As a kid, Neil Dantas would paint his 220 square feet home with crayons. Ten years later he moved on to painting RIP crosses for a Christian cemetery, and making religious idols for festivals. Growing up in Mumbai, connecting with the city’s character in every way, now he reflects his relationship with the city in his designs.
Photograph by: ?
What did your childhood look like? I grew up in a 220 square feet home in a chawl(where I still live) in Mumbai. I always travelled on foot and saw the city’s landscape, heritage, and social issues closely. I was exposed to the city’s varied cultures and ever-changing life. My work reflects the impressions that I formed through these expeditions in Mumbai. The colours and elements I use in my work are inspired by the old art deco buildings, local taxis and buses.
What was your first job? My first job was to paint the RIP wooden crosses for a Christian cemetery along with designing stones for the graves. This was in 1999, just after my father’s death, and I would get paid Rs 20 for painting a cross. I would wait for five people to die to make a hundred. We were always short on money at home. Though later, I started making paintings of Gods [Ganesha / Krishna] which were framed and sold for just about enough money.
Describe your experience at National Institute of Design. NID gave me a lot of exposure. I had taken up product design, but I would spend most of my time gallivanting from one department to another, like textile, accessory design, and graphic design to ceramic work. There was no end to learning at NID and I thought it was not fair to be confined to just one class. Even my assignments were generally incomplete, as I believed I was there to learn through my own understanding of design. I wish I could go back and be there forever, without having to pay the fees of course!
What has inspired your ‘I love Mumbai’ and houndstooth bags? I was inspired by ‘I Love NY’ graphic (created by Milton Glaser) which I saw a lot of people wearing in Mumbai. Because of my love for the city I changed NY to Mumbai. The houndstooth bag has the word ‘Mumbai’ camouflaged in it. I just wanted to merge two versatile subjects together.
What is the importance and significance of Mumbai in your designs? I was born and raised in this city, then called Bombay. For me, the real Bombay is the one with its Gothic and Art Deco buildings. Old cinema halls like Eros, Regal and Metro; they exude character and almost narrate a saga of cross-cultural influences. Thus, through my graphics, I’m trying to recreate that essence. By incorporating the old BEST 786 Double-decker bus in my designs, I’m trying to rebuild and remind people of what we have lost out there.
I feel the new Mumbai is being forced upon us. I don’t like the fact that it is changing and that we are losing its real essence. The addition of skyscrapers, shopping malls, fancy cinema halls has led to a loss of identity but then that’s what modernization is all about. I still love everything about the city. It’s my mood board.
Kuch bhi About two years ago Neil posted a photo in a Facebook album – a red heart on a yellow background captioned as “kuch bhi” which means “anything.” The caption further read, “Would you like to download this image and do ‘anything’ to it? It started as a direction to involve people, to put their heads together in making something(read: anything) for the love of creating something, that would take form as it grew. And it did.
Two years down, and it’s still on. About hundreds of artists and designers have contributed to the project. And now, there are about five hundred “kuch bhi” designs.
See rest of the top voted designs here.
What happens to all these designs? At present – nothing. The kuch bhi graphics could go on – caps /saris /wallets/ tee shirts/ ties. A company could buy these designs from us. Maybe I will call “us” the “Kuch bhi group.” The company could pay and credit that particular designer. If no one buys it, I want to turn top 300 designs in to a book – in a tearable postcard format. And each page would be the size of a postcard – it would have the design, a stamp area, and would carry the name of the designer. It could also be a collector’s item or a coffee table book.
Problems you face as a struggling designer? There should be many more platforms for designers like me to display work – similar to how upcoming fashion designers have options in fashion weeks. Other mediums cost money which is why people who are talented, but have empty pockets, can’t use them. Even a stall at the Kala Ghoda festival costs Rs 20,000(?) or more. I started marketing myself on Facebook first, gaining attention from my audience in the easiest and least costly way. It is not great but that’s the only option I have.
I get work through word-of-mouth references. I have been freelancing for sometime and I never made any paper contracts with anyone because I just didn’t know how to do it. I am really bad at all that. It’s sad that people in the industry take advantage of you because you lack business skills. I used to think it’s simple. If someone likes my work, they hire me to do something..pay me..give me credit. But it wasn’t like that. I did some design work for a stationery brand. I got paid well but no credits. I don’t understand why they won’t give any credits. All international companies do that. They even give a percentage from the sales to the designer. If these Indian companies are only going to exploit and use the designer for a one time job that they make profit out of for eternity… how is a designer going to grow or even be motivated to make new innovations?
Then, what would be your definition of an ideal situation for you? Considering, I suck at business/marketing part of designing. The ideal situation would be funding companies and sponsors telling me – “Hey we like this product. Let’s make it. We’ll buy the idea from you and give you credit.” Till now I’ve only heard “we like it.”
Your aversion to media. All they want is either your photo or put you on TV and make you talk. At different times two major channels have asked me “we found your work interesting..we are making videos..can you come on board?” Now I can’t look in the camera. I am not comfortable with 10 people standing around me, video camera stuck in my face, with the lights shining. I get embarrassed. I am not even a good talker.” If I say, “I don’t want many people around. I will do this shoot here..at this place..at my own convenience, if I put my terms and conditions, they’d say, “Who is this guy? A nobody acting all pricey.” I don’t want that so I just refuse.
Mary, 35. Housemaid and a part-time rag picker Is wearing hand me downs. Speaks conversational English. Has a problem with numbers. “I studied till 5th standard in Goa.I came to Bombay 30 years ago. My husband left me long ago. I have been staying in a one room apartment for 25 years. I own the place now and have a ration card, but for a week there is no electricity as I couldn’t pay the bill. I don’t remember buying clothes ever. All my clothes are hand me downs from people I worked for. As a house maid, I earn Rs. 1200 a month. These days I have no work so I mostly do rag-picking.” —————————————-