The themes used to give the taxis a makeover convey the essence of Mumbai Image Credit: Niqita Gupta/Taxi Fabric

Virender Singh has been driving his yellow-and-black Fiat taxi on Mumbai streets for years. But following a colourful intervention recently, business is brisk, and rather joyful. Passengers flag his taxi down not only for a ride but also to take selfies and make videos — thanks to the kitschy makeover of his vehicle’s interiors. Based on a Bollywood theme, Singh’s taxi seats were designed to showcase famous Hindi movie characters by Taxi Fabric, a Mumbai-based art collective.

Founded in April last year by 28-year-old graphic designer Sanket Avlani, the Taxi Fabric project aims to be a platform for designers to enhance experiences through design. Taxi seats are turned into canvases to create an outlet for designers to channel their talent as well as to enhance the everyday travel experience of thousands of commuters.

Singh’s taxi, for instance, was transformed with colourful seat covers on the theme The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful with dialogues and comic strip imagery of Bollywood heroes, heroines and villains. Vying for passengers’ attention in Singh’s taxi are mugshots of famous characters Gabbar, Thakur and Basanti from the film “Sholay” along with Mogambo from “Mr India” and Chachi from “Chachi 420”.

“Taxis in Mumbai are not only the most convenient form of transport but are also iconic to the city’s culture. Although drivers do make attempts to accessorise their taxis, they give very little thought to the fabric, which often ends up being dull and forgettable. We wanted to give these taxis a makeover that would also help unleash an artist’s creativity,” says Avlani, also the curator for Taxi Fabric.

Avlani, a Mumbai resident and a frequent taxi user, started documenting various fabrics used in them as an experimental project in 2013. A year later, while working as a designer in London based advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, he shared his project ideas with a group of friends, who believed in his plan to turn the initiative into a reality.

Along with creative producer Mahak Malik and writers Girish Narayandass and Nathalie Gordon, Avlani launched Taxi Fabric. They researched fabrics, located tailors, printers and labourers. Initially they created upholstery for four taxis and then decided to start a crowdfunding campaign to help design several other taxis. “The cost for designing seat covers that extend from the ceiling, seats and doors of one taxi is between Rs30,000 (Dh1,641) and Rs40,000. Through our crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.com we were able to generate £11,000 (Dh57,242), including £2,000 from Wieden+Kennedy to fund 30 cabs,” says Avlani, who returned to India to concentrate on his project last July.

A year later, Taxi Fabric has been able to achieve what they set out to. Besides an overwhelming response from designers, taxi drivers and commuters, the big moment for the team came when one of their taxis was featured in British rock band Cold Play’s recent India-inspired song “Hymn for the Weekend”. The success of the project can be further gauged from the long waiting list of more than 300 taxi drivers who have approached Avlani’s team for a makeover.

“The best part about the project is that it works in favour of both the designer and the taxi driver. For designers it is a medium to showcase their talent to a wide number of people and for the drivers it’s a free makeover,” says Avlani. The taxis he designed at first were the ones in Dadar, the area he stayed in. Later through word of mouth taxi drivers from other areas started contacting Avlani for the makeover.

Designers and illustrators too have been queuing up with their portfolios and design concepts, eager to be part of this interesting initiative. Each taxi is fitted with an identity label with information about the designer behind the Taxi Fabric, the story of the design and also how to get in touch with them for collaborations or commissions.

The common thread running across all designs notably is the bustling and vibrant Mumbai city. From Bollywood, the soul of Mumbai, to the dabbawallas who ferry lunchboxes across the city to the famous Juhu beach, Taxi Fabric designers have taken inspiration from well-known symbols and icons that represent the city.

When graphic designer Shweta Malhotra decided to be part of the Taxi Fabric, she chose Juhu chowpatty (beach) as her muse. The result was a design replete with multi-coloured ice lollies and ice lolly flavour bottles, monkey-shaped balloons and circular pinwheels set against a vivid pink and soothing green background. “I have fond childhood memories of days spent at Juhu Chowpatty eating pav bhaji, savouring ice creams, playing with stray dogs and watching the sunset. I chose the elements that I was most nostalgic about and translated them into a design for Taxi Fabric. The bright colours represent the vibe and chaos of Juhu beach,” says Malhotra.

