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The art and science of potholes

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-03-2017 Priya Ramani

What emotion does a pothole evoke in you? Anger because your Lamborghini Huracán is unlikely to ever go from zero to 100 kmph in 3 seconds on the scarred roads? Frustration that the taxes you pay are not utilized to improve the quality of your life? Prathaap B. thinks of his friend’s 24-year-old daughter Arundhati, studying to be a pathologist like her mother, who died in a freak accident on a potholed road in Vellore in 2014. Her parents now run The Arundhati Foundation that campaigns for road safety.

When Prathaap, 38, strides up to one of these warts, he thinks of all the friends and colleagues who have broken their limbs in pothole accidents. He cuts the depression into a rectangular shape with a long, sharp-edged iron road tool, dusts away the debris, and empties a couple of 50kg sacks of cold asphalt into it. If required, he pours a liquid layer of emulsion before to increase the bonding between the loose soil and the asphalt. He uses a flat handheld tool to smoothen the surface and compact the asphalt.

Then he runs his brown Mahindra Scorpio over it twice.

Bengaluru’s Pothole Raja (he set up the website a year ago and is wearing the T-shirt when we meet) has done this at least 200 times since last June. All you have to do is WhatsApp Prathaap at +91-814 POTHOLE and he’ll repair it for you for a fee. He may go about it methodically but filling a pothole is not rocket science, he says. “I wish more people would do it.” He’s also lobbying automobile companies to participate in his initiative.

Prathaap B. (centre) addressing the issue of pothole in his own way in Bengaluru. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Artist Baadal Nanjundaswamy’s approach couldn’t be more different, although his motivation is the same—“Potholes can kill… without reason.” Text him about how you’ve found the perfect pothole for one of his 3D street paintings or quirky installations and he will not respond. A pothole must beckon him like a blank canvas awaiting his touch. “The feeling should be spontaneous. You can’t force it,” he says over the phone.

If he’s set his sights on a watery crater, he could transform it into a lagoon full of lotus flowers or a green pond with a fibre crocodile that’s happy to pose with you for selfies—at least until suitably chastized local government officials rush to repair the road and deprive the friendly reptile of its habitat the next day.

That crocodile, sourced overnight from a fellow artist and positioned in a crater that had been an eyesore for three months, got him global fame when it went viral. “People may not know me as Baadal but say ‘crocodile artist’ and they know who that is,” he says. Getting the 37-year-old artist to speak is tougher than filling a pothole or sourcing a crocodile.

Nanjundaswamy, also an art director in Kannada films, can conjure up a real actress and a fake amphibian to recreate Frog Prince.

If the pothole looks like Yama’s gaping mouth, he gives it some teeth and paints the god’s face around it. If the artist is in a playful mood, the hole becomes one of the squares in a hopscotch grid. If he’s feeling newsy, a jutting rock on a bad pavement becomes a suitcase and defunct Rs1,000 notes are painted around it.

Pothole art and activism has many proponents across the world, including Chicago artist Jim Bachor, who raised money on Kickstarter to fund his pothole mosaics, and New York photographer Davide Luciano, whose Potholes series of photographs uses road craters to create crazy tableaux (Alice at the edge of the rabbit hole, a lifeguard from Baywatch running to rescue someone, depicted by an outstretched arm emerging from the hole).

In Thailand, a model who was fed up with the condition of the road around her home, dressed up in a towel and shower cap and took a dip in a pothole to highlight the problem. In Russia, angry citizens have painted caricatures of local officials around the mouths of potholes. Many of these efforts go viral.

Last year, Bengaluru residents conducted “pothole pooje”, praying that the hole not harm/kill anyone. In a city where civic warriors just managed to get the government to scrap plans for a steel flyover that would barrel through at least 2,000 trees, Nanjundaswamy and Prathaap use art and science, respectively, to tackle a phenomenon that is more than just an eyesore.

Bad roads (potholes, speedbreakers and damaged thoroughfares) killed 10,727 people across India in 2015, according to the Union surface transport ministry’s annual road accident report. The actual figure is probably much higher because of the way an accident may be classified. If you swerved to avoid a pothole and had an accident, for example, it wouldn’t be listed as the road’s fault.

On its website, Bengaluru’s municipal body helpfully provides a list of questions about potholes, including how long it takes to repair one. Answer: “The time... varies depending on the size, depth and location. Works are prioritised accordingly. While aim is to repair potholes within 14 working days of visiting the site, it may vary depending on the availability of resources and weather conditions.”

“It takes 15 minutes,” says Prathaap. He’s not a civil engineer—in fact he was less than two years into his training to be an air force pilot when he had an accident that injured his spine and changed his career path. Now his love for flying is restricted to conducting informal aero-modelling classes among the neighbourhood children.

Meanwhile, the bad road is calling out to Nanjundaswamy again. “I saw a footpath yesterday,” he says. “It’s a rectangular opening and it’s been there for a very long time. I’m still thinking.” One more road is set to be fixed in record time.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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