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Tee-ing Off in Style
Text by Supriya Nair and Sohiny Das
Published: Volume 18, Issue 1, January, 2010
A staple of the young and not-so-young alike, the new Indian T-shirt is both mass and niche. Supriya Nair and Sohiny Das present four creators who let their art do all the talking

The world’s favourite kind of shirt is not a shirt at all. It is an alphabet which has evolved into a religion with massive unifying powers and a global following, transcending age, sex, ethnicity and size. It is a cause and an effect. It is an expression and a right. It is the T, or the tee.

Christened such due to the resemblance of its shape with the letter from the English alphabet, the mighty T-shirt has humble origins from the late 19th century. Initially made of hosiery material, it was an undershirt for working-class men that shed its outer shell (the button-down shirt) and graduated to being an independent garment. Due to its comfort, absorption and easy maintenance qualities, it became an important component of casual sportswear, and soon, even women donned it. The trickle-up hit runways in the mid 20th century; ever since, unisex dressing and androgyny have been mainstream fashion staples.

Because of its simple form, the tee has been a wearable canvas, personalised into art, and even literature. Every school kid has painted and scribbled on their own T-shirts and taken liberties to unleash their inner artist/designer/ activist. It has been a weapon of protest, a tool of righteousness, an advertising medium, a fan club, a personal message and numerous other things. ‘World Peace’ rings truer on a T-shirt, than from a teary eyed beauty pageant winner.

In this des, the T-shirt has been given a ‘pet’ name – ganjee (which also means an inner vest). This act of endearment means that we no longer view the tee as ‘western wear’, but as one of our own. The desi-fication has happened with cricket (kids sporting Tendulkar on their backs), Bollywood (Kareena Kapoor’s T-shirt and patiala salwar moment in Jab We Met is one of many), gods of rock (only hard rock, mind you – the Nirvana, Metallica, Pearl Jam kind) and the phenomenon that is Tantra (the T-shirt giant with witty one-liners, a favourite being ‘Overeducated and Underemployed’). Because of the unlimited exploration options with art and text, this very ‘mass’ garment is also very niche. If clothes maketh the man, then the T-shirt maketh the thinking, expressive man. And woman.

This is the age of the Indian garage studio (sometimes a lot bigger than a garage); GAP and gang are not allowed entry. Here, art is not on the tee; the tee is the art. A splash of colour, a dash of computer aided graphics, a seasoning of hand-painting, a garnishing of text and an overdose of humour are the common ingredients. The difference is in the application and presentation. There are tee loyalists and tee cults. And if you have not seen them yet, it is probably because you are blinded by the sparkling Swarovskis of your D&G and Cavalli babies.
Verve presents the new Indian T-shirt re-creators. Discover. Pick. Wear. Live.

Play Clan, New Delhi
“Keep your eyes open and see the world around you, carry a notebook and keep drawing/writing/observing. The rest will follow,” are the wise words of India’s new design guru, Himanshu Dogra, founder of a brand that represents everything cool (clichéd but true). Like many, the scribble and doodle method is his creation process. But Play Clan is not just about one person; it is “a team of people who work on things right from design to production. Our brand personality is ‘play + art’, and we hope that our products speak the same language.”

The Clan’s store in Saket, New Delhi, is not just about T-shirts (they make everything from coasters, buttons, sneakers, stationery, home décor and more), but they are some of their bestsellers. Their style of art is instantly recognisable, and distinctly stamped. You wear one, and you are part of the Clan. Street culture, cityscapes, transport, gods and goddesses and popular desi pop culture elements form fodder for design. But do not call it kitsch. “Inspiration in India is too abundant to get narrowed down to an ‘Indo-kitsch pop’ category. We prefer to keep it graphic, modern and illustrative,” says Dogra. “We explore graffiti, icon, vector, line drawing and many other techniques, as long as we are able to create compelling artwork.”

Affordable design does not compromise on aesthetics, and their T-shirts are proof. Every art-work is intricately detailed; colours, placement and sizing are taken into account. “The tee can be artistic, provocative, dynamic, collaborative… just anything that you want it to be,” Dogra says with enthusiasm. There are separate ranges for men and women, although they allow room for gender bending. No runway haute stuff here, it is all for living (in it) and loving (it). “We are happiest to see people wear and enjoy; it has to be real and not a show.”

OnSeed, Kolkata
Technically, it was started by a bunch of schoolboys. “It was all dark art at first,” Fahd Hussein tells us. “We aren’t natural artists, so everything was digital – loads of mangled bodies and maggot-infested fallen angels. Somewhere in between, psychedelia hit us. Gradually, it settled into a weird surreal-aggressive-military style that is evident in some of our current work.”

Hussein and his buddies, Somil Vakharia, Hamza Hussein, S K Ravi and Shible Ali have turned their pocket money-making teenage hobby into a profession, with a studio dedicated to creating T-shirts, jackets, accessories and “random art”. Their individual aesthetics synthesise into complex visuals. To them, their brand is a living being. “It is often angry, always funny, sometimes sarcastic, but never boring,” says Ali. “And it likes to party!”

