Elegant Creativity Married with Serious Commerce: Sahiba Madan’s “Kalakaari Haath” Studio, Mumbai

Sahiba Madan

Some time ago I discovered “Kalakaari Haath” (Hindi for “Artistic Hand”) on Instagram—a dynamic studio working in diverse creative disciplines with a large audience. They use design as a medium of collaborative storytelling. The body of work produced largely entails graphic design, illustration and wall features.

Founder Sahiba Madan completed her Bachelor’s in Architecture from Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture, Mumbai, after which, she worked for nearly three years at leading architectural studios. During her final year of study, she conducted an intensive research on traditional building crafts of India and hand-illustrated a series of postcards as documentation. These, in turn, inspired Kalakaari Haath.

Sahiba also runs Insitu (2019) an architectural and interior design studio focussed on crafting in place. She has been a visiting design faculty at ISDI Parsons, Mumbai and a part of juries on Design and Architecture within India. Additionally, she has conducted multiple masterclasses for students in various design schools in the country.

I invited the energetic entrepreneur to discuss her background, artistry and business…

Wallpaper. Courtesy of Kalakaari Haath.

Hi Sahiba, welcome! Let’s start here—what are your earliest memories of creativity? How and where did this journey begin for you?

As far as I can remember, I have been drawing since I was a little kid. My mum is a nutrition professor. She used to teach at SNDT college and I used to go to a pre-school nearby. She used to drop me there in the morning. I would get done by afternoon. She used to then park me at her desk with paper and pen. So my earliest memories of creativity go back to that period. To pass my time, over the next 2-3 hours, I would scribble, doodle, draw on anything and everything. And my parents through childhood were always very encouraging. They accepted that I had a certain skill. They would squeeze out time on Saturday and Sunday and made sure I went to my art class and my craft class. They really took a lot of initiative and wanted me to take that skill seriously.

Custom wall decal. Courtesy of Kalakaari Haath.

That’s really amazing! Most parents—especially in a country like India—can be very quick to suppress creative aptitude in their children. It’s considered useless. They say right away you have to become a doctor or an engineer, which is really sad because the truth is—as you have demonstrated—anything could be commercialised, if you are truly talented and serious about it…

Yes, totally!

Now let’s talk about your education. What was it like? And what made you decide to start something by yourself rather than work for others?

I did a five-year architecture programme. And later, I worked for over two years in a couple of architecture and interior design studios in the city. Towards the later half of this, while I was working as a junior architect, I began toying with the idea of taking my illustration style a bit more seriously, with the intention of monetising it. I freelanced for about a year. With my job, this was a side gig I was taking on weekends, seeing whether it would work or not. When I could no longer manage the two, I decided to commit to it full-time.

Wallpaper. Courtesy of Kalakaari Haath.

Your brand has a very “balanced” identity. As in, I like how solid your content is. You have a very elegant and sophisticated aesthetic, you adhere to high standards. And with that, you take the commercial side and mass marketing very seriously. I’m wondering do you have an inspiration, somebody you’ve seen follow this approach, any entrepreneur or creative professional?

There are so many—I don’t think I could pinpoint one or two. At the same time, I don’t think I started “Kalakaari Haath” with inspiration or a certain vision in mind. It’s been more of a snowball effect. For a long time, it was just me creating and wanting to express myself and that has transformed, evolved into a team. One more, two more, now ten in the studio, people who are designing and creating. So I feel it didn’t begin with a focus as such. A lot of it has just come out of personal expression. The inspiration has always just been the “idea of a story”. That has been the underlying thought throughout everything that we’ve been trying to put across. And such an approach works well, it connects with people when you’re trying to translate a brief. I think the work ends up becoming something deeper this way, instead of following a trend or reference…if I could answer that question.

Makes sense. As in you didn’t have a predetermined point or vision or ambition as such. It just happened organically, the practice grew over time.

Yah, because we’ve done multiple things, experimented a lot. Home decor, stationery, coasters, trays. Eventually, we got here. For me, it’s been more a journey of learning out of negation than the pursuit of one single path.

Symbiosis (mixed media wall art). Courtesy of Kalakaari Haath.

You lay a lot of emphasis on “storytelling”. This really appealed to me. It’s also in your marketing copy—“let your walls tell a story”. Very interesting. You have paintings also that are rich in terms of communication and content. For instance, “Symbiosis”. So talk more about this aspect of your work…

The idea of storytelling goes back to my formation, I feel personally connected to it. For the large part it was just me, a one-man studio. I was running about, doing everything. Designing, content, production, giving quotes, following up. Storytelling was a big element in my architecture and design courses. We used a lot of metaphors and analogies when translating a concept into a tangible outcome. So storytelling is really ingrained in me.

