Art is about expression.

Art and design students from the city took over two train stations to celebrate those among us who tend to go unnoticed.

A garland maker — dark eyes, gleaming copper skin, hair braided with a veni (string) of white blooms — throws an arresting gaze around Thiruvanmiyur station, from a larger-than-life photograph draped on a pillar.

She isn’t the only one giving commuters company: there are metro rail employees, construction workers, washerwomen, domestic workers, vendors, mechanics and a host of others, photographed by students of NIFT Chennai. It is their way of celebrating the city through the platform — sweeping stretches of blank walls and thick pillars of the station — offered to them by Chennai Photo Biennale.

“Our Fashion and Communication Department has a specialisation in photography. So it was originally intended as a project for them, but it was opened up to students of Textile Design, Accessory Design, Leather and other departments,” says Sridhar Amanchy, assistant professor and centre coordinator, Department of Knitwear Design, NIFT, explaining how the decision was a result of the sheer enthusiasm shown by NIFT’s students.

How Chennai's MRTS train stations became spaces of art?

“As a fashion institute that has been in this city for 25 years, we agreed that we had to celebrate the city, by photographing its people in unconventional attire and styling,” explains Sridhar. So girls in venis are dressed in drapes of brown and white, while others flaunt bowler hats, checkered jumpsuits, waistcoats or traditional saris paired with stiff white shirts. The background varies from bushy leaves and strands of deep pink garlands, to mounds of gravel and heaps of construction metal. Yet each one of the images has a romantic tinge to it, be it a full-length portrait or a close up of silver anklets on dangling feet.

“Some of these were shot on site, while others were done in the studio on campus,” says Sridhar, “But all our ‘models’ weren’t models at all: they were people from different walks of life, who together make up the real Chennai.”

Shri Shankarlal Sundarbai Shasun Jain College for Women, on the other hand, chose to celebrate a different demographic of the city’s population: the elderly, who, the students believe, are the most invisible members of this teeming metropolis.

So their canvas — the first floor of Light House MRTS station — is filled with close-up portraits of people whose faces dominate the frame, with background, context, and socio-economic status seemingly stripped away.

Though smaller in size than most of the exhibits put up at other stations, these photos are arresting enough to make passers-by slow down. Just for a fleeting moment, to gaze at the liquid eyes, missing teeth, and peppery hair that stands out from afar, before being spurred back into hustle by the sound of an approaching train. Some of the faces looking down from the walls are stern, some friendly, and some even have a hint of mischief gleaming in the eye. But all of them dominate the space allotted to them.

A concept note, that accompanies one such portrait on a wall, describes the project as an answer to the political hoardings that are seen in every other nook and corner of every city in the country. Why, it asks, should such an impressive space be allotted to politicians, while everyday citizens go unnoticed? Why not make these wizened faces more familiar instead, and give them that status and moment in the sun?

We need public spaces for art because if you do things in a public space, it will you connect with ordinary people who never normally enter a gallery.

Why not laud the everyday citizen, indeed.​