Worldview1 Innovator

From Low Art to High Fashion in India

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 26, 2008

NEW DELHI Pastoral poster images of cherubic Hindu goddesses on embroidered jackets. Indian comic strips, replete with kitschy thought balloons, on the dresses of runway models.

Manish Arora, perhaps India's most flamboyant fashion designer, says he finds inspiration everywhere he turns these days: in the cheesy pop art graphics on the backs of trucks and auto-rickshaws, the visual exaggeration of India's Bollywood movies, and even storefront signage. The zany melange of colors that permeates the streetscape here had never before entered the elitist bubble of India's high-fashion world.

"There is no difference between my design and the sign on the roadside juice stall," said Arora, a thin 36-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard.

"There is more to Indian fashion than just being ethnic and traditional. Ninety percent of Indian fashion design is repetitive. Everybody is stuck in zardosi, zardosi, zardosi," he said, referring to the oldest form of Indian embroidery, made with precious metal threads. "But I look at the new, contemporary India for inspiration in my fashion."

Arora's work in the past eight years has signaled the flowering of India's pop art movement, which has elevated images from the streets and bazaars often dismissed as lowbrow and low-art. And as the chaotic nation of a billion-plus people hurtles toward becoming an economic powerhouse, rising consumerism and rapid urbanization have brought small-town kitsch to the big cities.

Artists and designers who chronicle "the new India" are now choosing these images and giving them the status of high art.

"Manish Arora takes the Indian pop iconography from the street and puts them on his high-fashion luxury clothing. He has emphasized Indian pop art consistently and unapologetically in his last six collections," said Bandana Tewari, fashion features editor for Vogue India. "He is bridging a very critical art gap. His design reflects the seamless visual narrative of mass culture that he lives through every day."

In the past couple of years, dozens of boutiques have begun selling clothes, coffee mugs, bags and other items featuring pop art images.

"People want their worlds reflected on their walls and their pillows," said Radhika Lalla, who writes about art and culture. "The world isn't a very stable place right now, and a lot of things don't make sense to us. We don't need our art to confuse us further. We want the familiar, the comfortable. We want to escape into an almost childish world of bold expressiveness, and a little pop art can take us just that much closer to it."

Last year, Arora wove an image of India's rattletrap vehicle, the three-wheeled black-and-yellow auto-rickshaw, into the center of a rug, deifying it with a lotus under it. Some observers have said it is similar to the Campbell's soup can finding its way to Andy Warhol's easel in American pop culture history.

In fact, Arora said he was inspired by Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein but that he creates his own unique mix with pop art.

His T-shirts sport the graphically enhanced repetitive images of a classical Indian dancer's face or hand movements. His clothing designs often mirror the faces popular on truck graffiti, comic books and tacky "welcome" posters on shop walls -- women with pouty, bee-stung lips and fish-shaped eyes.

But his designs, which he says speak to everyone, are making heads turn.

Arora recently hosted a six-part series on the Discovery Travel & Living Channel called the "Adventures of the Ladies Tailor" in which he explored design and fashion sensibilities. He teamed up with MAC cosmetics to embellish the brand's product packaging. His "Fish Fry" collection of sport shoes and boots for Reebok includes his exuberant color palette and Bollywood themes. The stores have sepia-toned Bollywood divas on the wall, Hindu gods on the ceiling, and a comic strip about how Arora catches and cooks fish.

His recent collection, inspired by the colors and motifs of the circus, was featured in Paris Fashion Week, and American singer Katy Perry wore a merry-go-round dress of his to an event. Last month, the office of Britney Spears requested a few dresses from the Circus collection for her upcoming world tour called "Circus." And he is now designing for Disney to create Maharajah Mickey and Maharani Minnie.

The Indian news media calls him "king of kitsch" and "prince of panache," but Arora said his success is as much about timing as talent.

"Everybody is looking at the booming India at this moment. It is as if the world has just discovered a new land. And I am very much part of that discovery," he said. "If outsiders are looking at us, then that makes us look at ourselves harder. That is what I am doing. We are changing so rapidly. I draw my inspiration from this moment of transition."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company