Whole Lota Splash

Product designer Gunjan Gupta’s hyper-local presentation of a kirana store at Milan Design Week, 2024, is a bold attempt to showcase quintessentially Indian objects such as the lota and balti on foreign soil
Modern take on a kulhad, patra, lota and other products
Modern take on a kulhad, patra, lota and other products

The humble lota, a spherical water vessel, is a rare sight in city life. Yet, in the villages of India and its hinterland, it is part of rituals and daily chores. The balti (bucket), too, has disappeared from urban bathrooms since the time we installed showers. We no longer lug double-decker tiffins to the office in an age of fast-delivery food options.

The kulhad (an earthenware cup) is now limited to, if at all, roadside tea stalls and shacks, and train stations. The matkas (earthenware pots) and surahis (earthenware cylindrical water vessels), once known for their natural cooling properties and preserving water nutrients in the heat of the great Indian summers are now nowhere to be found. While one may, in the embrace of modern living, shy away from using such ‘desi’ items, a Delhi-based product designer made a bold decision to resurrect such quintessentially Indian artefacts at the prestigious The Milan Design Week (MDW) 2024.

Gunjan Gupta’s showcase, the ‘Indian Tiny Mega Store’, curated by notable design scholar Maria Cristina Didero, was on view from April 15 to 21. Gupta debuted 21 pieces from her home décor brand Ikkis; they are exclusively available at her Delhi store from this month.

Modern re-imaginations

Each piece, which she put at her Milan show, is a contemporary reimagining of traditional Indian dinnerware, drinkware, serveware, and other utilitarian articles. For instance, the rustic kulhad has been transformed into a sophisticated copper water goblet with a terracotta coating, almost an Indian answer to the wine glass. A spherical brass lota has been given a unique elongated slender shape to serve as a decanter for holding chilled beverages.

Gunjan Gupta with curator Maria Cristina Didero, ‘Indian Tiny Mega Store’, at Milan Design Week
Gunjan Gupta with curator Maria Cristina Didero, ‘Indian Tiny Mega Store’, at Milan Design Week

A set of two modest chai glasses stand elevated in look and style with an elegant brass stem with esoteric engravings on the surface, making it a unique glassware to sip champagne from. A Patiala balti, seen as a fixture near hand pumps in villages, has been reintroduced as a chiller carrier for cool beverages, especially if you have a house-party in mind.

In Gupta’s hands, the humble surahi has assimilated Chinese tea-pot aesthetics in terracotta-coated copper. The matka has been transformed into a stylish jug to pour water from. A pankha (hand fan), which used to be the go-to during long power cuts in summers a couple of decades ago, takes the shape of a thali (plate), letting us relive the forgotten times.

“As a designer, I wanted to honour these ancient forms and bring them into the 21st century, infusing them with a new function, value, and quality. That, to me, is truly celebrating the past while embracing the future,” Gupta tells TMS, adding that in a country like India, where cultural heritage is “at risk” of being overshadowed by rapid development, she ensures that her creations serve as a conduit for cultural sustainability, too.

The functionality, practicality and accessibility of her designs got her a multitude of responses from visitors from Japan, Sweden, New York, South Africa, and more. “That signifies that it is not just about the ‘Indianness’ in the object that appealed to people, but the universality of the classical Indian forms,” says the designer. Business wisdom dictates that Indian designers must align with Western standards of quality to remain relevant in the global market. “But there’s a need to present our narratives in a way that reflects our unique identity, free from the Western gaze,” she says.

Writing a global story

Gupta’s inspiration for the ‘Indian Tiny Megastore’ comes from her childhood. Her earliest influence was her mother’s kitchen, always full of guests and food. “I grew up in Mumbai. My family members often recount stories of me enjoying the clutter in the kitchen, showing a fascination for arranging objects and setting the table in my own way. My mother allowed me to be free and creative from a young age, which is how I was able to develop a sense of design.”

Later armed with a master’s degree in design from London’s Central St Martins College in 2006, Gupta was associated with research and design for Sea Wind, the 14-storey home of Mukesh Ambani’s family in Mumbai, early on in her career.

Around this time, she began to wonder why India was obsessed with the Western design world in the ’90s and the 2000s? “I noticed that despite being in India, our outlook remained globally oriented, with a preference for sourcing products from international design hubs such as Milan, Brazil, the US, and France. At that time, there was no Pinterest or internet for inspiration. Interior designers would often travel to such destinations and return with stacks of physical catalogues to draw ideas from.”

When Gupta shifted base to Delhi in 1999, she discovered that India was absent from the collectable design landscape. In 2006, she launched her brand Studio Wrap, and Ikkis in 2019, to craft modern re-imaginations of typical Indian products. From crafting a mudawala throne chair inspired by bicycle vendors of India who carry mobile shops on their backs to a bori throne chair used by labourers who carry sacks on their backs to matka-shaped stone tables, she has taken to international fairs like Design Miami, Art Basel, Fuorisalone in Milan, and Design Days Dubai, the unique language of traditional Indian design. “My recently concluded show at MDW was an extension of my practice—to steer clear of disposable trends and spotlight novel iterations of India’s handmade and craft vernacular,” she says.

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The New Indian Express