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An elderly gentleman stands absorbed for several minutes outside a poky hole-in-the-wall shop in Delhi’s upscale Khan Market. He (and many others) would have passed it by but for its amusing name Happily Unmarried and the intriguing bright yellow sign that screams “Don’t Blink Or You’ll Miss Us”. A similar quirkiness literally falls on you from the shelves inside. They are crammed with lifestyle products that are fun with a capital F. The store’s mission statement says it all: “We sell fun bundled in little brown boxes and we don’t take ourselves seriously”.
So there is Sandass, an ash-tray designed like an Indian toilet seat, another shaped like the coal-iron used by your neighbourhood presswala and a bottle-stopper in the form of a handpump. The Indian Standard Time wall clock plays on how we desis read and talk time—dedh for 1.30, dhai for 2.30. A key-holder resembles the back of an Indian truck, complete with poetic phrases and kitschy artwork. One of HU’s latest, eye-grabbing products is a simple, white mug that brings an instant smile to your face with the words “My Name Is Khan Market And I Am Not A Mall”.
“Normal objects of daily use, be they doormats or glasses, are boring. We wanted to play with them to make them interesting,” says Rajat Tuli of HU. So he and his partner Rahul Anand invited a bunch of designers, trained in places like the National Institute of Design (NID) and National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), to let their hair down; it’s their products that line the shelves, and they get a share of the royalties. And HU hasn’t looked back since it started six years ago. Their products sell in 47 stores, apart from their own two exclusive outlets in Delhi (two more are opening soon, one in Delhi, another in Shillong). “You’ll find our merchandise even in small-town Agra,” points out Rajat.
Similarly whacky lifestyle products are spilling out of urban malls and markets. Cups, coasters and CD racks, cutlery and cushions, T-shirts and bags, shot glasses and beer mugs, key holders and doormats, all imbued with a kitschiness and humour that’s so very Indian. Even something as functional as a toilet roll can make you giggle—like Design Temple’s Cheer Haran range. Inspired by Draupadi’s never-ending sari (pic on page 60), it comes in a set of two (it does finish, though). “It’s all about being tongue-in-cheek and having a good laugh,” says Madhumita Goswami of the Bombay-based store, Loose Ends. “A coaster now is not just something for your dining table. It’s a display board for creativity and quirkiness,” says Sneha Raisoni who started Tappu Ki Dukaan in Bombay last December to sell such products.
Himanshu Dogra of Play Clan
“The core idea is to make the mundane magical,” says Himanshu Dogra, who runs Play Clan in Saket’s Select City Walk. It sells hand-painted shoes, T-shirts and undergarments, bags, home products, stationery and clip-boards that work playfully with all things Indian—dtc buses, autos and the Ambassador, slogans like ‘Maa ka Aashirwad’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, graphics of areas like Purani Dilli, Colaba and Crawford Market, images of Indian martial art forms.
These objects seamlessly marry a western and an Indian aesthetic. The design is clean and contemporary but the humour is 100 per cent desi, inspired by the daily urban grind, Bollywood, age-old Indianisms, Indian myth and culture. “It’s about looking inwards at ourselves and celebrating India,” says Himanshu. “It works for you only if you know India, have understood and experienced it,” says Rahul of HU.
Iris Strill and Emeline Grasset of Purple Jungle
The objects seamlessly marry a western and Indian aesthetic. The design is contemporary but the humour is desi.
That’s not just the domain of Indians. French designer Iris Strill has also been adept at packaging India’s quirks, first in her bags for the export market, and more recently, for the Indian market too. She and her business partner Emeline Grasset set up the design studio Purple Jungle, a collection of bags, cushions, stationery, coasters, stuffed toys and tablemats strong on bright colours and influenced by Indian truck art, wall art, even the old-fashioned tel maalish wala and the neighbourhood barber. Iris, who has lived here for a decade, and Emeline explain that their products aim to reflect India’s chaos and confusion as well as its energy and vibrancy. “We are not tourists anymore,” they say. They sell through the upmarket Delhi store Zaza and their own shop in the capital’s trendy Hauz Khas Village, and are hoping to move to other cities.
Nidhi Singh of Indigreen with her Bollywood kitsch poster art and ‘go green’ messages (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)
Think India and can Bollywood be far behind? Indigreen, set up by Nidhi Singh and Gaurav Gupta in Bombay, is frankly inspired by Bollywood’s kitschy poster art, transplanting it onto clothing and bags, lamps and mirror frames. The message is serious—‘go green’—but filmi aesthetics add a sense of fun to these eco-friendly values. For example, organic cotton (“100 per cent free of chemicals”) T-shirts jazzed up with compelling Hindi film motifs. “Everyone wants a piece of Bollywood so we work with the essence of Bollywood, the mushiness, the over-the-top emotions and the riot of colours,” says Nidhi. They sell through stores in Bombay, Goa, Pune, Delhi and Bangalore. Similarly, Indian Hippy, a collective of the last few remaining Bollywood film poster and billboard artists in India, are propagating their work through, leather folders, even foldable chairs.
The target consumer for these retailers is the young Indian, apt to find such humour cool, and wanting to define himself (and herself) by it. “We are a one-stop shop for the young and the young at heart,” says Rajat. What’s more, in a booming economy, even the young can afford these products, most priced between Rs 150 and Rs 1,000. “The disposable income of the youth has risen remarkably,” says Madhumita of Loose Ends.
Himanshu feels, however, that the popularity of such products also reflects a growing adventurousness among Indians in general, and not just the young. “They are enjoying fresh takes on the familiar,” he says. “People are travelling abroad, and becoming more aware of style statements,” adds Rajat. “Interiors are not about marble and velvet anymore,” says Madhumita. Clearly, they are about being cool, witty and inventive. So perhaps it’s time to put away the bone china, and bring on the funky mugs.