It’s time to introduce yet another artist freshly added to our roster! Hemant Kumar wears multiple hats. He’s been an architect, comic-maker, a graphic designer and now a UX Designer with Microsoft India. Having grown up on a fantastic diet of Indian superheroes of the eighties, Hemant made his own weekly comic series called The Owl’s Howl, a web comic about life, and all that jazz surrounding it. Currently living in Hyderabad for his work with Microsoft, Hemant’s wide and varied graphic design clientele includes Unilever for Lifebuoy soap, logo design for stylist and activist Sapna Bhavnani’s Mad-o-Wat salon, Indian rock band Dischordian and publishing giant Penguin India. Here’s a few getting-to-know-you questions about this architect turned graphic artist turned UX Designer.
KS: Tell us a little bit about yourself – what was school like for you?
HK: I had a very typical middle class upbringing… nothing special. I wasn’t really into studies and sports, and spent most of my time drawing. The other thing I loved was comics. The only comics available at that time were in Hindi so my first superheroes were Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv and the gang. I learnt almost everything from comics; from evolution to human anatomy. Comics became the first and only drawing teacher I’ve ever had. I spent hours copying from them. In my teens I got to know of DC and Marvel heroes through cartoons that aired on Doordarshan. That was the second phase in my learning where I would watch stuff on television and draw the characters later from memory. The walls of my room were filled with superhero drawings. My mom would sometimes get me art books from a library, but what good are Renaissance paintings in front of an action filled comic book? I went to a very reputed school but it was kind of a letdown because back in those days no one took arts seriously. People indulged in them but only as hobbies and not as career options. For me drawing was the one thing I knew and it was my identity among my peers. But, in high school the only option available to a kid was either studying engineering or medicine. Thankfully I got to know of studying architecture as an option just two months before finishing high school and somehow managed to get into a college.
KS: You trained as an architect, but now you work as a UX designer at Microsoft. How did that leap happen?
HK: It’s more like a slow transition than a leap.
I studied architecture in college. I learnt a lot in those five years but didn’t want to practice it as a career, hence decided to pursue post-graduation in design at IDC IIT Bombay. It was a great experience, surrounded by talented people and learning cool shit but at the same time I was completely confused about my future plans. So at the end of the course I took the first job that came along. The next two years I worked as designer for an e-learning company in Mumbai.
Then I got bored of it. I quit the job and started my freelance practice. Now I was doing all that I had wanted to do. I did illustration, designed websites and software along with a lot of print design work. I experimented a lot with my personal work and developed a stylistic identity for myself. I got to work on some cool commercial projects too. Most notable ones are, designing spatial graphics for Sakaal newspaper’s Flora fountain office and designing the album for Dischoridian’s debut album ‘The Feni Farm Riot’. It went on to win the Jack Daniel’s Rock Award for best album art on 2011 among other recognitions.
During this time I also setup an interaction design studio with a couple of my friends, providing consultancy to tech startups and media companies. In summer 2012 I got the opportunity to do an art residency at School of Visual Arts, New York where I met some kick-ass illustrators from all over the world and fell in love with the city. But soon after I got back, we had to shut down the studio due to cash flow problems. My learning from those three years was the realization that I loved making art, but not commercially and definitely not to earn a living. I decided to keep design and art separate. So when I got an offer from Microsoft in 2013 to come on-board as a user experience designer, I accepted and moved to Hyderabad.
KS: So how does the day job now off-set your personal creative work?
HK: Having a day job and managing personal work is challenging. Especially when you want to give both the attention they deserve. So these days I find it difficult to make new art on a regular basis. The thing is I love to do a lot of things but, I am a bit challenged when it comes to multi-tasking. I can give my 100% to only one thing at a time in a stretch. So all the things I love doing take place in weekly phases. One week I am working hard at my day job and just scribbling to count for personal work, the second week I am taking it easy in office and drawing like a maniac back home. Third week I might just spend reading endlessly. The fact is there is a lack of structure in the way I work… something I struggle with a lot, given all the personal and professional commitments.
KS: Who/what are your daily inspirations?
HK: It’s a very difficult question. I can’t name examples as they are just too many of them. But on an uber level, the three biggest sources of inspirations for me have been the built environment, visual narratives and the human body.
KS: Tell us a little about Intergalactic Rickshaw Ride and Gulliver Travels Downtown, which have been curated for KS?
HK: These both being personal work are in some way inspired by the city of Mumbai. Originally conceived as sketches in my sketchbook, these were my impressions of a solitary individual in the vastness of the city.Gulliver Travels Downtown is about feeling lonely in crowed city, when the city itself is somehow not enough for one’s dreams and ambitions. It’s when you can perceive the entire city with such clarity and objectivity that it appears no different than being in small playground, and the feeling when you can see through the triviality of all that surrounds you.Where Gulliver Travels Downtown is about loneliness, Intergalactic Rickshaw Ride is about finding a connection, which makes shimmering city lights become stars and you find yourself not on earth but traveling somewhere far away. May be it because of the company you have in the mild monsoon drizzle… or maybe it’s just the wooziness from the wine you had at dinner? But for all it’s worth, it’s one heck of a ride.
KS: How do you think a platform like KS can help graphic artists?
HK: It’s a wonderful platform. At one hand it is giving voice and recognition to both upcoming and established artists alike, and on the other it is building a community of artists who appreciate and inspire each other; a community which others aspire to get associated with. To me KS is like an ecosystem which itself is evolving with each theme and artist that is coming onboard. Over time, Kulture Shop can be a live documentation of contemporary popular art scene in India with all its influences, styles, pioneers and key works well curated. I see Kulture Shop as much more than a place to score cool art-prints, T-shirts and merchandise. It is becoming what you can call as an art institution.
KS: Finally, where is design in India headed, in your opinion?
HK: Design in India is all over the place. Just like everything else about India, there is hardly a statement about Design that will be absolute. It is both global and local with enough varied examples to showcase all possible stylistic and strategic approaches. Amidst all of this there can’t be only one possible direction that design is headed towards. But the question now is, which will be that one dominant force that in long term will get to influence the understanding of the term ‘Design in India’.
If I were to go by what I see being taught in design schools and practiced in the industry alike, I would have to say it is largely headed towards a generic future devoid of cultural expression and regional identity. That at least before there happens a renaissance of information age; a movement to go back to the basics and question things all over again… till then Indian design and designers is going to seamlessly blend in with the global trends, barring the few sparks of that brilliant outliers that shine through and will continue to do so.