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With Art As Catalyst, Bengaluru Women Unite For Mobility Solutions

Shanthi Muniswamy and Tanisha Arora reflect on their initiative in Bengaluru that aims to address issues of mobility, climate change and access to public transport in the informal sector, and how they use art and culture to drive it.

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Bhana Bisht
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Tanisha

Tanisha Arora (Left) and Shanthi (Right)

Centred around the informal women workers of Bengaluru is a social impact initiative called Alli Serona that uses art and culture to create a sense of community. Initiated by women working in the informal sector in Marathahalli (a locality in suburban Bengaluru), the initiative aims to bridge the gap in access to public transport.

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The work has transpired in various forms of art including street art and murals across the bustling slum board. Alli Serona, which means “Let’s meet there” in Kannada, has brought together several significant people to ideate and execute what can be called an important, never-done-before, transformation in the city. Naturally, it was significant to speak with two important voices behind the initiative, Shanthi Muniswamy and Tanisha Arora, who shared more about their work and why it’s integral to encourage women to be part of the climate conversation

Shanthi Muniswamy, a transgender woman from Bangalore, is the lead artist at the Aravani Art Project. Aravani Art Project is a cis women and trans art collective based in Bangalore that through mural arts, reclaims public spaces. She has played a key role in bringing the women of the Marathahalli slum board quarters under the Alli Serona Collective. 

Tanisha Arora is a senior creative strategist at Alli Serona. She applies her multi-disciplinary skills in design, creative strategy, storytelling, and experiential marketing to create and support climate action campaigns and movements in India. She believes in the power of collaboration, community, art, and technology to shift perceptions and accelerate meaningful change.

In conversation with SheThePeople, Shanthi Muniswamy and Tanisha Arora reflect on their initiative in Bengaluru that aims to address issues of mobility, climate change and access to public transport in the informal sector, and how they use art and culture to drive it. 

Excerpts from the interview with Shanthi

Your life's trajectory has led you to many innovative places, how did it lead you to Alli Serona and why does it resonate with you?

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Yes, my life has taken me to many unusual places. During the third Covid wave when I couldn't pay my house rent, one of my friends suggested that I stay at the Marathahalli slum board quarters. That is when I connected to Alli Serona and the beautiful people working as a part of this collective.

I discovered that things are very different here and there is a synergy, momentum, and a desire to amplify the voices of women from the informal sectors. Together, we are contributing to the dialogue around climate change mitigation and trying to understand the importance of reducing carbon emissions among many other things.

Wall Art Alli Serona Bangalore

Can you share your insight on the workshops conducted for the initiative? What are some of the major issues about climate and mobility that it raised?

A number of women were already conscious of limited resources, and Alli Serona further developed. Let's take Aruna for instance, another resident of the quarters who has been harvesting rainwater which she would use for bathing and cleaning.

There were creative workshops that taught us to express ourselves come together and leverage our energy as a collective. We are all learning consciously and subconsciously to contribute to climate preservation and also improve our own lives and surroundings. This includes doing our bit to help the planet by walking or taking public transport wherever we can instead of relying on private vehicles.

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This decision not only conserves fuel but also illustrates climate action. In addition to steps we can take individually, we are also learning how we can participate in the decision-making process that happens at the city level.

What is your vision for the community of Marathahalli and the people's participation in the decision-making process in the city?

I am very close to the women in the Marathahalli slum board quarters and have formed a strong connection with them. My interactions with them are frequent and I have learned a lot about them. Together we are beginning to realise that our perspectives matter and our voices count. Also, the acceptance they have demonstrated has helped me to feel empowered as a transgender individual and to do my best in all my individual and community endeavours. I would also like to acknowledge the support given by Emmanuel, a resident of Marathahalli slum board quarters, who assisted us along the way as we engaged this community. I only knew a few women in the area, but he helped me connect with many others.

What are some of the ways the issue of mobility is being tackled on a more grassroots level? There must be some measures that women in informal sectors might have to take.

Of course, like any social movement, it should begin right from the grassroots level. Often, people tend to focus solely on surface-level solutions. But social change should be deeply rooted in those whose need for safety, accessibility, mobility, and representation is often overlooked.

Focusing on these needs will help underserved women to access public spaces and travel over long distances safely. Women in every section of society and sector face multiple problems and change begins with conversations and with the courage to undertake positive actions. 

