The other day, I was wondering why a man working in the corporate sector in Delhi would choose to wear a pair of ‘moochwala’ yellow boxer shorts at home. Why would an IT professional from Bengaluru redecorate her place with a specific set of teal scooter cushion covers? How does adding a multi-coloured owl pendant to your wooden box of accessories make you feel like your sense of style is cool and quirky? After combing through Instagram for hours and discussing this with a few friends at Cyberhub Social—a cafe mimicking a chawl, on the ground floor of a 15 storied office complex—I figured that I need to start by understanding the currently booming trend of desi kitsch within the contemporary urban Indian market. It’s important to acknowledge that what was once considered B-Grade and tacky, underground art is now headlining the products by leading Indian lifestyle brands. When I use the term underground, I am talking about art that is, on the whole, not independently recognised, be it in galleries or in the commercial space. The main reason behind this is the general perception that this art is not ‘art’ enough. And according to this idea, all the kitsch art around us—the glorious interior and exterior decor of rickshaws, the incredibly beautiful truck art from the Indian subcontinent, the hand-painted signboards and posters, the upbeat songs in vernacular languages—has to be considered underground because, there’s very little possibility of them to be recognised in the art world as mainstream.
Image sourced from Delhi Magic by Deepa Krishnan http://delhimagic.blogspot.com/2013/03/truck-art-in-india-i-love-it.html
A considerable part of our perception is based on and strengthened by societal conditioning that dictates what is good and what is not. Our judgement of any cultural phenomenon is influenced by these deep-rooted, well-formed biases of high and low culture. This divide obviously has a strong association with the segregation of classes. Perhaps, that’s also the reason why the art of the ‘free man’, who has enough wealth, space and time to invest in a creative endeavour is considered to have achieved higher intellectual and artistic excellence, while the art of the ‘working man’ that has found its balance of aesthetic expression and function is considered mere utility or at most, decorative art. When the boundary between these classes is blurred, this distinction becomes difficult to make. We can easily differentiate between the characteristics of the two extremes where at one end you have all the pastels and on the other the high-contrast neons. But somewhere in the middle, on the edge of both these classes, is where the fun lies. When a meaningless kitsch expression shows the possibility of having meaning to it, the identity of it being ‘low’ begins to dilute. Kitsch is believed to be an unplanned juxtaposition of unrelated aesthetic entities, but with an appropriate context one can attach meaning, and subsequently some value to it. As the worth of art is effectively decided by the mode of its consumption, when put in an elevated setting (a setting that validates ‘art’) visually kitsch material becomes a worthy participant of the gathering. This not-so-small space is frequented by the partially-free-working-man. This group is looking for something that offers to boost their understanding of the individuality (of the free man) while appealing to their aspirational sense of aesthetics (of the working man). In a commercial setting, you frame this art with a function and it becomes a valuable, saleable product for this transitional class of consumers, I’d add, a significant part of this class, with new money and having the constant need to stand out and feel “cool”, similar to what has been described by Venkatesh Rao in his article about being Premium-mediocre.
When we focus on the context of India and Indian consumers, this reality is further layered. The Indian consumer is inherently blessed with a very joyful and colourful visual vocabulary. We have been brought up with and around this aesthetic of plurality of elements, colours and themes. This is probably why the western idea of kitsch didn’t really add up in the Indian landscape. Nevertheless, thanks to the bombardment of foreign ideologies and the influence of social media, the socially unaware and ‘yes, I’ve read about it on the internet’ Indian viewer compartmentalized a lot of this as kitschy, meaningless work and discarded it. It became something that’s not to be noticed, looked down upon and quite honestly, #memeworthy. But then, one fine day, when meaning was attached to this aesthetic, it was reclaimed as ‘being desi’. With clever exploitation of apparent national pride and effectively transposing one aesthetic onto another, suddenly, ‘Eew, so gaudy’ and ‘God! Too shiny!’ became ‘So vibrant!’ and ‘Look. At. That. Shine!’ Where all the restaurants and shops were once looking for an elegant ambience, they are now using appropriated versions of Dhaba culture and Thela aesthetics to do up their spaces. Where design once relied on negative space to create hierarchy, umpteen elements per square inch are the order of the day now. Where once less was more, more is not enough now.
