence of the history of an individual or a society’ (LeviStrauss. ‘read back’ to its origins .sagepub. Vehicular art in Calcutta is not a study in alienation in the same sense as punk. Punk 133 Downloaded from mcu. these references only made sense at one remove: they were passed through the fractured circuitry of punk style and re-presented as ‘noise’. According to Lévi-Strauss. Despite conversing in objectness. decontextualized’: Bereft of the necessary details – a name. a refusal to take itself seriously. objects to be fondled. 2013 . collar. 2003 [1979]: 107). collage and ready-mades’ – that attempt to disturb the syntax of everyday life and objects (Hebdige. and class. But as Hebdige points out. punk ‘was abstract. that does not explain the real import of punk as style.M O B I L I T Y context where it produces a shock effect. and authority – and transformed into empty fetishes. . but a spatial disruption of a different at University of Southampton on June 17. He compares the aesthetic strategy with that of dada and surrealism – ‘dream work. ear or lip’. Hebdige compares the process of improvisation involved in subculture to that of a bricoleur who ‘relocates the significant object in a different position within that discourse’ or places the object ‘within an overall different total ensemble’ to produce a new discourse. Emphasis mine) In other words. family. compliance.

Bagh’ (the bus route) made the mandatory message completely trivial. It has uncanny similarity with bricolage in that it treats words and concepts as if they are objects that may be cut and pasted and juxtaposed against a range of other heterogeneous images. and riding’ and always used ‘with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding. In the process of creating a structure of meaning it highlights the blank spaces between the words as at University of Southampton on June 17. shooting. utterly contingent. Vehicular art would not easily conform to Lévi-Strauss’s notion of bricolage as a ‘science of the concrete’. 1966: 29). The possibilities are not infinite. to hunting. And one could argue that the artist’s ‘universe of instruments’ is not closed. showing up its ridiculous claim. However. increasing productivity. Consider this working of space at the rear of a bus.D.D. a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid obstacle’ (Levi-Strauss. This art of putting together words and signs. opening up a whole range of other possibilities. however. 134 Downloaded from mcu. 2013 . 1966: 16). ‘The Nation is on the Move’ was prescribed by the state authorities to suggest that suspension of civil liberties was actually lifting the nation out of stagnation. and relies on uncertainties and deflections to create a state of play. its location beneath the usual ‘STOP’ warning and above the sign ‘From Jadavpur to B.B. it deals with both objects and concepts. facilitating progress. Incidentally. Lévi-Strauss claimed that too much contingency would destroy the sense of a work as art (Lévi-Strauss. The original sense of the verb bricoler. Bagh PLEASE [license plate] The slogan.sagepub.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) may be thought of as the play of contingencies in extremis that destroys any semblance of fixed reference and creates the dislocation from experience.B. While it is an art of ‘making do’. creates structures only through a proliferation of events. The structure gets buried or hidden in the multiplication of contingencies. perhaps has more resonance here than the way the term bricolage has been adapted in anthropology and cultural history. during the emergency of the mid 1970s: STOP! The Nation is on the Move [image] From Jadavpur HORN to B. objects or signs. ‘applied to ball games and billiards. however. The spatial arrangement of vehicular art does not depend on ‘fitting in’ odd pieces (either through semblance or jagged contrast). This reading is. but it assumes.

