Meet Mira, a graphic designer/visual artist based in Mumbai who is the founder of Studio Kohl, a boutique design house.
Inspiro India: How did you get started? What first got you into Graphic Design Illustrations? Tell us a bit about yourself.
Mira Malhotra: I was raised in Saudi Arabia for the first ten years of my life and left the country for India shortly after the Gulf War. This had an effect on the way I saw my own country and shaped my work. I grew up with a few sources of entertainment in an otherwise dreary freedom-less country, that of shopping malls, supermarkets and heavily censored American TV consisting mainly of sitcoms. Women like my mother were not able to go out of the house alone, and I was conscious of my female status as I saw the disparity. When I came to India, everything felt new. I had been to India once every year on vacation but living here was a totally different experience. It was a hard adjustment to make but eventually, I got used to it. I always drew as a child and was trained under a Filipino watercolourist in Riyadh, KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). I painted mostly animals which I continued independently once in India. My older cousin, an art director in Trikaya grey told me about a career in the arts and in the 7th grade I made up my mind to make it a career.
Inspiro India: How would you best describe your style of Visual Art? And the challenges you face as an artist??
MM: I am primarily interested in representing women’s experiences, at least for now. I otherwise like to create work that is conceptual, immediately gratifying which uses visceral line work, feels big and bold, and that is bright and colourful. I am inspired by odd products in the bazaar and Indian domestic life as I grew up in a more westernised home. I had a rocky time with my education. I wanted to go to JJs, tried many times and didn’t make it. I went to Sophia’s for a year and while I found the teaching good, felt there was no exposure and I experienced suffocation. I eventually went to Rachana’s and there too I faced issues. It was only when I went to NID that I really felt like I was seeing an end in mind or more pathways to take. Everything else made me feel stifled and stagnant in one way or the other. I faced great setbacks by being in the wrong school or wrong workplace as well. I enjoyed my first job in editorial but there was only so much I could climb. My second job in advertising made me really question where my work was going. I found picking work and clients more satisfying and working independently fixed a lot of issues because I could steer my work in the direction I liked, but it’s only possible in today’s market and earlier it was not as feasible.
Inspiro India: What are the tools you couldn’t live without? Can you please explain about your work process?
MM: A computer. Even though so much of my work is print, I love digital means of creation. There is always an undo button! A Wacom, a large table and a few mechanical pencils are always around. I still love doing analogue work but it doesn’t work with clients 90% of the time. Recently I’ve started working with brush pens, pencils, and solid markers more. My work process with a client is always the conversation, research, conversational research, brainstorming, making connections, conceptualisation, creation and convincing. With my self-initiated work, I don’t sketch for fun though I wish I could. I wait till I have an idea in my head to flesh out and then go ahead. Art is not for art’s sake for me. There’s too little time!
Inspiro India: Is studying design in college worth the cost or do you recommend an alternative?
MM: It really depends on what you want to do. I think applied arts courses are very limiting. But design schools are expensive, though they offer great exposure. If you are able, vacation courses or summer courses help. Residencies help. But if you learn on your own remember you have to have a lot of drive, and you shouldn’t get easily discouraged. It requires a fair amount of passion and dedication. Find a way to create bread and butter work for yourself so pursuing what you really like won’t make you broke. If you enjoy bread and butter work and that’s your goal then you will find it easier.
Inspiro India: Who/What has been the biggest influence on your way of thinking?
MM: My parents and family. Not anyone special as such. But I have influences from musicians in terms of the way they approach their work and subject matter: The Beastie Boys, Kathleen Hanna, Grimes.
Inspiro India: What did you want to become as a child?
MM: An astronaut, a teacher or an artist. Ended up being the artist.
Inspiro India: Introduce us to your project ‘Unfolding The Saree’ and the story behind it?
MM: Unfolding the Saree was the culmination of recent incidents and long-term interests as well which resulted in the making of this zine. First was my inspiration from Riot Grrrl and DIY culture. How do I make an Indian version of what I admire about RiotGrrrl but have it well received here and resonate with my cultural experience? I then asked myself, how can I build something that’s so engaging that the material is not trumped by its content or treatment? Designer’s objects are produced in limited quantity, and a lot of craft goes into it, so they are often priced highly. I wanted to avoid that by using cheaper, local material unlike the fancy international papers graphic designers would usually use. The DIY background and my knowledge of printing and local applications of it helped me make a budget-friendly product. Then comes my ongoing interest in items of ‘novelty’, toys found in bazaars, Indian storytelling devices from folk culture, the interactivity of these that make for a very engaging experience, and a didactic one (when paired with a facilitator). When I was at NID, I was exposed to these things by my professors and Mrs Lakshmi Murthy, and this taught me the hardly-recognised value of storytelling devices that stem from folk India, traces of which can be found in low-budget bazaars of today or on my travels through India (I visit the bazaars of every place I travel to for new ideas and spend small fortunes on such objects). I wanted something so engaging, fun, and innovative, you wouldn’t bear to not be able to pick it up, and I wanted this inherently Indian approach to design preserved. I also wanted to make a zine on women and sexuality in some shape or form. Recently I began draping a saree and wearing one for myself and became hypnotised by its variety and the way it’s perceived (is it sexy? is it modest? does it cover up? or does it reveal?), and also its extremely versatile format. In an age where we are actively questioning burkinis and bikinis, and what these garments mean to us, it was exciting to look at the saree this way. Eventually, the format of the saree gave rise to the format of the zine. The content inside talks about several practices, the ghoonghat, the item number, the wet saree, the cover-all saree, nuns wearing sarees, feminist wearing sarees, all question fixed notions on the sarees as a dress that can be confined to eternal raunchiness or feminine dignity. The saree is too shape-shifting to be defined as either. This revealing or unrevealing got translated eventually into the words ‘folding’ or ‘unfolding’. Lastly, I recently joined a collective known as Kadak, which debuted at the East London Comic Arts Festival (ELCAF) this year and I needed to make products for that. What better than to introduce a foreign audience to my own idea of Indian design?
Inspiro India: What are you passionate about besides your work?
MM: Music! I devour around 5 hours of music everyday minimum when I’m at work. I love reading about feminist philosophy as well. I also like gardening.
Inspiro India: What advice would you as an artist give to other creative heads out there? And Some creative tips you’d like to share?
MM: Trust in yourself, be analytical and observant, find your voice, stop asking for feedback, if you have a doubt- google it! Be brutally honest with yourself.
Follow Mira: Instagram | Website
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