Look up: documenting the quirky art on the ceilings of Mumbai taxis

Journalist Rachel Lopez is giving people a glimpse of the colourful aesthetics of Indian cabs

In Mumbai, India, commuting long distances is a given and getting caught in heavy traffic means you may have to spend hours on the road. You can always look out of the window to entertain yourself, but Rachel Lopez, a journalist in Mumbai, found a new world of creativity by looking up at the ceilings of local taxis.

Lopez sometimes takes as many as eight taxis in a day, as she goes about her interviews and appointments, and it was in the summer of 2017, on hailing a cab (locally called "kaali peeli") she happened to glance up at the ceiling and saw a ghastly chocolate brown background, with purple and green strawberries strewn over it. She clicked a selfie against it for fun, and wondered idly how many more designs could be on other taxi ceilings.

“It started as a joke, but ultimately the joke was on me,” she quips. Lopez would not have imagined that she would end up documenting as many as 500 designs since. Her popular Instagram account documenting the designs and the anecdotes that go with it is called The Greater Bombay and has more than 11,000 followers.

Journalist Rachel Lopez started an Instagram page called The Greater Bombay to document the designs of taxi ceilings in Mumbai. Photo: Rachel Lopez

Lopez, 39, is an editor and columnist and working for the Hindustan Times, and also produces a podcast called Wordy Wordpecker, which delves into how words have changed over time.

Mumbai has a big fleet of as many as 55,000 taxis, and is the most cost effective and popular way to get around the city for many. The art swathing the ceilings is actually not mere decoration or the interior aesthetic of the drivers, but stems from a very practical reason. Since the windows are usually kept open, and dirt and grime can spoil the original felt-covered ceiling, they are covered with plastic or vinyl that can be easily wiped clean.

“This covering is heavy-duty plastic usually sourced from China and when the taxi is sent to the garage to be painted and fitted with registration plates, the ceiling is also covered with the plastic material, with motifs which are rarely the driver’s personal choice,” explains Lopez.

“Indians do love decorative elements like frills, motifs and images and tend to cover every surface with these. Maybe we suffer from what is termed as ‘horror vacui’ or the fear of empty spaces,” says Lopez.

Most of the motifs found on the ceilings are generic ones that are replicated on everything from shower curtains to plastic tablecloths. From floral trellises, honeycomb patterns, canopies of roses, funky zebra and animal prints to abstract designs, chess board patterns, platters of fruits, even Bollywood actors and cartoon characters – this is a quirky, moving gallery of art. Some drivers even add their own touches, sticking flowers or glitzy decorations on to the ceiling.

The Instagram account has images of half of Lopez’s face, usually with a scarf covering her head, against a ceiling pattern of butterflies, kitschy fruits, squiggles or dots.

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

More than 100 of Lopez’s images of the ceilings were showcased earlier this year at the Kala Ghoda Art Festival, one of Asia’s largest street festivals of art, and got a great response from the public. Many locals who take these taxis on a daily basis and even lifelong residents of the city realised that they had not paid attention to the ceilings.

Part of the charm of this collection is also the anecdotes and thoughts that Lopez shares on her account. She delves into her knowledge of art and compares an abstract pattern on the ceiling to the art of Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid. She finds patterns that look like "a gorgeous linoleum carpet print", "an artist’s rendering of the coronavirus" and even "a pothole ridden road after five days of rain"! The fun comments on the Instagram account range from “that matches your scarf” to “that’s my grandmother’s tablecloth".

“The typical Mumbaikar ignores the city around him and only has [a] surface appreciation of it, he may not notice the art deco or heritage building in front of him or some stunning street art as he is absorbed in the daily, busy schedule of making a livelihood. Unless someone documents it, it may be lost forever, swept up in the wave of development, like our old textile mills which are now glitzy malls,” says Lopez.

“It’s the same with these taxi ceilings and their quirky art. One day, you may find them just fading away and we will lose this gallery of art forever. Until then, I will continue uncovering them, one taxi at a time.”

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

Updated: January 4th 2022, 1:33 PM