यहाँ पेशाब करना मना है (you are not allowed to urinate here.) This was not the sort of opening statement, emblazoned on a T-shirt, you would expect from a young designer; that too, right from his first collection, and in the first ever fashion week held in India, in 2000. Hopped up on energy and extravagance, the referencing of popular culture—a first for Indian fashion—was both camp and caustic. And while it might have caused a moment of shock and awe, by 2002 when Manish Arora sent down his other iconic Tee which read, ‘Full power, 24 hr. No sleep. No shower’, it seemed as if he was simply charting his trajectory. This show was under the label Fish Fry, a diffusion line of sportswear produced with Reebok, who had signed up with the maverick designer in 2001.
Right from the get-go, it was clear that the sense and sensibility of design was forever going to be inverted and subverted by Manish. His inspirations were commonplace but the execution was incandescent. Drawing from street art, calendar art, truck art, Manish, with his love for saturated colours, proved that pink really was the navy blue of India. Bright florals, Bollywood’s visual exuberance and Indian hyperbole were all infused with a shot of graphic psychedelia. It took me a while to understand why I had an instinctive, emotional reaction to his style, but then it hit me. Manish’s clothes looked like how legendary band Pink Floyd sounded: A sign of the times, with an eye on the future. Sharp, edgy, definitive.
In what can only be described as visual overload, Manish gave expression to a new movement in Indian fashion. Till then, the term kitsch was used dismissively, often to describe bad taste. A sensibility best left to the masses. But in a particularly Andy Warholesque moment (the artist is a huge inspiration for Manish), he elevated
the ordinary to the iconic. And the humble lotus/autorickshaw/cycle took its place next to the exalted paisley in Indian design.
What made it work was the irony and humour behind what I like to describe as the “Horn OK, Please” revolution. From god-printed T-shirts to the mudras of Kathakali dancers, there was an irreverence that altered the language of kitsch. If Manish worked on the world’s most famous mouse for Disney, you could be sure Maharajah Mickey would be carrying a mace. Once, he even used an Amar Chitra Katha story for an entire collection. The theatre of fashion seemed to be a term created for Manish’s showings. My all-time favourite is a scarf with typical Bollywood hero asking a buxom heroine: Will you marry me?
As early as December 2008, The Washington Post reviewed Manish glowingly: “Arora’s work in the past eight years has signalled the flowering of India’s pop art movement, which has elevated images from the streets and bazaars often dismissed as lowbrow and low-art. And as the chaotic nation of a billion-plus people hurtles toward becoming an economic powerhouse, rising consumerism and rapid urbanisation have brought small-town kitsch to the big cities. Artists and designers who chronicle “the new India” are now choosing these images and giving them the status of high art.” In the same piece, Manish had said, “There is no difference between my design and the sign on the roadside juice stall.”