He's a glass apart
Cheaper than stained glass but with the same look. An artist discovers a market winner in glass painting
Every piece by Prathap is marked by a distinctive sense of style and colour Photo: Murali Kumar K.
THE ENTRANCE to Prathap's house is marked by workmen cutting and hewing wood. A few steps beyond them and suddenly the otherwise stark walls spring to life with vibrant paintings of stylised figures from across the world: Africa, Egypt and India.
Stylised representations of women, fish in the sea, geometrical patterns, all painted on to glass, find their way on to lamps, mirrors, coasters, and napkin holders. Prathap Ruthnaswamy's company Bottle Tree paints on glass, to provide people with a cheaper option to stained glass paintings while giving the same effect. When kept in direct sunlight the work might not last for as long as real stained glass would, but Bottle Tree gives a guarantee for the number of years their work will withstand bright light.
From his house, along with his core family team and a small work force, Prathap sends out hundreds of items to stores (such as Landmark and Essentially Metal) each marked by his distinctive style and keen sense of colour. They range in price from Rs. 120 to Rs. 8,000, ensuring, he says, that his work "is accessible to everyone".
The unusual name for Prathap's company, Bottle Tree comes from an African tree, which carries pieces of glass to ward off evil spirits and is inspired in form by another tree, which is bloated in the middle to store water in preparation of difficult times.
Bottle Tree reached its present avatar only after years of struggle and hardship, he says. Retailing to stores, as he does, means having to keep shelves stocked, but payment only for what is sold, a process that sometimes takes months.
His art work began early on in life, with his family encouraging his sketching and his frequent participation in painting contests even as a young student. He enrolled at a regular mainstream college but quickly dropped out to take an applied art course at Chitrakala Parishath.
Intending to build a career in advertising, he soon concluded that it was a bad idea and turned to printing, packaging and designing. He even tried his hand at interior designing when he was awarded the contract to design the interiors of the Nilgiris Café above their main supermarket.
He stumbled on to stained glass work by chance, after his wife was gifted with some implements for it. When he decorated the Nilgiris Café with stained glass work, he found "it was a big hit", and zeroed in on this form as a potential money-spinner.
Learning on his own how to solder pieces of glass together, Prathap relied on an innate creativity and resourcefulness to master the intricate art of stained glass work. "There are limited colours in the market here," he explains, "and what's there is boring, so I used to cut up old bottles."
Initially retailing it from the family garage, Prathap's stained glass work went to exhibitions and some outlets and soon demand far exceeded supply. He hired a team and began painting on plain glass, extending the range of products beyond the common stained glass designs, which were by now common in most lifestyle stores. "Many of those designs were mediocre and I didn't want my designs to be associated with them, so I began working with lamps and coasters. I am keen on creating something different. I wouldn't want to make the same designs on paper."
The drive to carve a unique niche and an obsession with maintaining standards are what marks his work. Even as he talks, one eye discretely keeps a watch on the working craftsmen. "I reject things very easily," he admits. "Our production could be much higher but I don't let anything go that is not up to standard. Somewhere this will pay off."
Design ideas come not from books or other products in the market, but his mind. "I haven't bought a single book on stained glass," he admits. "Every year on my birthday it's my dad who buys me books on art. Some designs are triggered off from something I see in print, but mostly we try to set the trends."
Bottle Tree cannot afford to have any items that don't move quickly and so Prathap keeps keen tabs on what's moving and what's popular. "I have to be careful with the colours," he points out. "It's easy to go overboard with them."
In the business of painting on glass for nearly ten years, Prathap now considers himself something of a market leader, quick with new designs and prompt to hone in on a trend. He hopes to set up his own shop soon, but till then he is available at: email@example.com
Daily Bread is weekly column that features people who've chosen offbeat professions. Our guest list has included the likes of scuba divers, perfume makers, and suave farmers.
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