‘Letter’ : Interactive Public Art In Association With India Post and Srishti School Of Art

It’s 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon at Cubbon Metro and the station is bustling with commuters young, old, rich, poor, corporate, blue collar, student and everything in between. It’s also Bangalore celebrating Children’s Day on the day, Nov 14th, 2018 so there’s a new bunch of middle school boys every ten minutes or so who are returning back home after having an outing by themselves at the nearby Cubbon Park. The neat and tidy, colourful, mural-filled station in the city’s CBD area reserves a few days of the month for art, thanks to a collaboration between Namma Metro and Art In Transit, a public art initiative by Srishti School Of Art. After being one of the lucky few to be awarded an art grant by Art In Transit, the stage is set for me on the platform to facilitate my new site-specific, interactive public art installation – ‘Letter’. 

On the day. I visit a majestic old relic, the General Post Office (GPO) situated right behind the Cubbon Metro and meet the Deputy Chief Postmaster, HS Chandrashekhara to let him know about my snail-mail, India Post-themed installation ‘Letter’. He is extremely appreciative and insists on knowing how often I can do similar art installations, as reviving Letter writing is one of the postal department’s biggest agendas, he tells me. I invite him to come inaugurate ‘Letter’ and assure him of my continued support and take my 100 Postcards and a few Inland Letters neatly packed inside a big Manila envelope along to Cubbon Metro.  

Deputy Chief Postmaster HS Chandrashekhara Inaugurates ‘Letter’

I delicately arrange a selection of my own handwritten Postcards and Inland letters along the side of a small counter on the platform by a few chairs with a poster about ‘Letter’ that includes an illustration of the iconic bright red Post box. 

Through ‘Letter’, I want to revive the lost art of handwritten letters. As a child, I loved writing and receiving letters and even had a pen friend or two. While every letter I received was a special memento, I especially cherished the ones that told me about the sender’s dreams, thoughts and the way they told their stories. 

I recall one particular standout at the recently concluded installation was a letter written in Telugu from a pregnant young woman. She told me that she addressed the letter to her unborn child, telling the child of the hopes and dreams she has for the child and how grateful she feels to carry her bundle of joy. 

Another participant, Anusha Shetty, a journalism student from Christ College told me that she saw a post on Instagram about ‘Letter’ and knew she wanted to be a part of it and came to Cubbon Metro with her gang of three friends to write letters. Her family lives in Mangalore and had no idea she had chopped off her long hair so Anusha thought it’d be best to break it to her mom gently with a lovingly handwritten note that included a drawing of her face, before and after haircut. I marvelled at how the letter and the accompanying drawings of faces brought a new charm to something so mundane. To me it was beautiful how such a small thing can encompass so much meaning in life. 

I believe that technology, telephony, social media, email and instant back and forth of text/audio/video messaging has made it very convenient for us to constantly communicate with people. However, the art of letters and letter writing will always have its own charm. A handwritten letter is immensely personal, beautiful and contemplative. It’s a tangible, love and emotion-filled piece of paper that is just impossible to throw away. 

Like the now extinct phone booths and Internet Parlors, I imagine that we are well on the way to losing this precious piece of history, and hopefully, ‘Letter’ is one of the steps towards its revival.

Vedantham Narayanan, an octogenarian neighbour of ours says, “This is indeed a lovely effort. I have preserved all the letters my late father wrote me. Never do I feel so close to him as I do when I hold these letters. His handwriting was beautiful, flowing in cursive from a blue inked fountain pen across the light brown card paper. I am struck by the idea that he had held this same postcard, more than 50 years earlier. It feels tangible and real every single time. By the way, did you know that there was a time when the price of a postcard was always a hotly debated subject in the parliament?.” I was touched to receive this typed note Mr.Narayanan sent to me. 

A postcard can be purchased for Rs. 50 paisa and an Inland Letter will cost you Rs. 2.50. Honestly, do you even get to buy ANYTHING at these prices these days?

In between all the reading and writing of letters, my cousin texts me and tells me he still has a letter I wrote to him back when we were kids. I have no recollection of it at all but feel good/important and also a teeny bit embarrassed wondering what baby Sapna may have blabbed on about. 

Given that I’ve always loved to write, connect and correspond, social media seemed so great at first but I quickly grew tired of the 140 character limit on Twitter and realised that most of my friends can’t even see my Facebook posts. I mean it’s the easiest way for updating lots of people on travel adventures and share 300 photos for example, but there is just something special about the old fashioned medium of the handwritten note. I never underestimate the power of words & a scented glitter pen! It can be so uplifting! 

Life is busy and time is precious. While I still love email and messaging, I want ‘Letter’ to remind people of the intimacy of a handwritten letter. Everyone’s emails and messages look pretty much the same, it’s typed out in a widely available font not an individual, one-of-a-kind handwriting, it has no imprint of one’s identity. Emails are so useful, quick and functional. They don’t evoke the same feelings as when you receive a letter – Between the moment you write, and the moment it’s received, other things have happened. 

An increasing number of people joined me at Cubbon Metro during my four hour ‘Letter’ installation resulting in more than 50 letters being written. And not only did I supply the Postcards, I deposited the addressed Postcards in the nearest mailbox. The letters have already reached the recipients.

Hallmark cards, little notes, love letters, neatly packaged gifts…undoubtedly some of my favourite things! I’ve been delighted and surprised with unexpected letters, books and little gifts from time to time – and each time they completely make my day! I’ve tried to always return the sweet gesture. 

I can never forget how my childhood best friend painstakingly made me the most incredibly intricate bracelet with tiny multicolour beads for Friendship Day along with a mini card. It must’ve taken her several hours over several days in lieu of precious play time. It looked amazing and I’ll never forget how it made me feel, how she made me feel. I still have it, I’ll always have it. 

In my opinion there are few things that say I love you, I care about you or I’m thinking of you more than a personalized, handwritten note.

As we zoom in and out of people’s lives in the digital age juggling several balls and wearing multiple hats, we struggle to spend quality time with our loved ones. While phone calls are still the best way to keep in touch, letters definitely touch a chord . Why is it an art? Letter writing requires imagination, creativity and a knack for story telling. One has to craft the letter inside one’s head before putting pen to paper. There’s no backspace button and no copy paste either.  It takes a lot of focus and good penmanship to make the first draft your best. 

All in all, I had the most surprising, revelatory, intimate, touching, memorable encounters with commuters at Cubbon Metro. As someone who was born and grew up in the old, all-too-familiar, pre-IT Bangalore – I thought I would never be able to feel one with total strangers in the way that I did. The format of filling up a small postcard seems to have worked considering the transit population at the Metro. 

It also reminded me of something else, Kannada, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali, local, non-local – these things don’t matter at all. People are all the same – we love and want to be loved back. And our short lives are made beautiful and meaningful only because of the relationships we nurture. 

See the invite of this art installation I posted earlier by clicking here.

I am recreating the same format of letter-themed Installation with the theme ‘Connect’ this month while everyone is self-isolated till 14th April, 2020. Read more by clicking here.