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My vision is simple. I aim to unite the women here so we can collectively work towards improving our community and our city. Hopefully, these women will one day extend assistance and support to others in need. This realisation brings me immense happiness and I am really happy to say that we have indeed come a long way.

Excerpts from the interview with Tanisha Arora

What is your vision for the initiative? 

As a collective, our vision is to surface and bring the voices of the informal sector of Bengaluru to the centre of the city’s shift to a more sustainable, low-carbon city. 

Hence, It was crucial for us to adopt a participatory approach right from its inception. “Nothing without us for us” has been our guiding principle for the work we do under Alli Serona and everything we do is co-created with the community. Today, this collective has grown to include over 11 diverse organisations including NGOs, creators, and think tanks. We have engaged with more than 200 women in over 9 informal settlements and resettlement colonies.

Through an artistic lens, how do you think this collective of women is linked to climate and inclusive decision-making?

The impacts of the climate-related crisis are unequally felt across different geographies, communities, genders, and occupations.

Women, especially from the informal workforce, are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to existing social structures and norms. All cities have to gradually transition to low-carbon economies but when these decisions are being made to transition, the voices of the most impacted communities are not included. Alli Serona recognises that there is a need to make the voices of the informal workforce visible so that the decisions made are inclusive and lead to people-centric solutions.

Public transport and shared mobility options are less carbon-intensive. However, they currently do not adequately meet the needs of the city's commuters, especially the most marginalised communities in the city such as the informal sector workers who are often the most dependent on public transport. A reliable public transport system that serves the needs of the most underserved communities, will also serve the needs of everyone else in the city thus reducing the dependency on private transport. 

Wall Art Alli Serona Bengaluru

Can you share insights into the collaborative process between artists, cultural practitioners, and the people at the initiative to develop strategies that effectively address women's specific needs and aspirations regarding mobility and cultural expression in context with your recently released short film?

Participatory art practices have been at the heart of our approach, serving as a catalyst in unifying and making the mobility needs and priorities of women from the informal workforce visible. 

In the case of our work in Marathahalli Slum Board Quarters which houses a diverse community of people from different cultures, geographies, and languages, most of whom belong to the informal workforce. Being a relatively new settlement, invisible deep-rooted rifts exist among the people. 

Through this 15-minute cinematic journey of "Alli Serona: Together in Art", our partners, Falana Films, unpacks how participatory art practices, where participants become active contributors in the creation, has the ability to transcend language barriers, cultural differences, and social divides, creating a common ground for dialogue, expression, and connection. The film showcases how this approach can become a catalyst for empowerment and bringing communities together to engage on important climate issues that directly impact them.

Can you elaborate on the observations derived from the workshops conducted by the group with women from Marathahali? 

The stories that emerged during the workshops became an inspiration for the murals that were painted on the walls of Marathahalli Slum Board Quarters. The artworks celebrated the women from the informal workforce and the activities that brought them together. Women felt happy and proud that their lives and livelihoods were being acknowledged and represented on the walls through art. 

The workshops were successful in creating a sense of solidarity among the residents of Marathahalli. When a local individual interrupted the process and blamed the artists for defacing the wall, the women and men rallied together to dismiss him. They spoke collectively, as a community. The women were naturally taking charge and exhibiting leadership qualities. It was a turning point, a testament to how art and culture can shift narratives and bring positive change in communities. 

Women in informal sectors are the ones to be affected by climate change the most, how do you think they can have more autonomy over this? 

Below are some learnings and observations from our mobility workshop designed to understand the collective  mobility needs of women informal workers living in Marathahalli Slum Board Quarters —

  • Most women walk or take the bus to work 

  • The closest bus stop is approximately  1.5 km away (which is a long walk)

  • The average travel time to work is from half an hour to one hour

  • At night the lack of street lights along the route from the bus stop to home makes women feel extremely unsafe

  • While Bengaluru as a city mostly feels safe, infrastructure improvements such as street lights, closer bus stops, and female conductors/drivers would help in making travel safer for women

  • Most women find the cost of bus tickets expensive (please note, this exercise was done before buses were made free)

With better access to public transport services and infrastructure, the residents of informal settlements and resettlement colonies can access better livelihood opportunities, education, and health services. Transport is key to a better life.


Suggested reading: How Theatre Group Gilehri Gillo Challenges Age-Old Notions On Learning

Women artists Public transport #art Graffiti Tanisha Arora Shanthi Urban Mobility Street Art
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