"I've always felt that there should be a continuity between traditional and contemporary." - Sahiba Madan
It's an afternoon filled with warm and pleasant April sunlight when we find ourselves outside the 'Fatima Villa' bungalow in the meandering Chapel Road, Bandra. Flanked by some iconic street art and graffiti and surrounded by few of the most interesting and historic pockets of Bandra, Fatima Villa's ground floor is home to kalakaarihaath which works in the streams of architecture, design and illustration. Their contemporary designs and creatives cohesively merge with the past, especially with traditional arts and crafts of India. The beautifully done up studio serves as a workspace and a small display space for many of their material-based works.
Payal Khandelwal sits down for a conversation with Sahiba Madan, founder of kalakaarihaath, who studied architecture from Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and worked full-time as an architect for two years before launching her own studio. We talk to her about drawing, Bombay, Bandra, travel, design, among many other things.
How did you initially get inclined towards art and design?
I don’t even remember how old I was when I started drawing. As a kid, I went to this play school next to SNDT college where my mother was a professor (she is now the principal), and after my school got over, I used to wait for my mother in her cabin. She would just leave me with a sketchbook and pens or pencils, and I would get busy doing my own thing. That is my first memory of drawing.
When did you start seeing drawing as a profession?
Since I enjoyed drawing so much, my skills kept getting better with age. However, I didn’t realise I actually had the skill to draw professionally till I started drawing in architecture school. That’s where I figured that your way of expression could be personal and eventually, I started drawing everything I was looking at, especially while travelling.
In the fifth year, for my thesis research project, I was studying about the role of the architect and the craftsman. I was studying traditional building cultures and putting it in contemporary context. As a method of documentation, I decided to hand-illustrate the actual building crafts – the different methods and processes that craftsmen used and the various crafts and stages of building construction. I ended up hand-rendering my final sheets, it was very tedious but I loved doing it. This is the moment I realised that more than just drawing, I liked composing and putting things together to make something larger.
When did kalakaarihaath start?
I was in a job for about two years and there was a colleague of mine who owned this dessert brand. And since she knew I liked drawing, she asked me if I would like to illustrate some kind of packaging for her and I said yes. That’s when I had to create a brand name, which was 'kalakaarihaath'.
Since it started so impulsively, did you have a vision at that time?
Not at all. I started off by doing all kinds of creatives. I think I was freelancing for a good one year before I actually committed to it full-time, because this was absolutely unknown territory for me. I didn’t know anybody from the field and I didn’t know how to get projects. Moreover, I didn’t want to trust it too much initially because at the end of the day, it was just an outcome of a hobby for me.
Was there a turnaround moment when you thought you could take this up full-time?
I think it was when I did my first series of wall features. The first project I did was for a sample flat when a senior of mine got in touch with me to help him out with this project as he was pressed for time and resources. I did four or five rooms of artworks for him. I was very interested in traditional tribal art and Gond art, so I did the artworks in those styles. It all turned out well, and I got a pretty good response for it.
When did you start working with traditional craftsmen at kalakaarihaath?
Our studio is now kind of divided into two arms. One is where we do wall accents and wall features, and the other part involves doing up interiors, creating furniture and other objects. Now we’re finally calling the second arm - 'in-situ by kalakaarihaath', which basically means crafting in place for somebody.
As for the involvement of craftsmen, I don’t think I’m there yet honestly. I’m not bringing them on board as much as I’d like them to be a part of the process, because although a large part of the wall features is influenced by traditional arts and crafts, the designing is done in-house.
The reason behind that is we’ve been doing this just for three years, and for a long time it was just me. So to be able to take responsibility of people who depend on this as a livelihood, we need to be slightly more consistent. We do get artisans on board from time-to-time for our handcrafted products and furniture, but the goal is to make them a bigger part if the process in the future.
"The only way we can create an identity or make it 'Indian' - for the lack of a better word - is by using something that has existed before. There’s a reason it has existed for this long and there are cultures which have been practising that to get it to where we are. So rather than just abandoning it, the effort has always been to make it relevant to people today."
How has your experience been so far with whatever collaborations you have done with craftsmen so far?
It's very give and take, truly a collaboration. That's been the ethos or the premise on which we've tried to construct the practice. It can sometime start off as decisions on the site, which are not so pre-empted. While we do our own drawings, a lot of developments do happen on the site. So it’s always more like a discussion, rather than 'okay this is your drawing for execution.'
In fact, when I was trying to figure out my role in the larger scheme of the building culture during my thesis, I figured that the best way to balance out is for it to actually be a dialogue rather than having a well-defined role. And this is what we’re trying to do with whatever decisions we make or whatever creative outcomes we have here, especially when it comes to furniture.
Since your wall pieces take their inspirations from traditional Indian arts and crafts, how do you make sure that they fit well in contemporary settings?
I’ve always felt that there should be a continuity between traditional and contemporary. Everything has evolved from something that existed in the past. The only way we can create an identity or make it ‘Indian’ - for the lack of a better word - is by using something that has existed before. There’s a reason it has existed for this long and there are cultures which have been practising that to get it to where we are. So rather than just abandoning it, the effort has always been to make it relevant to people today.
