The recipe for a perfect disaster in this part of the world has two ingredients - the Mumbai monsoons and its taxis. Okay, that might have been a hyperbole of sorts, but anyone who has been soaked to their intestines trying to hail a cab in the Mumbai rains would want to make allowances for such exaggerations.
So for many taxis are synonymous with trouble, and then there are the folks at Taxi Fabric who dismiss the travails of taxi rides as small casualties of an otherwise interesting aspect of Mumbai living. Sanket Avlani, along with Chintan Ruparel and a group of other enthusiastic designers, found it far more engaging to dwell on how Mumbai taxis contribute to the aesthetics of the city, than crib about errant drivers - and the result of this is Taxi Fabric, an initiative to re-design taxi seat covers.
Sanket Avlani, who works with advertising agency Creativeland Asia, is quick to point out that their effort doesn't stem from something as mundane as 'need' or 'necessity', it's something that is perfectly in sync with their creative interests.
"I take a taxi to work daily. And along with being a Mumbaikar, I also happen to be a designer and an art director. So, naturally, the thought of redesigning a taxi seat cover was going to cross my mind sooner or later. The day it happened, I looked at it as an opportunity for not just me, but also other designers as a community to contribute with their own styles and strengths."
"We believe there is no limit to which art can be pushed. So as such, there isn't a 'need', more like a 'what if?' It will be exciting to see the designs that we get and also people's reactions to them," says Avlani.
As of now, the project is completely voluntary and doesn't require taxi owners and drivers to pay Taxi Fabric's team of designers. You might imagine cab drivers in Mumbai as people who have little patience for style, but if you ever manage to take in the interiors of a cab, you'll be convinced otherwise.
The seat covers in velvet and psychedelic designs, or textured faux leather, the little trinkets that hang beside the rear-view mirror, the fibre statuettes that sit atop the dashboard, the neon lights inside - several taxis are examples of scrupulous designing efforts. No wonder then designers at Taxi Fabric were excited to lend a hand in helping Mumbai cab drivers redesign 'their office'.
"The designers are excited to kickstart and contribute pro-bono towards this project because of the sheer size of the canvas, and the fact that it takes their designs straight to the streets. We've figured out an initial group of taxi drivers who have agreed to change their covers to the ones we give them."
"We will be closely following up with them for feedback and reactions. That apart, we're currently working on a model where we will supply fabrics to the guys who make taxi seat covers, which the taxi drivers will obviously have to pay for," explained Avlani.
Most naysayers would predict a business initiative of this kind would run into rough weather mostly because of a disinterested customer base, but Avlani says that Mumbai cab drivers are actually willing to loosen their purse strings for a snazzier, cooler vehicle. Avlani attributes the change to the evolving dynamics of cabbie-customer relations. Add to that travel in Mumbai can be long and several customers also book taxis for regular trips to work and back.
"They understand the need to go that extra mile to gauge the pulse of the passengers and try pleasing them. That's why you see some of them speaking in English, or play the latest music on their funky sound systems and speakers. These things become great conversation starters and stay with passengers even after they get off.
"So yes, much to our surprise, taxi drivers are even more open to this change. A lot of them have told us to speed up the process because the new set of taxis are coming in," says Avlani.
And are the passengers interested in the aesthetics of a vehicle which is purely functional for them? "As a people, Indians are not very receptive to design because public transport lacks a certain edgy design element. We felt this blind-spot needed to be addressed urgently. So we're working hard on this first set of designs, a lot depends on it," Avlani said.
Apart from Avlani and Ruparel, Taxi Fabric at present comprises a bunch of designers like Pavithra Dikshit, Shirin Johari, Tosha Jagad, Kenneth Barnes. However, anyone who is wants to be a part of the fun project can mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find them on Twitter @TaxiFabric