I was earlier the Director Photography for Forbes India and ForbesLife India. I have been a photojournalist since 1991, starting with a four-year stint with the Hindustan Times in Delhi, a place that I still call the best finishing school for photography. In 1995, I moved to BusinessWorld magazine attracted by their outstanding coverage of the emerging India. In 2005, I came to edit India’s leading photography magazine, Better Photography. When I am not working, I am a fan of the outdoors and road trips. I was able to combine all these loves when I did a series of motorcycle trips to the Himalayas to document the fragile ecosystem and its people. This culminated in a exhibition of photographs called “Endless Horizons” at the IGNCA, Delhi, in January 2000, along with two other photographers, Gurinder Osan and the late Pradeep Bhatia. I have enjoyed the role photography plays in what is an otherwise word-dominated profession of journalism.
We take our covers seriously. Every two weeks, a bunch of us get into a huddle with IG—that is Indrajit Gupta, our editor—to think up ideas for the cover of the next issue. Sometimes we brawl, question the brief, the story, everything. At others, more rarely, we’re all singing from the same song sheet. Last week was one of those times.
IG’s brief was clear: the poster child of India’s e-commerce industry, Flipkart, was, unthinkable as it may seem, headed for turbulent times. Sure, it was setting the standards for customer satisfaction, but that very focus was also weakening the company. You’ll have to read the story to get all the details that my colleague Rohin Dharmakumar has put together, but I can tell you his research was thorough, and so there was no ambiguity in our minds about what we wanted to say.
In this case, the line came first. “Flipkart can’t deliver” was the tack we decided to take, with a sub-head (a ‘strap’ in journalese) that said “India’s e-commerce darling is headed for a fall.” Then came the visual idea: Little shopping cart icons have become the de facto ‘buy’ buttons on e-commerce sites. We decided to show a real-life shopping cart, but one that was damaged in some way.
Later, we decided that it wasn’t quite working. I argued that the spindly wire-frame and single colour of a cart wouldn’t stand out enough for a cover. Instead, why not use a toy cart? I knew that in Karnataka, Flipkart’s home state, a little town called Channapatna made outstanding traditional toys with just the kind of clean, solid lines and bright colours that I had in mind. I was soon checking out the Internet if there were images of toy carts from Channapatna. There were none.
I called Mallikarjun Katakol, a Bangalore-based photographer who shoots regularly for us. He is very knowledgeable about Karnataka’s indigenous arts, and is an extremely resourceful guy. Mallik, as I expected, took it from there. Here it is in his own words.
P.S. Yes, you noticed that the line that eventually went on the cover isn’t the one you read a few paragraphs ago. That’s because we decided that though it was definitely a powerful and provocative headline, it also implied that the game was up for Flipkart. And that was not the claim the story made. We needed to communicate that the company was in trouble, but not that it was doomed. And so we changed that to a simpler statement : “What’s wrong with Flipkart.”
And now, over to Malik.
After I understood the brief, I went looking for this cart toy in all those places where Channapatna toys are sold in Bangalore, from the state-owned Cauvery Emporium, to stores where such handicrafts are sold. No luck. I finally called up people who might have collected such artifacts, and that too turned up zilch.
I had to head to the source, Channapatna, which is 60 kms from Bangalore.
That night, I made a drawing on my comp—almost as detailed as an engineering drawing—of the cart that I had in mind, since I wasn’t sure that I would find exactly what I wanted ready-made. I even made a graphic print so that an artisan could easily understand what I wanted.
Next day, in Channapatna, the first guy I contacted said he would do it, no problem. Now that was too easy, I thought. He was soon cutting up wood to the measurements I had drawn. When I asked him how he planned to colour it, he said he would ask a furniture shop to paint it. The horror! Traditionally, Chanapatna toys are always seen in bright yellow, red, and green, and they are coloured using molten lacquer. Why couldn’t he do that? Nobody was doing that any more, he said, it was too expensive.
I wasn’t convinced and went to another artisan, who pointed out that the design I had created was not ideal for the molten lacquer process, since it had sharp edges and corners; all Chanapatna toys had rounded corners and bevelled edges, which made the melting lacquer method possible.
This was a disaster. I began to wonder whether I would get the toy ready in time after all: I had only up to that evening to deliver the final shot; it was already noon and I didn’t even have the toy ready. And worse, the electricity in Channapatna is not to be trusted, I was told. If the power went, all work would come to a standstill. Time for a Plan B.
I got the artisan to make the wheels the traditional way, with the lacquer coating, and then I hit the road for Bangalore.
En route, I called Dinesh to tell him that he should have a back-up image ready. He reassured me that he had a reserve, but he’d much prefer the shot we had discussed. Small relief.
Once I was home in Bangalore, I went to the place where I usually get my wood work done, and asked for long, thin reapers. It was 1.30 p.m. I hurried back to the studio, and began making the cart, cutting, buffing, sticking and nailing the wood with one eye on the clock.
At 5 p.m., it was ready for painting. I had experimented with paint that would give me a look that was close as possible to the lacquered effect we wanted. Now, I sprayed the various parts of the cart and set them out to dry. Then, I took a break for lunch.
At 7.30 p.m., I set up my camera and lights, assembled the various pieces, and took my first trial shots.
I emailed the rushes to Dinesh and chewed my nails while I waited for his reply.
At 8 p.m. my phone rang and his voice boomed down the line: perfect!