India’s digital artists: their time is now

India’s nascent digital art scene is getting a push with new-age clients like Snapchat, Instagram and Google approaching artists for unconventional branding and collaborations

November 06, 2020 05:37 pm | Updated November 11, 2020 01:21 pm IST

A design by Khyati Trehan

A design by Khyati Trehan

“If Covid-19 has pushed traditional art galleries, auction houses and museums to make a digital shift, it is also shaking up the Indian digital art scene. In the lockdown, one of the flag bearers of tech-infused art, Delhi-based Thukral & Tagra, found a firmer footing in the virtual world. “The pandemic has forced us to find ways to keep ourselves purposeful by upskilling and adding new dimensions to our works,” say Jiten Thukral, one half of the duo known for their larger-than-life, interactive installations. Case in point: humorous, edgy single-player games (yell in the car to release anger, or make two papads converse) that they designed for Instagram through, the inter-disciplinary lab they run out of their studio. In July, 3D artist Adhiraj Singh made headlines when he teamed up with designer Roma Narsinghani, showcasing her collection on his CGI models at the virtual Helsinki Fashion Week.

Such experiments are now finding takers in the mainstream. Brands from FMCG to apparel are scouting digital creators, whether it is Bharat Floorings, which commissioned artists to design tiles for a collaborative collection, or the recent Artwork For Heartwork campaign powered by Lay’s. “Through such collaborations, they are able to use art and design to leverage their brand without it looking like a hard sell,” says Aditya Mehta, founder and CEO of Art&Found, an online platform that curates affordable art.

Saim Ghani’s animated illustration, using fashion designer Rahul Mishra’s Butterfly People collection

Saim Ghani’s animated illustration, using fashion designer Rahul Mishra’s Butterfly People collection

There’s also been a huge resurgence of fashion illustrations during lockdown, says stylist and former Vogue India fashion director, Anaita Shroff Adajania. “It works in a lot of situations, especially now when you don’t want to waste a lot of money [on photoshoots and such].” In January, for instance, Vogue Italia released an illustrated cover for the first time in its 55-year history. The money saved was donated to restore Venice’s flood-damaged Fondazione Querini Stampalia. Adajania, whose wishlist of collabs includes botanical illustrator Nirupa Rao (“I’d love for her to paint over a shoot I’ve done”) has also been impressed with the work of visual artist Saim Ghani, for his “indie take on illustrations”. The young Kolkata-based artist began making animated fashion illustrations on Instagram in the lockdown — such as transposing images from Rahul Mishra’s Butterfly People collection on to Cambodia’s Ta Prohm temple.

“Since we’re so used to hand-painted art, the digital art scene in India is at a nascent stage, but it is picking up,” says Mehta, adding that collectors for both mediums are merging now. “We recently had a collector of modern masters buy Aniruddh Mehta’s digital art.”

We look at eight digital artists who have their fingers (and cursors) firmly on the medium’s pulse.

Mehek Malhotra | 24

From kitschy matchbox art to retro designs reminiscent of the ’80s Disco era, Mehek’s Instagram aesthetic is relatable. It extends to her Mumbai-based design firm, Giggling Monkey Studio, too. From niche brands like El Diablo Sauces and Obvsly Gelato, her client roster now includes mainstream giants like Google and Facebook. “Since the amount of time that people are spending on their phones is increasing, brands want to present information better and in a more relatable manner,” she says. While Mehek created an illustration for Google’s 2020 calendar themed on digital well-being just before lockdown (not anticipating our present work from home culture when she captioned it ‘High Five is better than WIFI’), her Facebook campaign is still under wraps. During lockdown, she also received more commissions related to animation and motion videos. Such as an animation for comedian-singer Kenny Sebastian’s quarantine single, ‘Wake Up in the Morning’ (2.5 lakh views so far). “Now, with more people shooting videos on their phones, adding animation lifts the overall quality of the experience,” she says. In the works are chai illustrations (India’s tea stalls are her biggest source of inspiration) for Portland-based tea company One Stripe Chai’s website, and a design-animation collaboration with wedding videographer Vishal Punjabi. She has also created a 2021 calendar called ‘Just in case 2021 sucks’, and will soon be launching online classes under her project Colour Camp, which helps freelancers navigate the world of digital art.

