Mira Malhotra: It's not kitsch, it's just Indian

Mira Malhotra: It's not kitsch, it's just Indian

A new addition to the Kulture Shop family, the Bombay-based Mira Malhotra has had quite a multi-cultural upbringing. We catch up with Mira at home, between housework, client work and getting Studio Kohl set up in Malad, and have a long and illuminating conversation!

The super talented designer who grew up on a diet of consumerism, Renaissance art (she hates it but swears by Caravaggio) and a confusing mix of tradition vs the ubiquitous "western culture" while growing up between Saudi Arabia and Mumbai was tempered by NID and is now founder and proprietor of Studio Kohl, under which she also runs her boutique brand Kiss Papeterie specialising in custom stationery.


Mira in her workspace

KS: You've grown up between India and Saudi Arabia (KSA), both countries are extremely traditional, with a few parts exposed to modern lifestyles, leaving large parts of an older culture to deal with what is new. Has that shaped your approach to art & design?

Mira: I guess it's influenced me, though mostly unconsciously, thanks for pointing that out! I definitely lived in these two cultures, neither of which want to really admit their craze for anything Western (of which I am also guilty) but then cling to their traditions like they are sacred and unquestionable. But let me tell you I never saw much art in KSA. They hardly even celebrate their own art and crafts in Saudi Arabia, it's just a mish-mash of whatever Americans bring down, completely imported- except for what they wear, of course. "The West" is all I saw, and that's what filled up my brain as a kid. Shopping malls, supermarkets, American sitcoms, Sesame Street, videogames, candy and chocolate bars... I was really into all of it.

Coming to India was a huge shock. My parents also had a stereotypical skill-based idea of art so when we came here they were like "hey, Renaissance painters are great, since she's interested in Art we'll show her that". They bought me all these "Great Artists" books for 25 bucks in town about these very boring painters who had static subject matter I couldn't relate with except for the fact that there were pictures of Jesus and Mary and all, which was great because we are Catholic. Other than my beloved Caravaggio, [the books were] all the same to me. I found it difficult to identify with western art but also Indian art. Like I kept imitating western art but wasn't happy because it never came out quite right, as if it didn't come from me, and then there was Indian art which I had never seen before and had no basis in realism and did not seem "correct".

Eventually I committed myself to drawing things around me, rather than drawing the stuff other artists drew around them which didn't match, maybe out of a feeling of wanting to belong somewhere, into some kind of culture that would accept me.


Studio Kohl's Diwali 2013 greeting card featuring crackers and typography

KS: How did you go from there to ending up as a designer?

Mira: I just liked all these activities... Making logos, and drawing, and craft and stuff. I still like sitting down on the floor, painting, making something, smelling all the materials like glue and paint (I'm not a glue sniffer though, promise!) which is why answering mails and calls is really like a punishment. So when my cousin told me I could do it for a living, it suddenly clicked for me. I didn't even consider anything else. Though I must admit, choosing between being a designer and a fine artist was a financial choice. I read in some Indian career advice book (which was surprisingly comprehensive and well-written) that fine artists should usually have inheritances and rich families.

All in all though I'd like to be an image-maker... whether designer or artist, I am fascinated by image. I know a lot of people fascinated by typography but I'm kinda meh about it. The ambiguous-ness that an image can hold, and its power to transcend language is way more appealing to me.


Illustration for the poem A Wednesday's Letter, for the Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing

KS: You've mentioned in the past how important going to NID was for you. How do art/design schools shape designers?

Mira: There's already a most basic difference between fine art and applied art and I can't comment on the former. But Applied Arts, when I was in college, was essentially training for advertising art. I've heard that has changed somewhat. I'm not sure what the state of Applied Arts schools in the country but while it helped me realise ideas, aesthetics and get me decent at skills, I was still way behind in being just generally "useful"  I saw myself as a person selling (sometimes) badly designed products to people by lying to them. Not appealing at all. Also there was little content and I was very hungry for that. I think it was great for skills though.

Design in NID is serious business. You are no longer an artist by any standard when you walk through those gates. Everything has to be justified and you can't use intuition. Subjectivity is not encouraged, but more being able to communicate in measurable, accurate ways. You have to unlearn.

Graphic design in NID meant tackling problems, sometimes serious social ones via design. You can't believe how my head exploded when during a seminar at NID, Paul Hughes said "War is a graphic design problem." Suddenly all the stuff my faculty was saying made sense (though yes the statement was so rock-n-roll, it made me sit up). We had to approach everything very carefully and study it's context. Skill was something you learned by yourself, completely independent of the course.


Posters for Mumbai-based music events Live from the Console

KS: So there's this big debate between designers, where some designers think their job is entirely to communicate and not do art, whereas others think design is a function of art. Now looking at art as a large, sort of abstract record of the times we live in, what is your take on this?

Mira: Oooh. This question. I've had such a conflict here. Art does communicate yes, but it's not very measurable  i.e. it's more interpretative and subjective, it makes you question. Graphic Design, what I was taught in NID, is a more exact visual science, it gives you answers. More left brained (if that whole left/right brain supposition is true) and less intuition, we work with logic and rationale. I found this a bit stifling.

I think to each their own but yes due to industrialization the need to visually communicate measurably for a client  which should translate into measurable sales  is more important than ever before. A lot of designers like me do this kind of work to make money because it's reliable and gives you bread and butter work. When we make enough money we can do stuff like graphic art or maybe even real fine art. And try to subvert all the same symbols we used there, hopefully.


