Is it kitsch or isn’t it? In the years after we first covered Taxi Fabric (and wrote a story for them), the question still hangs over the bright, stylised designs with which this company upholsters Bombay taxis and Delhi autos. Since Susan Sontag isn’t around to make grand pronouncements on the meaning of sentimental art any more, we’ll step in to arbitrate. Up until now, the answer was no - but we think their new online store might move the needle a bit.
In the Taxi Fabric online shop, launched yesterday, totes, cushions, laptop sleeves and un-stitched fabric bring the art you once traveled with into your home. In their first capsule, elements of two taxi stories are excerpted to create little motifs that stand on their own (and don’t need a canvas larger than your floor cushion), along with design extras: tassels behind the cushions, stitching on a sleeve, the length of straps on the totes. Everything is made in Taxi Fabric’s studio in Lower Parel.
Sanket Avlani, curator, Taxi Fabric, tells us that the plan is to roll out a new capsule every month, featuring the works of two designers at a time. In the long term, he hopes, every new public transport design will come with its own line of stuff. “It’s not just merchandising,” he says; the designers are interested in genuine articles, not just tchotchkes screen-printed with their art.
Now, back to the kitsch question. “Initially the plan was to pick up and drop the designs into the products whole,” Sanket says. “But after several rounds of trials we understood that we had to simplify our stuff.” This has resulted in skilled, often beautiful productions, but it does seem like divorcing them from their context has changed their purpose.
For us, two things have always divided the Taxi Fabric corpus from kitsch: its thoughtful intent, and the fact that it stays in the vehicles where you encounter it, meant to be used but not to consume.
It's great riding through the streets of central Mumbai in Mr Mohammed Arif’s taxi, fitted with Kunel Gaur’s lovely fresco-style art depicting the fight for Indian independence. But could you walk through Lalbaug without feeling like a prat while carrying a tote bag printed with the tiger from that work, now not too far removed from a Shiv Sena sign? (Confession: we were tempted, but plumbed for a safer choice, a crafty eagle liberated from the truck art stylings of Shantanu Suman.)
For us, two things have always divided the Taxi Fabric corpus from kitsch: its thoughtful intent, and the fact that it stays in the vehicles where you encounter it, meant to be used but not to consume. Its design stories are often hopeful and optimistic. In a taxi they don’t feel cheesy, but rather like a way to give pleasure to the busy, the hurried and the tired.
We love that an auto somewhere in Delhi is adorned with Ghalib-inspired art that outrageously manages to combine auto camp and Ballimaran romanticism. A taxi in Mumbai tries to evoke the atmosphere of P.L. Deshpande’s Batatyachi Chal, a city classic that non-Marathi speakers are fast forgetting. A “Celebrate Women Leaders” work integrates figures such as Soni Sori and the trade unionists of Penpillai Orumai into the “Adarsh Nari” aesthetic of school textbooks - strong choices in fearful times.
This isn’t to say that the new products are cheesy - just that they’re aesthetically closer to the cottage industry of primary-coloured “indie India” you see on mugs and key chains. (The only other time we’ve felt that about Taxi Fabric was its appearance in that Coldplay video.) We’re not quite willing to call it kitsch just yet - there’s too much discipline in the lines and colours for that. But even if it is, we’ll make our peace. All the baaraat-band fridge magnets and elephant shot glasses exist because kitsch is so enjoyable to so many, after all - Taxi Fabric may just show them how to do it well.
Getting there: Shop the Taxi Fabric store at taxifabric.in; a tote bag for Rs 1500.
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