Khyati Trehan | 28

What if you could play an entire game through an Instagram filter? Or run a marathon virtually? Khyati’s ideas for augmented reality’s (AR) potential in the post-Covid world are as vibrant and whimsical as the 3D renditions on her Instagram account. Having dabbled with type design, graphic art and 3D visual art for seven years, she became an AR creator recently. Commissions from Snapchat and Instagram have kept her busy. “Covid 19 has accelerated the path of hybrid life that we were on, moving seamlessly from screens to physical spaces and back,” says the Munich-based Delhiite, who was named as one of 15 new visual artists under 30 in 2017 by Print magazine. “The post-Covid world won’t be purely digital but somewhere in between.” In that sense, the AR lens she created for Snapchat’s wearable tech product, Spectacles — with animated cages, containers and otherworldly objects — is a bridge between the real and surreal. That she was trusted by the brand when she had no prior experience with AR proves “how democratic and accessible tools like Lens studio [Snapchat] and Spark AR [Facebook] have become”.

Shweta Malhotra | 38

Six years ago, Shweta’s fashion illustrations — on her favourite looks from Lakmé Fashion Week — went viral. Since then, her bold, minimalist aesthetic has created brand identities for labels such as Nicobar and packaging for clients like Bombay Perfumery. Currently, with food and wellness (segments that came into prominence during lockdown) seeing a spike in art and design requirements, she’s working on branding for three wellness brands and a food aggregator start-up. One of the challenges, however, is the pay. “Internationally, digital art is valued. In India, people still don’t pay as much,” says Shweta, who has been taking on more projects to sustain herself because budgets are being trimmed. She is working on potential collaborations to curate digital art for events such as Art Night Thursdays, as well as a brand collab to show her designs on apparel. A member of Alliance Graphique Internationale, an association that draws in design talents from around the world, she also recently designed a poster for a pandemic-themed art project that was acquired by Boston’s prestigious Museum of Fine Arts, as a way to document present times for future museum visitors.

Sajid Wajid Shaikh | 31

According to Sajid, there has been an increase in brand rebranding projects in India recently, much like how McDonald’s redesigned their logo to spread awareness about social distancing. That’s because lockdown has given brands time to reflect on their packaging and design, says the multi-disciplinary artist, who redesigned the logo of a local production house. The founder of Mumbai-based creative studio, Fortysix And Two, has also been kept busy creating album art covers. “Since live gigs are cancelled, several musicians have begun producing music from home studios. Album art doesn’t pay much, but I do it because I enjoy collaborating with musicians,” he says. His recent projects include a cover for composer-producer Zahaan Khan, aka Zanuski, inspired by the 1920s’ American rubber hose animation. Next up, he’s planning to produce his own line of Indian superhero toys — a project that started as an experiment during lockdown, on the 3D software suite Cinema 4D.

Osheen Siva | 27

The Goa-based illustrator is known for her bold portraits — whether it is a wall mural in Chennai’s Kannagi Nagar that pays tribute to the city’s fisherwomen or an artwork for Converse India focusing on self-love. Her biggest experiment during lockdown was creating a virtual mural for an editorial with Gucci’s Off The Grid collection, conceptualised by fashion and travel digital magazine Runway Square , which paired six visionaries with six artists to envision a sustainable future. For this, she created a powerful, goddess-like figure that was juxtaposed as a backdrop in an image featuring fashion activist Aishwarya Sharma, in a way that both merged fluidly. “Aishwarya sent me test photos of potential walls in her house and the light placement. The photographer figured out the composition and then I made the artwork. It was a true testament to remote and collaborative work,” says Osheen. Next, she’d love to add technology to street art. “Creating large-scale murals has a certain amount of applied knowledge that’s fascinating, and AR can add an exciting dimension to it, making it more immersive.” She is currently working on animation for a National Geographic project and gearing up for her first solo at Mumbai’s Method gallery in March 2021.

