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Store signs enter the art gallery

Artists and designers Sameer and Zeenat Kulavoor pay tribute to the graphic design in storefronts and product packaging

‘Everyday India’ investigates how signs come together to form a visual language distinct to India.
‘Everyday India’ investigates how signs come together to form a visual language distinct to India.

We see it but haven’t looked at it. Only when India’s printed graphic designs make it to a gallery space do we stop, watch and think.

At south Mumbai’s gallery 47A, housed in a 19th century Portuguese house, Sameer and Zeenat Kulavoor of Bombay Duck Designs—a studio that does graphic art, illustration and self-publishing—elaborate on the multicultural and multifaceted world of India’s graphic design in a show aptly titled Everyday India. There are hundreds of printed graphic designs that can be seen on India’s storefronts, streets and the packaging on desi brands, some individually illustrated, some painted together on a canvas, yet others presented as flipbooks.

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From Parle’s Kismi toffee to Liril soap, Joker gum paste, Phantom sweet cigarettes, the Rooh Afza rose drink, Kalnirnay almanac and Xerox stores’ yellow and black signs and “work in progress” signs, they are all there. “There are so many signs on Indian streets in so many different languages, each with a distinct visual language, that we often experience visual fatigue and tend to ignore them,” says Sameer. “What we see in everyday design in India is sheer multiplicity, with so many different fonts in different scripts and different visuals and designs, and that’s just great,” he adds.

Everyday India, open since 16 July, invites viewers to take a second look at these signs, investigate how they are created and how they come together to form a visual language distinct to India. “I have often heard formal designers at design summits talk about the process they follow to design a logo but how does an informal designer working at one of the many desktop printing (DTP) shops create 20 logos a day?” says Zeenat.

The exhibition is dedicated to them, the people who make sense of everyday India, literally every day. “Their services are economical and there is hardly any pushback. If you tell them you want a flower in your logo, they will lift it from the internet or do whatever else and give you one. It’s very transactional; you pay me and I will give you what you want,” says Sameer.

There are fascinating stories about how a design becomes accepted language for a product or a service, such as the black and yellow stripes of a Xerox store or the image of an eye on a surma (kohl) packet.

There is no recorded history, just hearsay. When Sameer asked an old, popular photocopy centre in south Mumbai about the Xerox sign, he was told that one of the earliest such stores in Dadar had first used the stripes as its signboard in the 1970s. Thereafter, it became a kind of symbol, helping to identify a photocopy shop.

In Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, the 26-year-old, fourth-generation owner of Bhimseni surma told Sameer how his great, great grandfather’s friend had designed the brand’s packaging at a time when eye surgeries were unheard of and surma was supposed to be an essential product for healthy eyes. “The packet absolutely had to have an eye to indicate what the product is for,” says Sameer.

“It was also an era where the products had to grab a customer’s attention from among the many placed on a crammed shelf of a tiny shop. So many of these brand packets are red, black and yellow,” adds Zeenat. Interestingly, the young owner has created an all-black design just to sell on the e-commerce platform Amazon.

Everyday India also looks at how street signs evolve, coming together to form a larger collage if you have the eye for it. The team at Bombay Duck Designs—Dnyanesh Patale, Humera Khan, Mayur Chopade, Swapnil Sawant and Vedaant Mashruwala, along with Sameer and Zeenat—have hand-painted signs from Karnataka, Maharashtra and elsewhere on one canvas, as one work, to show the oneness.

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A designer who spends months designing a single logo for a big brand would never imagine that his sign would stand next to the signage of a paan (betel-nut leaf) shop one day and a newspaper stand the next. Yet, somehow, they all fit together.

One of the flipbooks is dedicated to the work in progress sign. Only when you flip through it, creating the visual experience of seeing the signs through a speeding vehicle, do you see how the tiny man’s shovel is painted differently at different places. Somewhere, the shovel’s head is a neat triangle, elsewhere a rectangle; there is also a heart-shaped and a round shovel. But it does the job of telling us that a new Metro line is being constructed because these signs are ingrained in our brains, shaping our everyday, even if we don’t realise it.

Everyday India is on view at Gallery 47A, Khotachi Wadi, Mumbai, until 27 August, 11am-7pm (Tuesday- Sunday).

Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based journalist.

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