and differences in a subtle. culturally. economically. although twodimensional. As I have tried to explain in this article. The spatial model enables us to comprehend a unique logic of an assemblage of fragmentary elements in space through which subaltern groups make room for themselves within a spatial structure that is not conducive to their existence. perhaps. CONCLUSION Vehicular art offers insights into a number of aspects of spatial culture that are critical to our understanding of cities such as Calcutta.Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O . largely non-confrontational. as I did. is what we may learn by attending to the spatial logic of marginality itself from these painted buses. and the middle classes.sagepub. between the formal and informal economy.M O B I L I T Y Such a spatial organization that appears unstructured and incoherent. between the elite and the subaltern. First. This is the basis of a popular culture that has a contested relationship with civil society and public space produced by or in accordance with civil society. is mirrored across a wider domain of everyday practice for subaltern groups in the city. The spatial logic of marginality in Calcutta in the second half of the 20th century was a product of a series of compromises between city at University of Southampton on June 17. or when reading a verse on another vehicle when stuck in traffic. Once such channels are obliterated (as the civic authorities seem to be moving in that direction by cleaning up nonconforming visual culture from the city’s public spaces). of having to rely on minimal material resources. of finding ‘devious’ means to access the dominant political structure. class conflict may appear in more obvious forms. when looking at a funny image/text from within the claustrophobic confines of a crowded bus. and relies on multiple interpretations of space. It bears traces of a long history of dislocation. The art. is understood to operate in a speech culture where the warning signs mimic that of a loud shout – ‘Danger!’ ‘Stop’ – or of an incitement to create noise: ‘Blow Horn!’ Text and image attain their efficacy when set afloat in the multi-sensory public space of the city – the loud verbal exchanges between bus conductors and passengers. the poor. vehicular art on privately operated public buses constitutes one way by which the marginalized populations of the city have created their own space in the city – physically. It is only when it is read through a particular alignment of contingencies that one reads the potential of this communication as resistance. ideals. and even pleasurable manner. The spatial logic of marginality might also allow us to think of space and infrastructure beyond what modernist 135 Downloaded from mcu. 2013 . one might argue that vehicular art as a mode of communication expresses social relations. Here we have a form of everyday resistance that enables us to think of the relation between elites and subalterns in complicated spatial terms. What is more important.

Uppsala. 2. their economic struggles and political mobilization. and then at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study. The great strides made in the mid-1980s to understand urban marginality. Useful works are De (2002). 3. rejected their model of a labor union and formed their own cooperative to oversee collective bargaining as well as individual socio-economic needs of its members. see Ghosh (2006). 4.sagepub. And last but not least. Acknowledgements I thank Subhendu Dasgupta and Siddhartha Mukhopadhyay for putting me in touch with bus-operators’ cooperatives. Barbro Klein. and to the members of the Naktala Bus Drivers’ Cooperative for telling me about working in the buses. They claimed that membership is not determined by affiliation to political parties. one may argue that the class/caste solidarity in the popular culture of 19th-century Calcutta has been overestimated. 2013 . This article was first read at the Subaltern-Popular Workshop in Santa at University of Southampton on June 17. I am grateful to the bus artists. others have broken off from CITU.J o u r n a l o f M AT E R I A L C U LT U R E 1 4 ( 1 ) planning would allow. Castells was also signalling the spatial effects of what Chakrabarty (2000) more recently and more articulately has characterized as History 2 of capital. which is based on a large collection of texts on vehicles across India. and operators who took the time to talk to me. 5. and Sikdar (2002). 136 Downloaded from mcu. Also. For some idea of the various conflicting constituencies that contributed to this 19th-century popular culture. Notes 1. all photographs are by the author. though it raised the critical point that if we have to understand urban social movements we need to move beyond the party as the channel through which resistance is mobilized. established in 1990. has also expanded beyond its original membership of bus drivers and conductors to include all kinds of casual laborers who do not have any union to protect their interests and survival in the city. Perhaps this problem is inherent in the study of popular culture per se. The Cooperative. and allude to the various possibilities of (mis)reading inherent in vehicular art. and Gautam Bhadra for conversation on the subject. Both authors focus on the texts. the spatial model might allow us to imagine the problem of political society in terms of a new conception of infrastructure. and Julianne Gavino for locating readings for me. I thank the participants at these venues for their views and encouragement. Photocredit: Unless the source is cited. exemplified by the work of Castells could not proceed beyond dependency theory. owners. In this context see Ananya Roy’s argument in City Requiem (2003). literally as those structures that remain ‘below’ (infra) the radar of the state and generate conditions that keep political consciousness on the ground alive. thanks to Keya Dasgupta. The great majority of studies on popular culture in India have concerned film and media. and especially to the owners of Modern Body Builder for giving me the details of contracting work and their views of the texts on these buses. For example. rather than the relation between image and text. While some remain with the Communist party’s labor union (CITU). The members of the Naktala Minibus Driver’s Cooperative I interviewed have broken off from CITU and formed their own organization.