Even if you look at what we do with the Gond art, the moment I take it out of a frame and place it into an infinite canvas, I’m already not showing it in a typical way. We are always looking at unusual spaces to put the art, like switchboards for example. This is also how you create a balance - while the craftsmen provide the skill, we can provide the contemporary knowledge and exposure.
When you do specific house commissions, how do you infuse the house owner’s personality into your work?
So there are two or three ways in which people usually come to us. One is by seeing our portfolio, and wanting something similar to what we have created in the past. The other is when people are slightly more informed about art, and have a sense of a concept or an idea. For example, we are doing this project for a couple who are moving into a new house. They have travelled a lot in their journey from dating to married life and have collected things from their travels. They want to do an art piece in their family room which basically puts all those pieces together. So the whole artwork, in this case, comes from a dialogue with the client.
The involvement of the client also comes in different ways and different levels. There are some people who are very specific about what they want so they already come with their involvement in the design process. This especially happens when we work with architects. So they already have a vision or aesthetic in mind, and we fit ourselves within it.
We want to know more about your studio space. Could you tell us a bit about its history?
We have been here for over a year now. I think I looked at some 30 or 40 places before I narrowed down on this one. I wanted a space that I really could do justice to or felt connected to. I’ve lived in Bandra all my life (though I’ve just moved to Powai after I got married). At the time of finalising the space, the close proximity with my house was an important factor. The other was that this space has so much character. The whole Ranwar village area has many small pockets and a lot of history.
This particular property is dated 1936. It’s a bungalow which was constructed in two types of constructions. Some of the walls are a good 12 inches wide. Some of it has been restored by putting marble in it and kind of strengthening it with a wire mesh. The space in itself has been through such a journey. And what’s most interesting is that the owner of this space is an architect himself.
Do you have people come in to the studio often to see samples and stuff?
That happens a lot actually. Since we’re largely present online, people do want to come and touch and feel our work. The goal is to also have a shop and workshop at the studio but we’re still coping with a lot of tangible things. For now, it’s our workspace and a sort of pop-up display space.
How about Bombay? Does that inspire you in any way? You also did a lovely graphic series based on the city.
I was born and brought up in Bombay, and I enjoy everything about the city. In India, I can’t live in any other city other than Bombay because there’s a certain pace, energy and soul to the city. There is so much for everybody, and not just in terms of opportunities.
When I was doing the Bombay series (which was for a hotel in South Mumbai) for that matter, I did a lot of research and realised there is so much history to the city that I didn’t know about.
I didn’t know that Rajabai Clock Tower was actually funded by Premchand Roychand, who wanted to dedicate it to his mother (Rajabai) who was blind. Since they were Jains, they were really bound by time and had stringent schedules like consuming dinner at a particular time. Because she was blind, she never knew the time for dinner, so he constructed the clock tower only so she could hear the bell ring at 6 pm which was their dinnertime. It’s interesting things like these that make Bombay so great. It’s got so much density, so many layers into it.
How does travel inspire you?
It goes back to the way I have studied. We used to do these study trips and a lot of them were about measuring and drawing out places, and that eventually led to the design work we did.
That’s something I carried forward when I started travelling even for leisure. I can just sit in a park and draw, not necessarily something that’s in front of me but also a sense of everything I’ve seen in the day. I did this 30-day long trip to Europe where I travelled through the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Spain, and I came back and drew out things. It’s a nice way of collecting memories and developing skills. And I think a lot of my style has come out of this process.
Do you face creative blocks ever?
I’m a very process-driven person, so I just can’t randomly come up with something. Everything has a connection to something I have made an association with at some point. So there’s always a bank of ideas, not necessarily formally documented but just existing as references, drawings or text.
Whenever I get a new project, I always end up visiting these references instead of finding ten different styles in which people are doing work. I think that’s what drives a style and gives you a connect with whatever work you’re doing. A lot of the work we’ve done has been an evolution of something we started off with.
Now we’re trying to convert our artwork into products or blend the two, and I always want there to be a story. When I can put it into context or connect it to something I’ve done, it gives me more comfort.
Lastly, we are gradually moving towards the idea of home as a personal expression and not based on textbook ideas about interiors. And we see that shift even in Indian homes. What has been your experience?
Design in itself has got a lot of response recently. People are sensitised to it or are more aware than before. And interestingly, that’s an outcome of two things. One is exposure to social media like Pinterest and Instagram has created so much aspiration. Another factor is that more and more families are now nuclear. A lot of young couples are very exposed to art, so they’re looking to personalise their space and fill it with things which are personally relevant to them, to make it feel like home.
We recently did a photoshoot for an interior project and we realised that in interior photography, human beings are barely ever included. Everyone puts these beautiful frames of houses without showing any people living in them. There is this constant need to impress with perfect visuals. However, I feel like that’s not home. Your home is supposed to be filled with all the things you’re hiding. It’s not a house unless you have people in it. So we did a shoot using people for that project.