You use a lot of nature. Is this because you are somehow, even subconsciously, passionate about environmental conservation or sustainability?

I would say, yes, at some level. I don’t think I do my part, I could certainly do more—but we are always trying in different ways, for instance, even in our packaging—to spread awareness. Also, nature has been so strongly a part of our work because we want to make art accessible. Art can be very intimidating for a lot of people and we are operating for the layman. “Nature” is some kind of truce at which any and everyone can gather.

Custom wall decal. Courtesy of Kalakaari Haath.

Briefly describe your range of products and services for us.

By and large, it’s two-fold. One is e-commerce, which is a ready-to-buy range. Then we have a custom-made section. Ready-to-buy products include wall decals, wallpapers, framed art. In our custom-made work, we experiment a lot and may use embroidery, etching, brass, mirrors. We’re always using craft and multiple mediums in new ways.

Custom wall decal. Courtesy of Kalakaari Haath.

In general, what do you think about the current state of the creative industries in India?

I would definitely say if there was ever a time to work in design, it is now. I feel when I started it was so under-acknowledged. The options of graphic design and academic disciplines available today were never there. Every industry is now looking at design as a value addition. There are so many people doing so many amazing things. And there are multiple specialities—with communication design, UI/UX, product, fabrics, textiles…

Definitely there’s a lot happening. I personally like Good Earth a lot; they were real pioneers. They also have a sister project Paro Good Earth. I love how they curate their material and how beautifully rooted they are in Indian culture. Peepul Tree is also doing a great job, employing artisans…

Indeed, Good Earth have really stuck it out. It’s great to see so much happening around. Even the people who apply to us come from different backgrounds—textile, communication, graphics, etc. The scene is so diverse and specialised. It’s really amazing. When I was studying, I could just think of four or five things. Now the scene has exploded.

Wallpaper. Courtesy of Kalakaari Haath.

And the good thing is there is a market for everything, if you are consistent with your communication. A few months ago I came across a mask maker from Hyderabad. I was so amazed at how well she had built her business on Instagram, around just these very cute masks on Indian culture, mythology, ordinary life. And they’re really selling. So I do think if you have quality and consistency, you can make it.

Yes, “consistency” would be a good word to get associated with when you’re building something. And I would add “honesty”. If you’re just mimicking something that’s trending, then the attention you get will be short-lived. But if you are authentic and continuous, people find a way to connect with you.

The problem is a lot of people have ambitions, they start projects but they give up too soon, before these projects can take off. I really like businesses in the creative sector that can last. Ideas are easy, even talent is widespread. Like, I see artists who will create two or three paintings, but that’s it. They don’t want to work beyond that, put themselves out there, try out different things. You need to operate all the time! Success is just a combination of talent and massive amounts of energy.

Truly!

Next, people precisely like you could—and should—teach because of your tremendous skill set. You have mastered both the creative and the commercial side. You already have some experience in teaching. Are you interested in conducting more workshops or developing courses?

I have taught at ISDI Parsons—design and sustainable systems. We organised workshops and masterclasses during lockdown. And when we were able to, in-person sessions. We are always open to opportunities that can allow us to impart a bit of what we have learnt in these years. The subject that I have been personally most interested in or I feel that has great potential and capacity for impact is “the process of creative thinking”, essentially. A lot of people struggle with understanding the idea of a “narrative”. They may look at something and draw it as is. But if you put more of your expression into it, it becomes so much more meaningful. This is something I learnt in my school, and it has really helped me in the way I conceptualise things and put them forward. So this is the premise of our workshops. Not only for students but also for those who would like to, later in life, pick up a hobby.

And it could also just be for therapy. Even if somebody has a totally different career, they could attend a session of yours to feel better…

Yes, definitely. There’s been real diversity among our students. And we’ve had great fun.

Lastly, what are your future plans? How do you intend to grow? What else do you want to add to your activities?

Our larger vision is to be a home decor brand that includes not just wall features and artwork but also a fabric line and lifestyle accessories. So these are areas we are excited about and actively working on.

Links: Website (kalakaarihaath.com) | Instagram (www.instagram.com/kalakaarihaath)

Mixed media wall art. Courtesy of Kalakaari Haath.

Mixed media wall art. Courtesy of Kalakaari Haath.

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