(Rabindranath Tagore) Ei dharanir dhulimakha shab ashohay santan: the helpless dust-laden children of the earth. Krishna bolo sange cholo: take Krishna’s name and come with me.sagepub. 7. or pagal in Hindi. 11. producing a wide range of texts that are most compelling. 8. At present the state mandates the use of Mahindra & Mahindra engines for all privately owned public buses in West Bengal. There are hundreds of these texts on buses. you think Mother belongs only to you? (the word pagol in Bengali. and Mallikarjun Katakol. nothing is more important than the human being. maliker ache anek dena’ (‘don’t steal. (Ramakrishna Paramansha) Badle jao. 137 Downloaded from mcu. 2013 . even if you have no need for it.M O B I L I T Y 6. (Jibananda Das) Sare jahan se accha. none is greater. jal chhara shabyi kena’ (‘precious. At present. I suddenly stall startled in the midst of change and extend my reach to life. Assisted Readymades: Alternative Solutions (2003–4). except for the water everything else had to be bought). Ore pagol ma ki tor ekar?: you crazy one. Hindustan hamara: better than the world is my Hindustan. the owner has lots of debts’). Even those that suggest that you pay your bus fare. They are included in Sambrani (2005). 12. badle jao/badle jete jete/ami thamke dnarayi jibone hath pete: change amid change. Auto Art Series (1995–6).Chattopadhyay: T H E A R T O F A U T O . 1990) have written eloquently about forms of everyday resistance. (Muhammad Iqbal) Awake. why waste words. Pat are scroll paintings. (Kazi Nazrul Islam) Gahi samyer gaan/manusher cheye boro kichhu noy/nahe kichhu mayhiyan: I sing the song of equality. 13. Tomay kichhu debo bole chay je amar mon/naiba tomar thaklo proyojon: I wish to give you something. An Epic (2000–4). (John Keats) Jato mat tato path: there are as many ways as there are beliefs. Bujechhi amar nishar swapan hoyechhe bhor: I recognize that my night’s dream has turned into dawn. One katha (sometimes spelt cottah) is equivalent to 80 yd2. is used as a term of endearment and connotes one’s disregard for common worldliness). arise. See ‘Infrastructure’ in Swati Chattopadhyay Unlearning the City (forthcoming) for more information on my conversation with members of the bus operators’ cooperative about their political mobilization. typically depicting a narrative. (Kazi Nazrul Islam) Kolakata ekdin kollolini tillotwama hobe: Calcutta will one day become the perfectly exquisite and murmuring beauty. Scott (1985. Several scholars including Michel de Certeau (1988) and James C. at University of Southampton on June 17. 10. Archana Hande. 14. (Rabindranath Tagore). Kaushik Mukhopadhyay. the original reads: where the head is held high). and stop not till your goal is reached. and alternatively: ‘churi korona sona. (Rabindranath Tagore) Chitto jetha bhoy sunyo uchho setha shir: where the mind is without fear there the head is held high (a slight modification of Rabindranath Tagore’s verse. 9. (Swami Vivekananda) What’s in a name? (William Shakespeare) A thing of beauty is a joy for ever. literally meaning mad/crazy. the texts on auto-rickshaws have taken up the graphic ‘slack’ from privately operated buses. do so indirectly: ‘bolle pare hobe sona. For example. Following is a sample: Amar ei path chalatei ananda: my pleasure is in taking the road.

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