Inspirations are many and varied. “Everything that’s been planted in our brains has a direct influence on our work,” states Vakharia. “Music is huge. Contemporary art, pop culture, comics and cartoons, political chaos, social irresponsibility….” They have not shied away from creating small amounts of Indo-kitsch in the past. “We did a line called Ghungroo and got orders from New York and Copenhagen,” Ravi tells us. “We also did some B-movie tees with lines like ‘Laash ka Mountain, Khoon ka Fountain’ and ‘featuring Chanchal Chudail’…. It sells well and is easy to identify with… (but) there’s so much more to India than this holistic-spiritual-Bollywood-masala-remix culture that we’re exposed to everyday.”

Music being their lifeblood, the boys have worked with groups like Jalebee Cartel, Midival Punditz, Live Evil (Pune) and Ubik (Dubai). They want to explore the “immense scope” in this kind of collaborative T-shirt design. “In terms of the music industry, we’re now planning to expand a bit beyond the EDM (Electro Dance Music) scene,” Hamza Hussein says. They also want to venture into newer design territory and have recently opened their first partner outlet in Kolkata. “OnSeed is re-skinning the revolution, one T-shirt at a time."

And what is the T-shirt of the future? They are ready with their answer. “It’ll be made of a green plasto-ethano-carbon resin, with an inbuilt microchip, an attachable jetpack, bulletproof inlays and a hand embroidered, four colour OnSeed logo.”

Paani Puri Clothing, Mumbai
A young girl blowing bubbles on the beach. A manga-style samurai brandishes his sword against an unknown power. The design’s focus? Our favourite beach snack, the paani puri (which readers outside Mumbai may know as the gol gappa or the puchka). “It’s tough to say there’s an overall, underlying message,” says Paani Puri creator, Rish Oberoi, of his designs. He offers us the company’s tagline – Thinking Outside the Puri – but he says their design mantra is even simpler. It’s fun. His company, Paani Puri Clothing, reflects a mentality that consciously rejects the impositions of a design culture that appropriates Indian iconography and then sells it back to Indian consumers, repackaged as kitsch.

“We have not even thought about doing that,” Oberoi says. Their designs, with their distinct paani puri stamp running as a common thread through each one, reflect a much more organic approach. It evolves its own stories, with original characters – Oberoi says we can look forward to the whole Puri family – and a distinct packaging and marketing sensibility are focused on keeping the brand apart from the crowd. “I want artists to see the T-shirt as another canvas to paint on. One of our friends has just written a Paani Puri song.” Artistic collaboration is high on the priority list. Born and raised in the US, Oberoi’s aesthetic is influenced by pop culture and hip-hop as much as classic art. He moved to Mumbai last year, and was struck, he says, by how the streets and the people helped him.

His modus operandi for creating a new Paani Puri T-shirt is to think it through, alongside creative head Eureka, and then sketch it into being. “A design to me is like a photograph,” he says. “If you love it, you’ll frame it. The rest are something you browse through. A majority of buyers may get a T-shirt because it looks cool or matches the shoes they bought two weeks ago. But people who admire and love the T-shirt art world will buy something purely for its design. I’ve spent many hours working to ensure high quality cotton and for the softness and the fit to be perfect.”

Either Or, Pune
Based in Pune, pan-national in their appeal and impact, Either Or’s T-shirt designs spoke to their fan base because there was something genuinely organic about them, a sense that their tees weren’t merely created by superimposing a local motif on an anonymous garment. “The Either Or T-shirt is like the idea of India. It’s always in the making. Often, one mixes common motifs – a car with sheep, or mango leaves and footprints.” One of their most popular tees is a screen-printed one that reads, ‘Sadak chaap – no gaddi, no bangla, no maal, just dil bemisaal’. One of their most inspired moves has been the use of poetry that is known and loved by even the prosiest souls in India – like tweaking Faiz’s immortal line to read Aur bhi khushi hai zamaane mein mohabbat ke siwa (There are joys in the world other than love). Owner Ritika Tickoo’s own favourite is a shirt that quotes the Punjabi poet Pasha: Sabse khatarnak hota hai sapnon ka mar jaana (The death of dreams is the greatest danger).

For Indians, the sentiment forms an instant recognition. In spite of going from unique to ubiquitous in the decade since Either Or’s inception, it retains its sense of purpose. “Indo-kitsch is the language of digital transfer, the easiest process of all; from Bali-inspired and Bangkok-imported to Adobe-created graphics which have little texture or character. For us, an element of hand-work gives that uniquely flavoured desi and earthy feel with some soul is very important. Otherwise it’s just a change of icon from the West, not the process...there is nothing Indians have added to the language of the T-shirt, then.” Either Or’s own designs employ an array of techniques – screen printing, batik, hand-printed and natural-dyed, plastic transfer, tie-dyed, bandhej, hand-painted, hand-embroidered, patch-work. Oh, and combinations of any of these. “There is no one language of the T-shirt,” Tickoo says.

You can see why she picks a defining moment in T-shirt history that dovetails perfectly with the idea that a T-shirt should speak its own language. “The Grateful Dead tie-dyes,” she says, “are the only language of rebellion the West knows in terms of process. Now, these moments are happening all over Asia with our amazing diversity of skills.”

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