Fear and insecurity in Delhi: A woman’s view of using public transport in the capital

Ritika Sharma's paintings record the daily discomforts of women using Delhi's public transport systems

Manik Sharma December 17, 2017 14:34:51 IST
Fear and insecurity in Delhi: A woman’s view of using public transport in the capital

Ritika Sharma's daily commute in Delhi takes up anything between three to four hours. Living in Nangloi, a locality on the fringes of West Delhi, means a long commute has been a constant part of her life after school. Twenty three-year-old Ritika, however, has turned the ignominy and chaos of public travel in Delhi into art that speaks both of its experience and to itself.

Delhi is unkind, especially to the women who hang by the thread of insecurity and discomfort in the zillion buses, autos and bogies of the metro. There is therefore despondence, fear, anger and so much more to record on each face. When Ritika began working on Journeys in Chaos in 2014, she was only chronicling her own experiences. Soon, it mushroomed into the story of a city, of its daily voyages and the women troubled by the oppression of it all.

A student of the Delhi College of Art, Sharma has been sketching people for years. “I used to travel four hours on a daily basis — some of it by bus, some by the metro. So you start noticing people, start recognising them. I began by sketching the faces on the buses and in the metro. It was merely to observe. Most of these people I have spoken to, and made connections with. Even if they did not last,” Sharma says. Her paintings are assimilations of situations, images, metaphors and more.

Fear and insecurity in Delhi A womans view of using public transport in the capital

From Ritika Sharma's series on women's commutes in Delhi

Fear and insecurity in Delhi A womans view of using public transport in the capital

Underlying or threading all these together is a sense of insecurity and fear that is perhaps now part of the conscience of every woman in Delhi. “Women live and travel in fear. Eve-teasing is a common occurrence on buses. We have experienced it. My older sister and I travelled together at times in buses. And it was always unforgiving. A woman in this city can never feel secure,“ Sharma says.

Does she remember any personally harrowing experiences? “It wasn’t one that happened to us. But once we boarded a bus from Shivaji stadium. It was late and there were three women – including us – in the bus. A man who was sitting in the back forcefully sat next to the lone woman and passed lewd comments. The driver and conductor did not do anything. The girl shouted, made noise. Nothing. Eventually this man was let off at a stop, and everyone on the bus was in agreement that women shouldn’t travel so late in the day. That is how it always ends for women. And it is shocking each time,” Sharma says.

Sharma’s paintings, though figurative, play expertly with emotion. There is palpable unease on each face, in the body, whether it is the bus or the metro. There is no romanticism here. “I always observed how people were happier in the journeys in the morning. But in the evening they would always be angry, or upset. There would always be a fight,” she says. Sharma has, probably, sketched more than 500 people. She has, she says, cartons full of portraits at home. But why? “It is my way of observing... of knowing what they feel and the way they react. It’s not a photograph. So when I sketch a person in my sketchbook I do it to basically educate my understanding of them. Whether they creep into my compositions in the paintings, is entirely up to the subconscious,” she says. Do people ever interrupt her? “Oh yes, absolutely. Some are supportive, interested in what I do. Almost everyone tells me they wanted to paint and draw but gave it up. Then there are those who take offence with it, with being sketched — which is ironic, because they aren’t vigilant about the things that they should be.”

Fear and insecurity in Delhi A womans view of using public transport in the capital

Fear and insecurity in Delhi A womans view of using public transport in the capital

Fear and insecurity in Delhi A womans view of using public transport in the capital

There are a number of playful metaphors in Sharma’s paintings. One of them being the idea of reflection and the reformation of identity through it. “I’ve always noticed how women change colour, almost become self-conscious when the metro enters the stations underground because the windows turn into mirrors. There is suddenly a method and motivation to behaviour at that point. It is unique,” she says. A number of her paintings show this reverence for the self, through a metaphor that is both omnipresent through the selfie, and equally prickly in the face of a mirror.“People seem to think that segregating men and women, or putting them in different compartments is a solution. I have been asked to go to the women’s compartment so many times. Trust me, it is no better in there,” Sharma adds.

Fear and insecurity in Delhi A womans view of using public transport in the capital

The 16 December 2012 gang-rape case changed quite a few things for the national capital — even if only on paper. There was at least a call for renewed moral ethics in public spaces. But in reality, nothing has really changed. “Things have probably only gotten worse. This is just an extension of the inactivity. I had of course seen the anger back then. But things never got moving, never changed. I may not travel so much today, but the experiences are still consistently bad. A woman simply can’t switch off and think she is secure,” Sharma says.

Surely there is something of value to the journey, other than recording its distaste and discomfort? “Well, sometimes little things do happen. Someone you do not know may smile at you or make a gesture that will wipe away your problems momentarily. Make you feel good about the day. That does and has happened.  But it doesn’t happen as much anymore.”

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