Scene 1: Driving from Delhi to the hills, you have passed the overhyped Murthal dhabas because you didn’t brake in time. Sukhdev Vaishno Dhaba is the next big thing you see. As you clean your steel plate with a paper napkin, a shop in a corner catches the eye. On display, next to mugs and watches with faces of beaming couples, are T-shirts on headless mannequins emblazoned with the poster boys of Indian kitsch—a truck and an Enfield.
Setting 2: A Mahindra Scorpio hurtling down the BRT corridor in Delhi halts at a red-light. A child of about 15 approaches, holding bright orange figurines hanging by a thread. Zoom in a little closer, and you see that the bright orange figurines are actually plastic figures of Hanuman with a gada in one hand and hillock in the other. The girl at the wheel, hidden behind oversized glasses and curly hair, buys a couple and promptly dangles it from her rear-view mirror.
You get visions of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, held in Delhi a couple of weeks earlier, where a friend in the fashion industry returned from a round of the display stalls to whisper, “This whole Nida Mahmood thing, the old film posters, and the Hindi, it’s nice… but it’s getting old.” Some 60 feet away, outside the air-conditioned venue, stands a fleet of garishly painted auto-rickshaws (orange once again, an ode to the same simian divinity), entitled Object D’Arte.
Three-wheelers are now the canvas of some of India’s most celebrated artists. As the Fashion Week nears its end, the kitsch icon par extraordinaire, the humble cycle-rickshaw, makes an appearance as part of a ‘Life on Wheels’ initiative. Backstage, make-up artist Yatan Ahluwalia shows off a brown Lambretta T-shirt designed by a brand specialising in kitsch called 1469.
It’s here that you start complaining of shortness of breath and an overdose of the same symbols of Indian kitsch over and over again. The problem, as a fashion editor puts it, is that the icons on T-shirts simply aren’t evolving beyond being plastered on everything from mugs to key-chains to coasters to key hangings and everything else conceivable, thrice over.
Mahmood sent out models wearing headgear fashioned out of chai-patti wrappers fixed onto Nehru caps and lotus icons. She insists she does her own take on Indian kitsch. Unfortunately, what she sent out on the runway, ‘Buri nazar waaley tera mooh fluorescent pink’ (instead of ‘kaala’) on signboards above models’ heads, is no eureka moment even by the devil’s reckoning.
Kitsch was in bad shape even before Delhi’s fashion week started. Last month, Road, Movie, a film which could’ve become the brochure movie of Indian kitsch, had already landed with a plop at the box office. What worked a couple of seasons ago was suddenly passé, and even Abhay Deol couldn’t quite save it. An ageing Chevy truck, decked up like a bride of the desert, roams the lands with a gypsy, an ageing entertainer, and a young runaway—the truck full of old film reels and the runaway running away from his father’s hair-oil business. Even its tel maalish songs, which had potential as kitsch anthems, failed to draw audiences. “It’s trippy,” said some people of the movie, “but pretentious,” curling up their lips in the same breath.
It’s a peculiar pickle that Indian kitsch finds itself in. Indian pop art icons are in a strange situation. On one hand, they’re being produced in hordes, and nothing kills the ‘cool’ factor as much as going mass market. On the other hand, it’s being termed pretentious. Designers like Abhishek Gupta-Nandita Basu (champions of the cause for Indian rebels on T-shirts) and Lecoanet Hemant (they’d done a fabulous line with iconography from fire-cracker ads) too have turned their attention elsewhere.
It turns out that art is using these icons as a sort of outreach programme for the masses, a gimmick that seems aimed not at artistic irony as much as gaining access to a larger crowd of buyers (by making art more relatable). Supercilious it still is, but that doesn’t matter. It’s almost like a British couple inviting their friends in India for a visit, telling them there’re great Indian restaurants in their neighbourhood—patronising at best.
The pursuit of the ‘glocalised’ that propelled the whole concept of Indian kitsch as an art form seems to have been abandoned in part by the fashionably aware yuppie as well. How did that happen? It suddenly seemed like it was drawing too much attention; there was too much India, shining way too much. We were better off with globalisation plain and simple, the yuppie seemed to be saying now.
Even though people like Himanshu Dogra of Playclan (kitschy Indian symbols are the store’s USP) and Happily Unmarried (makers of the famed ‘Kya Tumney Aaj Phir Sharab Pee Hai’ series) and 1469 have gone all out to make India cool on T-shirts, these have now lost their shock value. They now evoke gasps only slightly louder than cigarette pants.
The original enthusiasm that we’d all shown in Bhagat Singh’s mug replacing Che Guevara’s on the chest of the Indian desi, somehow seems misplaced now. Tragically, it’s been promptly moved to the back of the closet. According to Umang Shah of the Brooklyn based label Chor Bazaar, it turned into a shout: “Brown person here!” Somewhere along the line, in the race to be desi, we ended up being too desi, thus losing all sense of sophisticated distinctiveness.
Nida Mahmood, who’s celebrated for her Indian kitsch collections like High on Chai and her use of Bollywood iconography, admits there’s a problem, and the problem is that the colloquial icons are not evolving. “We should do more than just picking up an Indian image and sticking it on a T-shirt, Andy Warhol style. People these days just want to ride the wave,” she says, trying to set herself apart from all the regular kitsch iconography flying around. Not afraid to be contradictory, she does think the way forward is to stick to Warhol’s principle of drawing attention to something “basic and in-your-face, even if it’s a cobweb, a chai shop or a signboard”. Mahmood, though, tries to distinguish between her Rickshaw line, and the “Auto-rickshaws that millions of others have already done.”
Is tea had? Is chai slurped? Distinctions count, sure. Kitsch fashion was meant to be a counterpoint, the proverbial middle finger, to the snobbery of high fashion. But once it loses its original verve as a rebel yell, its sense of sneaky chutzpah, then it’s all downhill. While Mahmood insists she’s making it (anti-fashion kitsch) fashionable, it would be a betrayal of the cause if it began to share space with the same fashion that it wrote off as frivolous, flippant and superficial.
And even as we spend our time debating whether kitsch counts as fashion or anti-fashion, the boy who sold the orange Hanuman trinkets has disappeared. Of the dozen that he sells everyday, most end up as danglers in sedans and luxury SUVs. Yet, he isn’t selling enough, he complains. Chinese cell phone chargers and car screens, he figures, might be a better bet.