Left: Poster for an Ennui.bomb gig in Mumbai Right: Artwork for Grazia Young Fashion Award

KS: Do you see your work as feminist (I'm just responding to what I've seen of your work) or in another particular ideological space?

Mira: My work fluctuates between loads of things, because I'm required to, with clients, but as a graphic designer first I'm more interested in symbolism, or reducing an art piece to it's visual minimum so it has something to say conceptually with no distraction, but still looks fun or interesting. In terms of treatment I like work that divides the picture plane more than work which forces perspective or realism on the viewer and has unnecessary details that obscure meaning. I'd like to create a situation where people looking at my work have to "relook" at things around them, or redefine them or give commentary. I love when images combine: you have two separate notions of two separate images and you then see them as one whole in a piece of art and that creates an entirely new meaning.

I would love to create feminist art but am not quite sure if I'm ready yet to take a stand on topics that I haven't quite decided on. It requires a lot of thought and it's not something I'd like to disrespectfully do, that's one thing I consider sacrosanct. If I'm going to make a point, I'd rather do it right, in this case, because the point is more important than the way it looks. But this is my personal work. In my graphic design work there is a large chunk of work going out that helps women, and I read the literature I have to layout like it's my bible.


Mira's Suswagatam Artist Series

KS: People have often termed your work as 'kitschy'. What does that word mean to you, and do you agree with it being kitschy?

Mira: I don't think my work is kitschy. Maybe a few things I've been inspired by in the past have been kitschy items but no, I'd like to think I'm just interpreting things around me through my lens. I'm really fascinated by objects in bazaars, especially ones used for non-utilitarian purposes like ornamentation and all so I get why the comparison is drawn. But kitsch is supposed to be crass, sentimental and above all ludicrous, without any real planning or thought, where completely unrelated objects are juxtaposed without any connection or meaning. I'd like to think I put a good amount of thought into my work so, no.

If art has a few Indianised elements it's not kitsch, it's just Indian. Anything done without a western sensibility of design is called kitsch in India simply because western sensibilities are now the norm. In fact when western sensibilities came to India, Indians created kitsch Indian art because we didn't understand it and wanted to retrofit our content with their (western) treatment and it didn't work out too well for us. Kitsch is more like a mismatch made in heaven.


Haath Chalakhi by Mira

KS: Speaking of pop vs. kitsch, tell us a little something about Haathchalakhi, your first KS themed design.

Mira: Haath Chalaakhi (for Kulture Shop's upcoming themed collection - Wit) is a cheeky little piece, and was more created to be a snarky way of being patriotic. Here I'm saying Indians do it better. I'm also borrowing from imagery of mythology/Gods and Goddesses, but via a multi-purpose Swiss knife that has magic powers and is far more useful than a bunch of tweezers.

I've snuck in a few other references as well, of a sickle for agriculture, and a belan (rolling pin) …a must-have weapon for the Indian woman. Every woman should carry one! …But that's just my opinion.

KS: Many designers find it easier (financially solvent) to work in creative agencies than open their own studios. Since you're easing out the creases, so to speak, in Studio Kohl, I wanted to know where the impetus to strike out on your own comes from.

Mira: I decided to go studio when I'd already realized that doing what I love means difficulties with money. Secondly, it came from realizing that I couldn't fit into the 9 to 5 scene, which for designers often becomes 11 to 11 (or even later). I still work with erratic timings but at least it's on my own terms. But I think the independence, most of it came from my experience in BFA to be honest. I learned to self-learn, and take matters into my own hands and that extended into the way I worked. When you learn like that you feel very in control and you can't wait for anyone. Also we never worked much in groups so "being a teamplayer" wasn't high on my agenda and I feel that for some creative people that's a highly overrated skill.

Good work is good work — created in isolation or in a team shouldn't matter. There are some who love the bustling office environs with the bosses and the team, but I guess I'm just different. I perform best when I've let go of these. I didn't like working for extremely large corporates either, it was just not me. I went to NID particularly for the fact that it trained you to go out there on your own. The words "design leader" and "entrepreneur" in the admissions brochure stood out for me so I applied. NID really propelled me and gave me the impetus I needed. Also, all the creative stuff I really loved came from independent ventures that other people had done, so I was just doing the same. I feel I'm finally doing what I want, even if it's super hectic most times!


Kiss by Studio Kohl - Mira's luxe stationery brand

KS: Where do you see Studio Kohl going?

Mira: Studio Kohl is starting out right now. Being able to control the work you get, and what you do with it is by far the most exciting part of this journey. It's the mumma-brand, under which I also have Kiss Papeterie by Studio Kohl (named after the kiss-cut in printing), which caters to people who want luxe-stationery. So far it's been mostly wedding invites it's where I get to do my screen printing shenanigans and it is deliberately sweet and charming while some of my Studio Kohl work can be bright and cheerfully obnoxious.

As more independent studios crop up there is this need to be more niche and I really like to do my personal work but I also believe in responsible work, or giving back, which I hope to do even more of, soon. This could mean anything from improving designer's situations, creating resources, fighting gender bias, etc. The other thing I'd like to recreate is the vibe we would have in our NID graphic studio, where we would all work, play, learn, laugh and give each other feedback, even if we were not working on the same thing.