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May 19, 2017

A Walk Through Zeenat And Sameer Kulavoor’s Mazgaon Studio

Text by Wyanet Vaz. Photographs by Shubham Lodha

The Kulavoors, who set up Bombay Duck Designs, talk to us about illustration, typography and their sibling revelry

Old wooden bungalows come into focus as I enter Mazgaon. Buried in history, Mumbai’s oldest neighbourhood is home to Sameer and Zeenat Kulavoor’s studio Bombay Duck Designs. The GPS points out that I have reached my destination, but as I look around, it is nowhere in sight. Squinting through the tiny tailor shops, perkily huddled up next to each other, I spot an obscure entrance to their workspace. The staircase is steep and each step is half its usual size.

I enter to find our photographer Shubham Lodha perched on a lounge chair, testing the lights with his assistant. From across the room, Zeenat introduces herself and I recognise her through a photo that Sameer had sent across a few days ago. The only difference being that her curls are so much prettier when you see them in person.
But I am most distracted by their attic-turned-studio. My eyes keep moving to the canvases that I had only seen as images on websites. There’s a rickety bookshelf leaning on a wall and a platform with Kyoorius awards in multiple sizes. A lemon yellow bunting dangles across the room while a miniature money plant is placed in a less chaotic corner.

Just as I begin to study each individual element, Sameer shows up from across the studio. He’s got a relaxed vibe, unperturbed by the shoot setup that’s in progress. This is also probably because he’s just returned from a month-long sabbatical where he travelled across Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. “This year is all about travel for me,” he says. The 33-year-old is finally having his moment at the forefront of India’s burgeoning illustration scene. Having started his career in advertising, Sameer also dabbled with digital media and motion graphics. He was also one of the first few Indian illustrators to win awards at One Show, D&AD and be selected among Lürzer’s Archive’s 200 best illustrators worldwide. “I started freelancing in art school. I did a lot of illustrations for ads and it was good money. But I wanted to take a step back and question where this was going. I didn’t want to spend my life executing other people’s ideas.”

The Portuguese-styled arched windows lend to the mood of our on-going conversation. I’m told that their current studio used to be a tuition space, and was restored by architect Rahul Malandkar.

“In art school, I read an article by the artist Ravi Paranjape, on how illustrators have their own minds. We needed to recognise that they aren’t just people who draw for others. They are authors in their own right. That was the state of my mind. I was observant and had ideas….”

Sameer had been closely following UK designer Paul Smith and his work on bicycle culture in the West. “I had just completed all my drawings of cycles in India and we put them together in a book called The Ghoda Cycle Project. I thought he might find it exciting given his interest in bicycles!” A copy of the book and a fanboy letter was sent to the designer’s studio in London. “I wasn’t expecting to hear back, but a few days later, Smith proposed the idea of using some of my drawings on his T-shirts as a collaboration.”

Our chat is interrupted by the shoot that is about to take place. The Kulavoors position themselves in the frame, with little help from the photographer. Without warning, Sameer pulls out his phone and begins to take photos of Shubham and his assistant, who turn away like vampires from the sun. The men behind the lens confess to being camera-shy.

Very little has been written about Zeenat, the 27-year-old typographer. Her strong body of work surrounds the art of Arabic calligraphy. “At the age of 10 I did a short stint at a local madrasa where I learnt to read the Quran. The time spent there made me very curious about the script. And later, during my years in college, I got a chance to revisit Urdu. That’s when I started practising calligraphy, lettering and Arabic type.”

I have come across her work on various websites, but I am curious to see what the original prints look like before they get transferred to digital software. She hands me a bunch of folders with some of her recent work, and says, “After almost eight years of facing difficulties with people’s mindsets, I wanted to create awareness about this script and its usage. That’s when I started a series of calligraphy workshops that introduces people to arabesque. She pulls out a set of Urdu proverbs meticulously engraved on linoleum sheets. From ‘Maan na maan main tera mehmaan’ to ‘Deewaaron ke bhi kaan hote hain’, her personal projects are non-religious and light-hearted. Apart from the workshops, Zeenat has also created Urdu titles for Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and calligraphy for Mughal Pop — Mozez Singh’s furniture line for Good Earth. Zeenat spends most of her downtime photographing cats for her blog Ispotcats. “It’s like The Sartorialist for cats!”

“Have you both been photographed before?” Shubham asks. “No… not together,” the siblings respond. In 2008, Sameer decided to set up a studio that eventually came to be known as Bombay Duck Designs. “There’s no rocket science behind the name,” he explains. “It’s just a fish that I like and it’s only found in the Arabian Sea. I didn’t want to call it something like SK Design Studio. That’s very corny.”

Two years later, in 2010, branding claimed a central role in Indian marketing, as did the importance of typography. That’s when Zeenat joined him in his venture. “We began our first experiments with self-publishing and reduced advertising illustration. We work directly with brands only on special projects, and with those that are aligned with our area of work,” says Sameer.

Bits of their work for brands such as NH7 can be seen in the form of streamers and memorabilia all around the studio.

They enjoy talking about their self-published titles like The Ghoda Cycle Project and Blued Book (inspired by the ubiquitous blue tarpaulin in Mumbai). “I had several ideas and drawings on each subject and I thought the best way to put them out would be in a book format. Which serious publisher would want to publish art books and ’zines on random subjects like xeroxwallahs?” Xeroxwalah Zine was their first. Zeenat talks about the hours they spent photostatting pages and later getting them screen-printed. “We printed a good 50 copies, brought them to the studio and wondered what to do with these now!”

We have almost wrapped up the shoot, and Zeenat goes on to show me some of their old photographs — with family, their elder brother, and one with their parents outside a church in Mangalore. “As a kid, during summer vacations, Sameer used to find random materials in the house to make art projects.” she remembers. “He never used to let me touch his art supplies but this one time he needed help and we painted on some leftover tiles. After that day we always worked together and created a lot of small projects; we would use eggshells to make characters, cotton to make trees and leftover laminate to make houses.”

At this point, Sameer talks about a lesser-known influence in his life. “I was just four at that time but I remember we had a neighbour, Sujata, who was an art teacher. I used to spend time at her place watching her paint. She moved out in a year, but left a lasting impact on me and I’ve got a lot to thank her for. Unfortunately, I cannot locate her anymore (Sujata ma’am — if you are reading this, please reach out!). Before leaving, she gifted me a diary and said ‘Do something’. I still have it with my drawings from ’89.”

It’s these experiences and memories that have influenced their style of work. Sameer seems to love the cosmopolitan vibe of Mazgaon. “I like being surrounded by this world. I do think this place has made its way into my work but maybe not directly. It has been almost 10 years for me here and not too much has changed except for a few new buildings.”

I wonder if it’s their relationship as siblings, the fact that they know each other inside out, or just pure luck that conjures this successful partnership? “I think it’s trust,” says Sameer, after a pause. “I know she won’t not turn up one day, or abscond from work!” Zeenat is quick to add, “Mostly it is easy, we have worked together professionally for seven years now and we almost complete each other’s sentences. But there are times when it gets challenging, and because we are siblings we end up fighting over little things.”

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