Pavitra Mohan's South Asian art-inspired store has a range of spunky, creative products.
Take a few minutes before you enter Masala Chai. Stand outside and take in the clean, white, cozy little building in front of you. Relish the cheery glimpses of colour you see from the main road. Then, put your best foot forward and walk in. Prepare to be delighted.
Masala Chai, with two stores open across the city, offers customers a delectable range of jewellery and clothes (saris, kurtis, tunics, t-shirts...) as well as a range of knick-knacks from Bollywood-themed card decks to stylised pen drives and pins.
In the era of social media that we live in today, it should come as no surprise that Masala Chai first started as a blog. India's first and only blog featuring South Asian Art and Design from around the world, it was a perfect platform for lesser known yet incredibly talented artists from around the continent to display their work and get recognised.
The Masala Chai story began with Pavitra Mohan, a young Chennai-vaasi who went on to study Arts Management in Singapore. After a failed attempt to satisfy her creative side with a course in English Literature here in Chennai, she went on to imbibe the global experience that Singapore has to offer. This decision was perhaps the single most important factor in the birth of Masala Chai.
Being a part of Singapore's diasporic culture and gathering experience in art curation, Pavitra got more and more interested in the phenomenon of ‘brown' art. “When you are abroad, no one looks at you as Indian or Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan.” she says. “At the end of the day, we all boil down to ‘brown'”. Masala Chai the blog began with that aim in mind; to help Pavitra sound out the information she gathered about South Asian art and its meaning. “I never intended to start commercially. It was just an interest that I pursued online and other people caught on to it. I never imagined the stores would happen.” she reminisces.
What does she think about the power of social media? “Blogs are democratic but content is king.” are her final words on the issue. As with many of this generation, Pavitra has also benefited greatly from the power of the internet. Not only did the venture start off as a blog but Masala Chai's largest source of publicity so far has been Gen Y spreading the word on various networking sites. She even goes as far as crediting South Asian art's increasing popularity and public awareness about it to these sites, saying people are now beginning to recognise designers and illustrators and even “follow” them on these websites.
Talking to Pavitra, I couldn't help but look around the room we were sitting it. Walls were lined with knick-knacks. There were racks full of clothes. In front of me was a spacious desk and I was settled on a plush, comfortable sofa. Masala Chai was sophisticated and chic but was also kitschy and colourful. Did this reflect Pavitra herself? “I like different types of art. I like sombre art as well as eclectic stuff” she confesses.
Tracing the growth of the blog to the stores, Pavitra goes down memory lane, talking of how the blog once had a great following but was then plagued by plagiarism worries. The stores were the idea of Pavitra's good friend Ashvin Rajagopalan (of Ashvita fame) and today, Chennai boasts of two Masala Chai stores. Though Mumbai and Delhi offer better brand recognition (after Pavitra and her start up were featured in Elle, Vogue Digital, etc.), Chennai was home for both the partners and Masala Chai was born in real-time.
But why “Masala Chai” I ask her and she grins. “The drink is brown,” she says with a chuckle. “It is something that is recognised by non-South Asians as well. It is known. Everyone has heard of it.”
For the laymen amongst us, Masala Chai may catch us by surprise. How did we not know of so much local talent before? Pavitra tells us about how local brands are making their own products and with the right connections, content and consistency, any talent can make it big on the art scene. With the younger crowd enjoying more purchasing power in recent years, stores like Masala Chai and entrepreneurs like Pavitra have bright plans for the future.
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Pavitra what she has to tell the world out there, students who have dreams of making it big on their own. “Come to Masala Chai. Buy.” comes her tongue-in-cheek reply before adding, “Make sure you do what you love.” As I bid her goodbye against the background of all of Masala Chai's finery, I find myself promising to come back soon minus the questions. Masala Chai promises to pamper every customer with a splatter of colour, a dollop of creativity and a whole lot of spunk.
Visit Masala Chai at 11, 2nd Street, RK Salai, Mylapore or 11, Bawa Road, Alwarpet.
Yashasvini is a student of IIT-M.