Aniruddh Mehta | 30

“With the new wave of social media marketing, Instagram accounts have almost turned into ad spaces for brands. Although this has helped new revenue streams flourish, as a designer, it is not the kind of work inquiry that gets me excited,” says the art director and founder of Mumbai-based Studio Bigfat. Aniruddh is best known for the acclaimed title sequence of mandalas for the Netflix original series, Sacred Games, created in collaboration with Vijesh Rajan and Yashoda Parthasarthy of Plexus Motion. But having said that, Instagram was instrumental in landing him a recent commission for Facebook’s Analog Research Lab, a creative space for design and art-making. “It is a commissioned piece where I get to be a little more experimental, trying out a few different mediums,” he says. Earlier, he had created abstract murals for the social media conglomerate’s Gurugram headquarters. Aniruddh also believes that art and design syllabuses will get more digital-focused now. “As designers experiment with new mediums, we’re likely to see schools integrate AR, robotics and coding in their traditional art and design education.”

Mira Malhotra | 36

Social campaigns have come a long way — going from boring to pop and witty — thanks to the digital medium. With Covid-19, the next step is to use AI and 3D visualisations to minimise carbon footprints and costs of shoots, says the designer and founder of Mumbai-based Studio Kohl. Mira works with clients such as Snapchat, Oxfam International and Mariwala Health Initiative to create topical stickers, and design publications themed on gender, disability and mental health. But she points out that what the digital art industry needs currently is more alternative software “because ones like Illustrator are prohibitive due to pricing”. On the bright side, graphic storytelling is getting more interactive. For Bystander , the latest print anthology of Kadak, a collective of South Asian women, queer and non-binary folk, Mira and other founding members collaborated with various artists to launch its web version, featuring GIFs, animation and audio.

Sarah Kaushik | 32

With photoshoots a rarity due to the pandemic, brands are finding innovative ways to give past work a new lease of life. One of the ways: digital collages. Kaushik, aka The Big Eyed Collagist, just completed digital collages for a festive collection of candles by jewellery brand, Olio, for Diwali. Her work — often juxtaposing vintage imagery with contemporary settings, creating satirical, rebellious worlds that challenge gender biases — have found resonance with fashion label Papa Don’t Preach, the Lemon Tree chain of hotels, and most recently, Pali Hill in the UK, a newly-opened restaurant by Azure Hospitality (the team behind Mamagoto and Sly Granny). Currently pursuing her research masters in Scenography at HKU, Netherlands, the Delhi-born designer is learning motion sensing, VR and interactive technologies such as Arduino, Kinect and Mocap to integrate in her future projects. “There is a term that has arisen due to the lack of intimacy in these times called Skin Hunger. We are definitely in need of tactility that can improve our mental health. I can see so much potential with technology to create a sensorial memory of touch,” she says.

Raghava working on ‘Eye Candy’, a collaboration with Under 25 Studios

Raghava working on ‘Eye Candy’, a collaboration with Under 25 Studios

The AI master

Bengaluru-based Raghava KK, another flag bearer of tech-infused art, recently debuted on the ’gram with a performance piece titled Eye Candy, made in collaboration with youth brand Under25. The artist-designer, who has used iPads and robots to create art in the past, also curated India’s first AI art show in 2018, with his brother and economist Karthik Kalyanaraman. Now, two years later, he is presenting an AI artwork in collaboration with artist Harshit Agrawal at Italy’s contemporary art fair, Artissima (which ends on November 8). For this, they crowdsourced line figures of males and females. “We then fed the drawings to the AI. What we’ve got are installations that make us think about gender identities,” he says. “As a new tool of transcendence, AI has this potential to blur the binaries between the physical and digital, but AI art is yet to find a sustainable market.” Next, Raghava is keen to understand how biohacking can be used in art creation.

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