I think multiple factors have caused this change in perception. The lifestyle of a generic, contemporary, urban Indian is quite interestingly driven by multiple stimuli from the agile socio-cultural global climate. The influence of impactful social media is getting stronger with every other click and like. Double taps are enforcing perceived sense of connections and the swipe right culture of ‘decide now, think later’ is adding a dash of thrill to everyday life. The constant bombardment of flashing visuals on our brains is perhaps numbing down our inherent tendency to look for and into the details. This social media driven attitude based on instant gratification is influencing the shopping choices and habits of millennials. And for Indian lifestyle brands, this provides a great opportunity to explore and take advantage of the changing consumer habits. Today, attaching the ‘desi’ tag to any product having vaguely Indian stylisations seems to justify its price because suddenly it is rooted in the Indian context. It is effectively positioned as something more quirky and youthful and hence becomes a commercial success satisfying the needs of this specific target group that enjoys watching ultra-colourful Holi videos shot in slow-mo.
From the Pinterest board curated by Jeevan L Xavier : https://www.pinterest.co.uk/jeevanlx/decorative-art-indian-vehicles/
I recently took an Uber Auto to office. The autorickshaw decor was so disturbingly tacky and shiny that I immediately logged on to Netflix to continue watching Sacred Games. I didn’t bother to think why. Later in the afternoon, as I was walking towards the food court at Cyberhub, Gurgaon—a competitive playground for all things #lit and contemporary and saleable to the socially-unaware-new-age-educated-employed audience—I was sorely tempted by the shiny and vibrant window display of the Chumbak store to take a stroll inside. Now I know why. It is here, where a clever design intervention has changed the route of the trending market. Understanding the potential of untapped art practices, taking advantage of the market gap and cashing in on the intrigue generated because of the cultural differences, these lifestyle brands are using the underground aesthetics and putting them on the pedestal. This unrepresented art, specifically packaged for a distinct target group is finding its place in the front rows of the shelves and in online shopping carts. The gap between chic minimalism and loud kitsch is being filled by cleverly designed merchandise products and collectibles. Actually these bright contrasting colours don’t want you to or expect you to think about all this. They just want you to feel empowered to own that one-of-a-kind mass produced chai-kettle that will sit on your quilted rug on top of your wood-textured coffee table because it fits just perfectly in the 1×1 Insta-square.
From website of Discovered.us : https://www.discovered.us/goods/6692/handcrated-stunning-mayuri-teapot
There are a lot of grey spaces in this colourful composition, to be sure. Though there have been instances where genuine efforts have been made to provide appreciative exposure to these practices, one cannot ignore the fact that, in a way, this is essentially an appropriation of genuine art for commercial benefit. Irrespective, by changing the carrier of an underrepresented aesthetic from say, the exterior of a truck, to a well-designed marketable lifestyle merchandise like a coffee mug, this ever-engaging ‘art on the backseat’ is already in the driver’s seat and ready to change gears. Is it the right direction? How does it impact the social structure of modern India? Where is it ultimately headed? I guess we’ll have to hold on to our seatbelts and see. Also… who has the time to think so much anyway? If it looks desi, it must be cool!
An alumnus of the National Institute of Design, Parag Chitale works at Penguin Random House, India as a Graphic Designer. This self-made conversationalist enjoys spontaneous well-planned adventures. Apart from adding an unavoidable dose of questionable witty humour to conversations, he consciously tries to observe, understand and reflect on the beauty of the intriguing banalities of the everyday life. Absurd humour is an acquired taste. Check his Instagram here.