Sixty five years after Independence, we are learning to be less apologetic about ourselves. Indian designers are embracing street culture with a vengeance.

About 15 years ago, a Dutch couple visiting us wanted to go souvenir shopping. We guided them gently towards marble replicas of the Taj, brass inlay trays from Moradabad, and intricate stone figurines from Mahabalipuram. They came back that evening with, hold your breath, a garish Lakshmi in a bright yellow frame with little red lights running up and down. We were aghast. Marieke and Jeroen were delighted. They had wanted something quirky and uniquely Indian and this was perfect, they said.

In short, they wanted kitsch. We, on the other hand, all serious and self-conscious, wanted them to take back a piece of India that was all art and glorious workmanship. Wasn’t it bad enough they had reels of photos of defecating posteriors on railway tracks and a ten-minute short film of a cow blocking traffic? Why couldn’t they at least buy beautiful Indian souvenirs?

A new confidence

That was many moons ago, back when we were still finding our feet and worrying about what the world thought of us. We are still worrying, a uniquely Indian obsession, but we have also found our voice and our confidence in more ways than one. A lot has been written of this phenomenon in films. How, for example, a Gangs of Wasseypur portrays a very Indian underbelly in a way that is neither apologetic nor gloomy but rather revelling in its mix of casual violence, blatant corruption, raw sensuality and coarse patois; an India far removed from the photo-shopped prettiness served up in Karan Johar movies packaged for a sanitised diaspora.

This ability to engage with the street, and in a way that owns the street, is something that has now begun to emerge in the language of design as well. The late 1990s and 2000s are proving to be watershed eras not just for the relative economic prosperity they ushered in but the accompanying outburst of self-assurance bestowed on the national psyche, nowhere more evident than in pop art and design.

It’s been 65 years since Independence and Indian design has been struggling to find a unique contemporary voice that is not derived from traditional crafts, the inherited reservoir of riches we have drawn on endlessly. Now, over the last decade, a crop of brash young designers has come up with an unabashed outpouring of kitsch that is bright, funny, brilliantly quirky and quite uniquely Indian. Thus, for example, where once we would have been sheepishly apologetic for a time when the Ambassador was our only car, today we worship it in design. Delhi-based Play Clan reproduces the iconic car on the cover of an attractive notebook — perfect for a generation just learning to preserve the Ambi as a bit of history.

Chai shops, matchboxes, Hinglish, truck art, chaat-wallahs, over-the-top Bollywood – quotidian stuff we don’t really notice — all this is grist for the designer’s mill. “We look at ordinary life and give it a new take,” says Himanshu Dogra of Play Clan. And it works because you identify with it immediately; with nostalgia, with affection, or a rueful shake of the head.

Bangalore-based Chumbak makes fridge magnets showing desperately over-loaded coolies and lorries. Happily Unmarried sells CD cases that look like steel tiffin boxes and clever coffee cups with sketches of Chinamen and legends that go ‘Ek Cheeni’, ‘Do Cheeni’. Funky ramp designer Nida Mahmood, often called the Queen of Kitsch, sells garishly coloured Basanti cushions and Don chairs. Play Clan t-shirts have images of chawls and a Bombay local Ladies’ Compartment.

India was once diffident about a lot of this. If you were chic, you watched Godard, not Bollywood. And you didn’t really own up to the bedlam of a Triplicane or Hazrat Nizamuddin. Now, India is celebrating that very chaos and colour with a surprising touch of assertion. As Pavan K Varma, author of the brilliant Being Indian, says, “Without doubt, there is a degree of confidence, even flamboyance, in the manner in which India expresses itself today.”

When Rahul Anand and Rajat Tuli started Happily Unmarried in 2003, “everything was either exotic or mass-produced with no design,” says Anand. “There was nothing that spoke to you in your language.” His brand, he says, is about having fun and being very Indian: “In the last decade, we have learnt to laugh at ourselves.”

Delighting in excess

The phenomenon, according to Dr. Deepak Mehta, professor of Sociology at Delhi University, is about visibility of a certain kind. “What allows this is that in so many ways the prevailing Indian aesthetic is totally against the Western canon. It is loud, it breaks ideas of organisation, it is lurid.” This sense of excess, this in-your-face vibrancy is possibly just a step away from the Maharaja and the naked fakir. Icons now replaced, as Mehta says, by Bollywood and the auto. Of course, it is economics that is giving Indians a much louder voice in drawing-room debates. But, according to Mehta, aggressiveness is also a characteristic of large, powerful nations; thus, the popular image of the overbearing American. “We like to think we have arrived on the world stage; it encourages us to be loud and crass,” he says.

Is this being reflected in popular art? To some extent, yes, but undeniably what we are seeing is also the gradual evolution of a unique Indian design meme. “Even five years ago, we were looking West for ideas,” says Dogra. “Now, there is a shift in confidence. Our design is now saying — ‘we are here, this is what we do.’” The interesting thing is that besides superficial exploitation of the trend, where everybody puts an auto on a t-shirt, it has also triggered a serious re-imagination of traditional crafts. Thus, you have Play Clan using Worli art for a line in partnership with British designer Paul Smith. “We are heavily inspired by tribal art but we use it in today’s context,” says Dogra.

In that sense, Indian designers have an embarrassment of riches — not just centuries of stunning craft behind them, but an immensely vivid street life up for grabs. “Ultimately, all expressions which endure, of any form, must be rooted in one’s own culture,” points out Pavan Varma. “Fusion can’t be engineered; it must evolve from the spirit of the original form.”

There are already voices accusing the design fraternity of wallowing in kitsch. Both Mehta and Varma talk of learning discernment to spot the original from mere sophisticated mimicry. However, this phase is inevitable in the cultural learning curve. After six decades of being in limbo, Indian design is waking up. Finally, we see acceptance, laughter, irony and, most important, a connectedness with reality. Celebrating as it does, and in many ways establishing, a national character after centuries of fragile self-esteem, desi kitsch is quite a happy baby step for a people trying to come of age.