At Flipkart’s new office, a tribal art mural tells a proud Indian story
Celebrated Gond and Bhil artists brought together by A Hundred Hands painted an 80-foot tribal art wall mural at Flipkart’s new corporate office, fusing tradition and modernity in a pictorial depiction of a vibrant Indian marketplace. The panoramic wall mural is a surefire conversation starter. And just as well, because marketplaces begin as conversations.
On the ground floor of Flipkart’s new corporate office in Bengaluru is a striking tribal art wall mural covering an 80-foot wall. This is the extraordinary story behind its making.
Office art. It’s a thing. Startups and new-age digital businesses have embraced it from day one. Even old-economy corporations with a reputation for stuffiness now deck their walls with pops of color and conversation-starting motifs. In 2015, Flipkart’s erstwhile office premises turned heads for the audacious themed décor on every floor that complemented the lines of business. In April 2018, when Flipkart consolidated its operations in one sprawling campus in Bengaluru’s Embassy Tech Village, office art was back in focus. One Flipkart — comprising 30 floors across three interconnected towers, with zanily named meeting rooms and wall fixtures that beg to be toyed with — made news as one of India’s most exciting office spaces.
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‘Life on the Flipside’ is the theme pervading One Flipkart. Even after weeks of exploring the new campus, Flipsters are discovering nuances — walls emblazoned with come-hither origami tutorials, a terrace-top basketball court, an incredible Human Foosball, and a climbing wall that challenges them to exercise tenacity beyond the metaphorical.
As for art, it just leaps off the walls. And the ceilings. And the floors.
At One Flipkart, art stokes curiosity, keeping Flipsters keyed up and playful even as they strive to solve some of India’s toughest e-commerce challenges. In philosophy and practice, there’s a lot to be said for integrating art with the office atmosphere. Experts of every persuasion agree that office art boosts creativity and morale, strikes a rapport with clients and stakeholders, alleviates stress, and boosts the brand. Yet, art for art’s sake can be a waste of good space — and money.
Ergo, the dilemma before Flipkart’s Facilities & Infrastructure – Projects team, which blueprinted and specced out One Flipkart, was how to integrate an art experience that both represents Flipkart to the world and yet remains deeply rooted in an Indian ethos.
Art from the heartland
“The thought was that with so much room available, the regular route of going to commercial artists was a big no-no for us,” says Rohit Menon, Associate Director, Facilities and Infrastructure – Projects. “We also thought that if we must bring an artist, then we should use this space to promote someone who is deserving.”
The team reached out to A Hundred Hands, a nonprofit known for its work in promoting handmade art. “They sounded like a set of people who seemed to be doing exactly what we had in mind,” adds Rohit.
Across the three towers of One Flipkart, the motifs and patterns are held together by an underlying logic — all of it tying into a singular theme. “At Flipkart, there is constant talk of new perspectives and thinking outside the box — that’s where the theme of ‘Meet Me on the Flipside’ came about. So, everything in these buildings has sub-themes that tie back to this catch-phrase,” explains Rohit.
The F&I-Projects team, which includes Senior Director Nagaraj Kulkarni, and Rohit’s colleagues Balaji Viswanath and Naveen Kumar Chaubey, asked A Hundred Hands to identify artists or art forms that would help extend this theme onto an 80-foot wall of the office, which would be their canvas.
“The mural depicts various values of Flipkart,” says Mala Dhawan, Founder Trustee of A Hundred Hands, as she elaborates on the sections of the freshly painted mural that represent Audacity, Bias For Action and Customer First — the cornerstone values upon which Flipkart is founded. “From a prosperous agrarian society comes commerce, and that’s where the whole market blossoms.”
Behind her, the Gond and Bhil artists brought together by her NGO add finishing touches to a historic wall mural that blends their artistic styles. Gond and Pithora art may appear similar to the untrained eye but they are in essence distinct. In terms of antiquity, Gond art is thought to predate the art of the Bhils. While the Gond people are localized in Madhya Pradesh, the Bhil tribes that paint in the Pithora style are dispersed across eastern Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Both indigenous art forms follow a minimalist approach and can be traced to prehistoric times where perspective in art was yet undiscovered. Rich, layered storytelling characterizes both these styles and each element on the pictorial canvas unravels a tale. The Pithora horse is a hallmark of the Bhil style while a recurring motif in the Gond style, which venerates nature, is the Tree Of Life.
For the Flipkart mural, A Hundred Hands matched the pattern-play used across the Flipkart buildings to that employed by the two tribal art forms. For this historic project, A Hundred Hands brought together the celebrated Gond tribal artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam and the award-winning Bhil artist Lado Bai and her family. In unison, they painted a complex and layered picture blending their styles.
