Horn. Not ok. Please

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Sunaina Kumar tells you why it’s time for desi kitsch to die, die, die

Photo: Poulomi Dey

MAE WEST knew what she was talking about when she said too much of a good thing can be taxing. that in a nutshell is the story of Indian kitsch. It started as a camp, underground movement that appropriated everyday Indian symbols like nimbu mirchi, auto, kaali peeli and cutting chai, coloured them in multihued nostalgia and put them on bags, cushions and coasters. Either you got it or you didn’t. As a consumer of Indian kitsch, you were saying several things about yourself; you were irreverent, nostalgic, rebellious, patriotic, fun and bold, in short, desi cool. that was then. Now, to borrow from fashion parlance, a nimbu mirchi tote is so last season.

Here’s a question; if you could have a rupee for each time you have spotted a “horn ok please” truck on a keychain, poster, coaster, notebook, tray, box, how much money would you accrue? Certainly enough to buy yourself a real truck to paint whatever you please at the back. For a cool edgy aesthetic to remain cool and edgy requires constant reinvention. Kitsch went mainstream a couple of seasons back. A celebration of the “we are like this only” attitude, it referenced all that was familiar, old Bollywood posters, truck art, chaotic Indian streets and sights and put them on clothes, accessories and tchotchke. Accessibility and appreciation have both grown hand in hand, as a growing tribe of young designers cater to a growing demand from different sorts of people.

Kitsch has often been described as anti-art, or as the thing that money purchases when trying to buy beauty. Leaving aside the purist point of view, there is no taking away from its commercialism. “It is a mix of art and business. We have to make money and give people what they want,” says designer Nidhi Chopra of the brand pop Goes the Art, which designs kitsch wall clocks, cushion covers, table lamps and laptop bags. She admits that desi kitsch has become a victim of commercialisation. “the audience for kitsch is steadily growing. people want art to be a part of their daily lives rather than something that hangs on the wall. So they choose ashtrays, boxes, furniture and other unusual items. Most of them want images that are tried and tested, like dabbawalas, posters from Don or Mother India, calendar art set in eclectic colours.”

If that is not enough, one has to contend with a renewed love for kitsch in pop-ular culture. Bollywood, the storehouse of everything kitsch decided to up the ante with over-the-top ritzy styled productions like Action Replayy and Once Upon a Time in Mumbai. Zangoora: The Gypsy Prince, the Bollywood- styled musical, the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games have all been an ode to Indian kitsch. Even the publishing world followed suit with Chennai-based Blaft reviving tamil pulp fiction with the screaming for attention kitsch covers.

Delhi-based artist Nida Mahmood, often dubbed the “queen of kitsch” with her collections inspired from symbolic staples like chai, matchboxes, Bollywood and Indian signboards, defends her tribe. “We’re a generation that wants to associate with everything that is funny, colourful and cool about being Indian and that is what desi pop art is catering to. people think what we are doing is very easy, adding colours to clichés. We may be using the same symbols over and again, but it takes time to reinvent cultural references and convert them to art.”

WITH KITSCH caught in its own clichés, pushing the envelope is not easy. But there is a handful who are trying it. happily Unmarried is a brand that cleverly reinterprets familiar cultural stereotypes. their Bhojpuri glasses, “Daaru tumhaar, glass hamaar” and KLPDmugs can sit proudly on any mantelpiece.

‘You can either stick Madhubala on a T-shirt or try something thoughtprovoking,” says NID graduate Neil Dantas

Neil Dantas, a young Mumbai-based designer of t-shirts and totes, uses iconic Mumbai imagery but with a twist. Like a t-shirt with the red BEST bus but without any defined lines to denote it. “through the open bus, I am trying to say that everyone is welcome in Mumbai, irrespective of which state they belong to. the Indian identity is something that is very important to our work. You can either define it by downloading snake charmers or Madhubala pictures from the Internet and sticking them on t-shirts or try to say something a little thought-provoking,” says Dantas, an NID graduate. Milan KFundera says of kitsch: “No matter how much we scorn it, it is an integral part of the human condition.” We say, give us this our daily kitsch, but please repackage it.

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