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Why graphic design can be art

A new show in Delhi hopes to bring down the wall between art and graphic design

Himanshu Dogra’s ‘Siddhartha’ (5 x 4ft).
Himanshu Dogra’s ‘Siddhartha’ (5 x 4ft).

Words trip off Arjun Sawhney’s tongue with the speed of a bullet train. Throughout our call, he speaks with a sense of urgency, flitting from one idea to another, pausing only to hear the questions which his haste renders awkwardly interruptive. He has an axe to grind, and it’s about graphic design. To hear him speak with such clarity, passion and vigour on the subject is to be at once convinced the axe is a beautiful one and deserves to be ground.

We’re discussing the show he’s curated at Delhi’s Lodhi Hotel, Ink, Reels And The Graphic Gang, running till 20 November. As director of the design studio Green Goose Design and a boutique public relations agency, The Communication Council, Sawhney has played a role in redesigning the visual identities of companies like Forest Essentials, a luxury Ayurveda brand, and worked with fashion designers such as Tarun Tahiliani. Graphic art is his passion. For the current show, he invited artists to make new graphic artworks inspired by their favourite books or films, while giving them free rein.

Exhibitions on graphic arts have been gaining prominence at museums abroad, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to London’s Tate Modern. “And what have we done in India?" he asks, somewhat furious. “Zero. Nothing; with the one exception of T&T, " he says, alluding to the much feted contemporary art duo of Thukral & Tagra. This exhibition of 26 works by 13 artists is a corrective and, with more shows planned for next year, he assures it’s not a one-off.

Sawhney has balanced the roll call of established names like Divya Thakur, Rabia Gupta, Chetana Vij Sharma, Thukral & Tagra with the newer talent of Namrata Lenka, Manav Sachdev and Mickey Bardava. “What has emerged is absolutely amazing," he says. The quality of the final pieces took him by surprise. The inspirations include, to name a few, Pather Panchali, Blade Runner, Pakeezah, The Great Gatsby and Peter Pan. From Manav Sachdev’s zany and psychedelic homage to the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, to the pure simplicity of Himanshu Dogra’s Siddhartha portrait, the works shuttle between different emotional registers, from the poignant to the boisterous.

The advent of technology, particularly 3D printing, has shaken up the arts vocabulary. Design, sculpture, art, graphics, digital art have become terms that stand on shifting sands. Traditionally, graphic art has been accorded lesser status than fine art by puritans. Could it be owing to the limited element of human touch involved in its production? I ask. This question fires him up. “That’s a misconception. It’s a myth," he says. He is at pains to explain that the effort that has gone into creating this work “is just as painstaking as painting on a canvas".

Graphic art is fraught with its own challenges. He has seen artists struggle and “it isn’t easy at all". He states matter-of-factly that most Indians don’t get graphic art; his manner is not uppity, for he recognizes the reason is lack of education and discourse. “For us, the keyboard is our palette and the mouse is the paintbrush," he says, further attempting to conjoin “graphics" and “art" with a direct painting metaphor.

Manav Sachdev’s ‘Chitti Chitti Bang Bang’ (3 x 4ft).
Manav Sachdev’s ‘Chitti Chitti Bang Bang’ (3 x 4ft).

In this show, the digital combines with the physical; hands meet the computer, resulting in hybrid art. Sawhney sidesteps the linguistic games and says there is no difference between “art" and “graphic design". Artists here have used paper or canvas for printing and disparate solid materials find their way on to it. “Just see the Buddha, his hair is made out of beads–can you imagine the detailing?" Himanshu Dogra’s piece combines textiles such as jute with paint and ink, resulting in highly dynamic portraiture.

“Do you think it’s easy to print?" To get the colour correction absolutely right, the way one wants it, is apparently “bloody difficult". He then asks quizzically, “Do you know what the hardest colour to print is?" My sheepish “no" gets lost in his “it’s black", as he carries on full throttle.

Sawhney’s electrifying enthusiasm about graphic design is contagious. The descriptions of microscopic detailing and the amount of physical effort involved heighten it further. “There is such amazing talent in this country, it’s unbelievable," he says, adding a cautionary note to puncture any euphoria. “The real tragedy of India is that apart from a couple of institutions, schools teaching graphic arts or design are horrible." But he has come across exceptions that emerge from the “horrible" schools, as some people are “instinctively good designers and hungry to learn, discover, search the web, read about international artists". In his view, they manage to come forth in spite of the school, not because of it.

While he is susceptible to hyperbole, he comes across as well-meaning, and someone for whom graphic design transcends mere visual aesthetics. “It can bring happiness." In the end, he asks, “Can you imagine the possibilities if these guys are given an opportunity to look at graphics from an artistic point of view and not just commercial?"

With this show and more in the pipeline, Sawhney hopes to find the answer—and be pleasantly surprised each time.

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