‘Mom Says No Race’, ‘Bad Boy’, ‘Ride like you stole it’, ‘PRESS’, ‘Kuru-Boss’. Do any of these ring a bell?

Bengaluru is now officially  the world’s most congested city. We spend 243 hours every year in traffic. As we persevere through the madding crowd, one thing remains in our sights, shaping how we think while we drive – India’s ubiquitous bumper stickers.

Mapping sticker categories

Pro(Auto)ganists

Bumper stickers are omnipresent on auto rickshaws across India. It comes as little surprise then, that drivers have been represented in South Indian commercial cinema for the last couple of decades.  While Rajkumar represents the respected humble father figure, Shankar Nag is more of an elder brother (Anna) with Vishnuvardhan archetypes embodying characteristics such as honesty, hard work and ambition.

Auto drivers in Shivajinagar favour Bollywood actors like Sanjay Dutt and Amitabh Bachchan. However, other south Indian icons like Rajnikanth and Chiranjeevi often appear on autos as well, a fascinating reminder of the interstate appeal of popular actors, while conveying the mother tongue of the driver. Vehicles in North India prefer sporting female actors, while male actors dominate in the south.

These stickers are not just displays of admiration, they also convey the mother tongue of the owner, while symbolising India’s broad unity in diversity, transcending caste and political affiliations.

Name Dropping

Stickers that represent one’s profession, department,  or union affiliation are commonplace, and are illustrative of power dynamics on the road. For example, the police are less likely to stop or fine vehicles with stickers like Lawyer, Press, or Army. These vehicles often don’t get towed for traffic violations and could be exempt at toll gates. Other common stickers that are often used to ‘bypass’ traffic rules are On Govt Duty, BBMP, etc.

This can also be seen as a citizen’s way of fighting the dissimilarity in the system against abuse of power and corruption.

Mobile Billboards

Along with food delivery partners wearing the T-shirts, bags, and helmets of their employers, Autos have also joined the startup advertising game. For growing startups in the city, these vehicles become a medium of low-cost  and high impact brand recall.

The irony, of course, is that auto unions are vehemently opposed to the rise of carpooling and bike rental startups, while individual auto drivers are broadcasting these alternatives.

Autos aren’t the only ones in the branded sticker game. A tempo rental company mandates that  vehicles are branded with the company stickers. The drivers are asked to send a picture (including the vehicle number plate and visible stickers) once in a month, or  face a 10 second delay in successfully accepting tasks in a competitive market. However, in Bengaluru, commercial branding is illegal, and can attract a fine in the Rs. 3000-. 5000 range from the Traffic Department.

Bumper Philosophy

A famous film dialogue, advice for a relationship or a sarcastic response for haters. A line of colloquial wit, a philosophical argument, or an aspirational quote for success. There is even an Instagram account devoted to ‘auto poetry’.These lines act like a profile of the owners, expressing their opinions, while bringing out their inner poet, romanticising the world around them.

However, India is still a male driven country, pun intended. The profession of commercial driving is dominated by men, so it comes as little surprise that these quotes can be  deeply gender-biased, and skewed towards the male perspective.

Pride of Belonging

Sometimes, number plates convey more than a registered city/state – they convey a sense of shared pride. Omnipresent Karnataka colours and state symbols  are often a must-have for autos in Bangalore. While stickers like Mandya Boys, Kolar Kings, and Kodagu Warriors are a mild form of ethnocentrism, number plates from other states can be singled out and targeted during times of conflict. For example, during the Kaveri water dispute in September 2019, Tamil Nadu registered vehicles were vandalised and burnt all across Bengaluru. Sometimes India’s diversity can bring out prejudice and rivalry on road.

Branded Goods

Luxury car brands can ratchet through the gears of on-road politics. Wary of their owners’ possible influence, the police tend to avoid ticketing them for minor traffic violations.

It is common to see ordinary vehicles use stickers like Mercedes, BMW and Apple to represent their aspirations. Or could they represent a state of relative contentment? Like Ravi, who drives a Tata Indica for Uber and says, “My car is a Mercedes for me.”

Religion & Caste Divide

Sunando C, Bangalore based artist.

Portraying religious imagery is not novel to Indians. It fights off evil, bad luck and sometimes even public urination  against apartment walls.

Vehicles in particular, are considered holy and worthy of respect, particularly as a means of earning a living. In this day and age, however, God’s images don’t speak of just spirituality anymore, they are getting political.

A now iconic image of Hanuman can be seen on almost every second vehicle in Karnataka. An illustration  by Karan Acharya, a Mangalore based graphic designer, it has occasioned strong opinions on both sides of the political spectrum, with the Prime Minister lauding it in a speech but opinion on the left deriding it as a symbol of Hindu hypermasculinity.

However, some states do have regulations against overt displays on vehicles. On the 3rd of September, 2019, the Jaipur Traffic department issued an order prohibiting the display of  caste, religion or profession.

Caste dynamics and stereotypes are often manifested through the display of names. Stickers that read Kuru-bos, Jaat, etc., can fuel communal divides and make people wary. Says Gautam from Tamil Nadu, “If I see an SUV with a Delhi or Haryana number plate Jaat written on it, I would probably be careful around that vehicle.”

Vehicles can also be used to propagate one’s faith and encourage proselytisation. Quite often in Karnataka one sees verses from the Bible on cars, or autos festooned with Quranic literature.

My Ideology, My Leaders

Portraying a specific ideology enables people to unify under its beliefs. These ideologies are often conveyed through  images of famous leaders. It could be Ambedkar fighting for equality and upliftment of scheduled castes and tribes, or Bhagat Singh, who represents rebellion and patriotism.

Drivers also often display native poets and philosophers on their windshields to spread awareness about the depth and richness of a culture they take pride in.

Stickers of Basavanna, for example, a 12th century philosopher, serve to eulogise  the Bhakti movement, while also conveying the driver’s caste, which could be Lingayat. Another sticker often seen is of Kanakadasa, a 16th century shepherd and poet, whose philosophy of devotion transcended caste. Other common stickers include contemporary political and religious leaders, often as expressions of gratitude for their help and support.

Beyond the Sticker

The next time you are driving and stuck in traffic, remember these visual clues that are ubiquitous in Bengaluru, and reflect upon the meaning and depth hidden beneath their often garish forms.

While Indian traffic rules clearly prohibit stickers on number plates, there is a lack of clarity regarding the use of specific graphics and text. This is a knotty intersection worth pondering – the creative freedom of expression and government regulation. 

These designs and stickers clearly represent power and political dynamics on our roads and in our systems. Understanding and appreciating them gives us a better awareness of the effect of design on our behaviour and perception.

If there’s ever a future of self-driving cars, would an algorithm be able to comprehend the diverse nature of Indianness through these stickers? Thinking further could there be a language in these stickers which can help us read and understand the nuances of the city? It is evident that these designs do play their role in political and power dynamics on road and in the system – how can we be more aware of how they impact our behaviour and perceptions?

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