Somewhat infamous for overcharging and indifferent behaviour, Bengaluru’s autorickshaw drivers are revealing new facets as poetry lovers, thanks to an Instagram account, Poetry Auto (@poetryauto). Two Bengaluru-based software engineers, Kaustuba Venugopal and Vikas Gorur, have been documenting poetry displayed on autorickshaws and other vehicles since June 2017.

Other users have begun joining in. The account, which has has 781 followers, has shared nearly 150 posts and hopes to share many more in the coming days. Venugopal and Gorur believe the auto poetry is a phenomenon largely unique to Karnataka. “I haven’t really seen it to this extent in other Indian metros, although we need more data on this," Gorur says.

Vikas Gorur driving an autorickshaw on the account’s first anniversary
Vikas Gorur driving an autorickshaw on the account’s first anniversary (Photo Courtesy: Auto Poetryanniversary)

With verses running up to five-six lines, the poetry-emblazoned Bengaluru autorickshaws could well form a sort of anthology of a school of Kannada poetry, reflecting the drivers’ thoughts and a contemporary zeitgeist. Gorur says they had been noticing Kannada poetry on the city’s autorickshaws for years and one day decided to start collecting photographs and share them on Instagram. “That we could write as much as we can (on Instagram) was a big advantage as we could transcribe the verses in Kannada and also translate them into English," says Venugopal. More than 75% of the posts that are featured on the handle now are submitted by other users.

Operating on the assumption that the drivers are men, with very few exceptions, this strain of auto poetry could be looked at as a window into a specific type of masculine thought process and belief.

A tractor with a poem on love
A tractor with a poem on love (Photo Courtesy: Auto Poetryanniversary)

A lot of it revolves around love and rejection, echoing in Kannada (and more broadly, south Indian/Bollywood) films. “The girl rejects the guy and the guy casts himself as a martyr while issuing incoherent angry threats at the woman who rejected him," Gorur says. Some of the verses border on the misogynistic.

Gorur and Venugopal emphasize that sharing such poetry is in no way a personal endorsement of such beliefs. “Our primary motive is to document the poetry regardless of whether the message is good or bad," Venugopal says, clarifying that their intention is to keep the tone light-hearted.

Gorur adds that they view the poetry through a non-judgemental prism, seeing it as a mirror to the world that the driver-poets inhabit. “Yes, this world view is dark and disturbing but I personally find it fascinating as an example of art being made by people who usually don’t get to make any art."

The mother versus girlfriend/wife dichotomy is a recurring theme. In one verse, the writer compares success and failure to a girlfriend and mother, respectively, alluding that the former is momentary while the latter teaches life lessons.

Gorur and Venugopal have observed that autorickshaws driven by those primarily in their 20s address love and heartbreak, while the older drivers tend to comment on governments, work, money and fatalism. The latter especially is a prominent theme.

When we go to bed at night

we don’t know if we’ll wake up

yet we soak the rice and black gram

idli if we’re alive, vade if we’re dead!

“This was the verse that made us seriously think about starting the account and cataloging these poems," says Venuogopal, expressing their admiration for the way the writer has employed the metaphor of the idli/vada batter.

Actor Dhruva Sarja appears on an autorickshaw alongside a poem
Actor Dhruva Sarja appears on an autorickshaw alongside a poem (Photo Courtesy: Auto Poetryanniversary)

Passengers sometimes send in pictures of the same lines of verse, which appear on more than one autorickshaw or vehicle. “What we thought was original turned out to be a popular verse," says Venugopal, likening the verses to memes of the offline world. “We went to shops selling stickers (found on autorickshaws) to find out if these poems are coming from a original source or are the drivers’ original work." While there are a few standard ones that go viral and are copied by multiple people, majority of the poems seem to be original work. Original verses tend to have errors in syntax and grammar.

Since the autorickshaw is the driver’s workspace, they decorate it accordingly, says Venugopal. “You see a lot of autorickshaws featuring ads. I really admire those who instead choose to put up these verses, conveying their creativity and philosophy: their personality, in short," says Gorur, comparing them to bios on social media accounts.

Though Kannada pride is a popular theme, many of the drivers are migrants from small towns and hold on to those local identities too; their verses often allude to their new lives, conveying how they have negotiated the transition. “Helpless in Hassan/Hellraiser in Bangalore," goes one verse, referring to Hassan, a town about 180km from Bengaluru.

Kannada film stars also appear on the autorickshaws. The older generation of drivers swears by Shankar Nag, the iconic Kannada actor who starred in the film Auto Raja (1980) and became their mascot. However, the younger ones appear to have shifted allegiance to the more contemporary Darshan Thoogudeepa, who made a 2011 film, Saarathi, revolving around an autorickshaw driver.

“We enjoy the process of translation, to convey the sense of the verse and choose exactly the right words to do so," says Venuogopal, adding that they tend to take their time over the translations.

The two also enjoy composing verses. They say they would love it if one of their verses features on autorickshaws one day. In fact, Venugopal penned a poem to mark the account’s one-year anniversary.

Gorur and Venugopal run the account on a purely non-commercial basis but once they collect over 2,000 images, they would like to put them together into a coffee-table book, perhaps with illustrations. Having shared nearly 150 posts and stories, they have 100 more in their continually expanding collection.

“We ultimately would like to give the drivers the credit—after all, they are the inspiration, and representative of a part of culture that does not often get noticed," says Venuogpal.

One of the verses summarizes their work beautifully: “For you this is only a journey, for us this is a livelihood."

Priyanka Sacheti is a Bengaluru-based writer and poet.

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