For illustrator Chithkala Ramesh the Mumbai monsoon became the backdrop of her design. “Even in a fast-paced city such as Mumbai everything comes to a standstill during the monsoon months. I could be anywhere yet every drop of rain takes me back to Mumbai,” says Ramesh. Her creation, titled “Pitter Patter”, is designed in hues of blue, black and yellow with sketches of Mumbai residents with large umbrellas wading through the streets.

Some Taxi Fabric creations are fuelled by conversations between designers and drivers. When art director and graphic designer Namrata Gosavi became part of the project she had several brainstorming sessions with Singh. “Through our conversations I realised that Bollywood movies are an important entertainment factor in a driver’s life. They spend hours listening to Hindi movie songs while driving and watch their favourite Bollywood movies regularly,” says Gosavi. Her design, therefore, reflected Singh’s passion for Hindi movies that is, in fact, shared by most Mumbai residents.

“As Bollywood movies portray various emotions and colours of life I chose bright colours for the fabric. Then I designed classic characters of Bollywood movies in a grid format. To make them more interesting and interactive, I selected some famous dialogues in context of taxis,” says Gosavi.

After completing a design, the designer prints it on a fabric using a special machine. This process can take around three hours. The fitting process that follows involves tailors who stitch the fabric on taxi seats, doors and the ceiling. Finally the seat covers are fixed with the new fabric.

The Taxi Fabric team that has now expanded to include Mayur Mengle, Isha Jhunjhunwala, Siddharth Samant and Niquita Gupta handles several aspects of this process. Social media and website updates are also integral parts of the design scheme.

Combining creativity and social good Taxi Fabric designers have also made fabrics to create awareness about various causes. In collaboration with TEDxGateway, an independently organised TED event in Mumbai, designer Harshit Vishwakarma created a fun taxi fabric design featuring sign language. Yet another taxi fabric that was designed by Shruti Thakkar was coloured by students of Mann, a Mumbai-based organisation for children with special needs. Striking designs were also used in taxis to highlight road safety issues, discrimination against women and educational toys for underprivileged children.

Another project that the team is proud of is their Independence Day special edition with Pakistani designer Samya Arif. The design titled “Monad” is inspired by the similarities between neighbours India and Pakistan. “For my design for Taxi Fabric, I picked up hand gestures and geometric patterns common or unique to both cultures and religions, such as a dua or namaste and amalgamated them into a visual collage around a sea scape,” writes Arif about her design on the Taxi Fabric website.

On the anvil are collaborations with Delhi-based Manas Foundation that works for gender sensitisation of auto-rickshaw drivers, sponsored taxis from “Architectural Digest” magazine and designing for private vehicles. “We will soon unveil a taxi fabric design for a private car that we have been working on,” says Avlani.

Besides boosting creativity and aesthetic appeal, the project is also a tool for social communication between designers, drivers and commuters. A typical Mumbai taxi carries around 30 customers a day. A bright, funky taxi could fuel 30 new conversations every day.

“My customers enjoy sitting inside my taxi, especially children who get very excited with the colours and designs. Some even ask me how my taxi has colourful gola [ice lolly] bottles and how come my seats are better than other taxis,” says driver Ali Asgar, whose taxi features the Juhu chowpatty fabric.

Avlani recounts several interesting anecdotes that drivers report to their team. “Some days ago we got a call from a young man whose 65-year-old grandmother came home excitedly talking about an unforgettable ride in a taxi with colourful faces. He called us to thank us for making his grandmother happy,” says Avlani.

Yet another incident involved a little boy, who did not want to get down from the taxi, and insisted on being given a piece of the colourful fabric. “The most heartwarming part of this project has been the reaction of passengers and drivers and the happiness in giving someone’s livelihood a lease of life. Drivers often tell us that passengers tend to spend more time with them, click pictures and tip them at times,” says Avlani.

Tessy Koshy is an independent writer based in Dubai.