The marketplace, reimagined
Lilia Muniz, an experienced architect with a passion for handmade crafts and a member of A Hundred Hands advisory board, played a key role in conceptualizing the layout of the mural. The finished mural, which is detailed and intricate, captures the boundless energy and vibrance of the traditional marketplace, which segues into a bucolic vista of mountains, watercourses and fields stippled with people, vegetation, birds and animals. The agrarian society depicted in the mural is a vibrant one. The fields are ripe with various crops, the diversity of birds and fish speaks of bounteous plenitude, and the community is abuzz with activity — the making of food, the distilling of liquor, the catching of fish, all speak of prosperity and richness.
A ribbon of light blue — a river teeming with fish and waterbirds — snakes horizontally over the canvas toward the vastness of the ocean where fisherfolk haul in nets laden with catch. Birds of brilliant hue streak across the sky. The birds, in fact, represent Flipkart’s biggest differentiator — logistics. They are shown swooping from the mountains towards the sea. The hot air balloons represent the aspirations of the Indian customer — and how Flipkart enables their dreams to soar.
Markets convene in the hills, by the lakeside, and amid the villages, each bearing its signature character. The lakeside, Mala points out, depicts a marketplace that is far more evolved. “Here, it’s not only about barter, or buying and selling, but about entertainment and tourism, and bringing people together,” she explains.
The artwork was commissioned to depict the marketplace world and the tribal artists were given a brief of what Flipkart does. “The artists came back after understanding the brief and said this is how we think that the marketplace works at Flipkart. So the end result really tells the story of Flipkart through the eyes of these artists,” says Rohit.
Tribal traditions meet the digital marketplace
Between the halves of the mural, which fold with the wall, a passage opens into the foyer. To its left, the mural is dominated by an imposing tree, with leaves of Flipkart colors — yellow and blue — and branches that grasp at the ceiling, sheltering in its sprawling shade a trader hawking his ware. This part of the mural is painted in a signature Gond style. The artist in his floral-patterned shirt takes his eyes off the wall and wipes his spectacles as he turns to speak to admiring onlookers.
“A Banyan tree begins life as a tiny sapling,” says the eloquent Gond artist who earned salutary reviews for Finding My Way — a path-breaking book he produced with publisher S Anand. “Over time its roots spread, and so does its influence over the environment. This tree is symbolic of Flipkart — a bold, strong, and attractive presence. We have chosen Flipkart colors for the leaves. Underneath the tree, a trader has occupied the vacant space — he is symbolic of opportunity and entrepreneurship. The birds, flying towards him, exemplify people who are attracted to him.”
For Lado Bai, whose family joined her in painting the canvas, the elements of this picture are drawn from the deep collective memory of her ancestors, which she has evoked in the Pithora tradition. She points to the peasants gathering harvested maize and millet, the tents and marquees of the marketplace, and the bullock carts laden with produce making their way to the bazaars.
For Venkat, the activity of painting together was itself an experience larger than merely creating art. He uses the Sanskritic word “Sangam” — meaning confluence or commingling — to describe the fruit of their combined artistic effort. He draws reference to the commingling of identities and the disparate perspectives that it infuses in the process of artistic creation.
“I am Gond, Lado Bai is Bhil, and Mala is from urban society,” he says. “The fact that our multiple views come together in this painting is, for Flipkart, symbolic of the act of working together cohesively to achieve something much larger than the sum of our individual efforts — like the river that flows through this picture that eventually joins the ocean.”
More than art for art’s sake
For Flipsters who glance at the mural every day, it is more than a thing of beauty. In a new work environment that aims to promote collaboration, creativity and productivity, the artwork is a reaffirmation that markets begin as conversations. And just as well, for a major goal of this project that A Hundred Hands led was to sensitize both the artists and the corporates to the other’s world.
“We also wanted an experience for the artists themselves,” says Balaji Viswanath from the Flipkart Facilities and Infrastructure team, who worked with A Hundred Hands for the project. “When they first came in, they were overwhelmed by the corporate environment. But in the three weeks that they were here, they were as accustomed with the place as an employee would be. The exposure to such an environment and their adaptation — both in terms of how they worked and how they thought — were big takeaways for the artists.”
The timeline, which was initially pegged at three months, was cut down to just three weeks as the artists took charge. They also tweaked their centuries-old traditions; for instance, they used paint instead of traditional dyes, taking into consideration the wear-and-tear factor.
The onus, says Rohit, is now on Flipsters to ensure that the corporate setting is deserving of this masterly artwork.
“This mural was a conscious decision to showcase unknown and deserving artists in India,” he adds. “But we have to deserve something like this. If we can’t treat it right then it makes no sense. We genuinely want to promote such artforms but we need to make sure that people are aware of its significance and that it is treated well.”
On the flip-side, a proud Indian tradition has left its imprint on the wall for every Flipster to remember and cherish.
Reported by Sophia Stephen, Dinesh Keerthy and Bijoy Venugopal
Photographs by Katheren A Raphael and Arjun Paul
Acknowledgements: Nagaraj Kulkarni, Rohit Menon and Balaji Viswanath of Flipkart F&I-Projects
Melissa Arulappan and Mala Dhawan of A Hundred Hands