When Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a clarion call to the Indian toy industry during his Mann Ki Baat address on August 30, 2020, he was urging them to evolve and imbibe the rich cultural legacy of the country to shake off the monopoly that Chinese industries have long enjoyed in the domestic market.
He certainly did not envision Bangalore-resident Priya Pai to take up the call with the same urgency as other industry heavyweights.
A trained artist, Priya Pai was desperate. Confined to her home in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and her art supplies fast-depleting, Pai was racking her brain to fulfil a promise she made to a friend – that she'd create something special for him to gift his parents on their anniversary.
Despite the hours that working from home freed up, she found that time was not on her side. Less than a month remained for the special occasion. Rummaging her house for anything that she could turn 'art', she set to work.
Joining bits and odds and tailoring her mother's old artisan saris around them, she made dolls. But dolls alone wouldn't suffice for Pai, ever the innovator. She wanted to give them character, make them her own. And she knew exactly how!
“I need your parent's photos,” Pai told her puzzled friend. “It's going to be a little different. I'm experimenting,” she assured him. Finally, getting his nod and the pictures shortly after, she began anew.
As the doll came to life with each swipe of the needle and twist of the knob, so did memories of her time playing with dolls as a kid. She knew it would make a perfect gift.
It did. Her friend was thrilled, and so were a thousand others on the internet who'd seen Pai's work after she posted it on Instagram. That one order became ten in a matter of hours. Now, six months later, this 24-year-old techie is neck-deep in orders, stretching all the way until June.
Onmanorama caught up with Priya Pai to uncover all the secrets that turned this once-hobbyist into art world's latest sensation.
Fostering a passion for art
“I have always been passionate about art. It was during school years that I fostered the habit of painting. I took part in a lot of competitions then. Though I did not win any, I was inspired by the works that did win. It motivated me to strive harder, get better at the craft that I so thoroughly loved,” Pai said during a telephone interview.
“I must also confess, I may have sneaked away with a winning painting or two after they'd been posted on our school notice boards,” she said, but quickly added, “But, those were the days before YouTube, you know!”
“I took them home to stay inspired,” she clarified with a chuckle.
In high school, even as classmates enrolled for tuition classes stacked one after another in preparation for the State Boards, Pai joined a painting class – at the LK Shevgoor School of Arts in Mangalore, her home town.
“I did that for two years. It was a very enriching experience. It helped me learn the basics and grow more confident in my own abilities. However, my tutor Vishnu Shevgoor was not one easily pleased, or so I thought then,” Pai said.
Vishnu Kamath Shevgoor, popularly known as 'Children’s teacher' and head of the LK Shevgoor School of Arts, is a senior commercial artist and president of Karavali Chitrakala Chavadi, Mangalore.
“My sir (Shevgoor) left me to my own devices. I made a lot of mistakes because of it. I was furious. But later, it dawned on me that perhaps he was teaching me that invaluable lesson of all – you must always pick yourself up.”
“I eventually did. We are, after all, capable of much more than what we give ourselves credit,” Pai said.
Nurturing a hobby
It was this uplifting thought that guided her and gave her strength during a difficult time of her life. In early 2018, just when Pai was about to wrap up the last semester of college, she met with an accident. She fractured her leg and was on bed-rest for months.
“It was a very lonely time. I had nothing to do. Nothing to do, except make good art. It became my only resort. An unfailing friend,” Pai said.
Though Pai was loving every moment spent making art, it was not until November 2019 that it also became a stream of revenue for her.
“Until then, art was just a hobby. It changed shortly after a friend of mine noticed a portrait I had done of a friend and placed an order for herself. This then led to another and then, another. Soon, I was illustrating books and creating logos. I have had consistent orders since November 2019. I feel truly blessed about it,” Pai said.
On the importance of art
Even when she started working at Toshiba as a front-end developer, she continued to produce art, some for her art-appreciating colleagues. In fact, her artistic prowess made her a tour-de-force in the office where a keen eye of aesthetics and colour sense is always cherished. Even in a city like Bangalore, overrun with everything-tech, art endures.
“It must! Art is important,” Pai protests to this interviewer's quaint notion that a job in tech means a job drowned in paperwork and code. “Everything we learn in art bleeds into all other aspects of life and work. Art is a refuge, especially now in this increasingly digital world,” Pai said.
During the days of lockdown and isolation, when that same overpowering feeling of loneliness she acquainted when she had a cast on her leg started paying visits, Pai knew what she had to do. Despite the dwindling supplies of stock, Pai did what she does best – make art. Soon, inanimate objects around the house started wearing a smile, or a frown, or a moustache much to the delight of her parents.
One particular work, however, stands out – a portrait of Mollywood actor Dulquer Salman on a bay leaf. “My mother was making Biryani that day. It reminded me of the movie Ustad Hotel. I wanted to do something on Dulquer Salman, a portrait, and on something from the kitchen (I had run out of canvas). So, ... a bay leaf!”
It was shared widely on social media. “I got an outpouring of love and support after I posted the work. Messages started pouring in from all quarters, some even tagging the actor. It was very thrilling!”
Role of social media
“I cannot stress just how integral social media has been. It is the giant equaliser of our times. No matter where you are from or what you do, if you can make good art, there's always an audience,” Pai said.
“But,” she warns, “it is also very easy to be distracted and disheartened by metrics, passing trends, and even, the success of others. You must be careful to not sway too far from your own artistic style. I've made the mistake of going after trends only to soon realize that it was a futile attempt.”
“If you, an artist, cannot create without it leading to an applause of some kind, then what's the point? Art must be its own reward,” Pai adds.
The road ahead
As Bangalore limps back to normalcy, Pai has started offering digital painting classes to children. “I love teaching art to kids. It's my way of paying it forward, I guess. I wanted to impart the same knowledge that my Sir (Shevgoor) instilled in me. I want to teach them how to find their own style.”
“I will continue to create art. I cannot imagine a day without being able to,” Pai said. When asked what her future plans are, she has this very beautiful message: “Real success is being contented, being happy with what one does. I am content, I am happy. What more could I ask for?”
After finally learning of Modi's message, Pai too agrees. “India has a rich and diverse culture. A great legacy of toy making. We must go back to our roots (like Dulquer did) to further that great legacy."
To follow Priya Pai on Instagram, click here.