The Flying Elephant – A Modern Take On Kerala !

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Theresa Joseph George talks of her brand, Viakerala that’s taking Kerala places! 

From lush green fields, beautiful backwaters to exotic spices, God’s Own country is unique, rich and vibrant in its resources. Quite naturally, its pulsating beauty reverberates into its traditions, culture and language as well. Viakerala celebrates its roots through its products that are reminiscent of Kerala’s typography and rich heritage. RITZ is in conversation with the mastermind behind the brand that is taking Kerala across the globe, Theresa Joseph George!

Text By Riya Sonny Datson

What inspired you to start Viakerala?

I have been working in Kerala for 15 years now and I noticed was that tourists or friends from abroad have a ‘Bollywood’ inspired perception of India. But down south, I don’t think Bollywood has so much of an influence, at least not until recently. Being a graphic designer with a specialisation in typography, my work deals with identity design. So I felt there was a vacuum, a space for this kind of expression, an identity that we could relate to in our everyday life and not just for festivals. I started to question my own identity or roots and that’s when the idea of setting up a brand was born. Viakerala is a modern take on what already exists as Kerala’s identity through a range of products that tells our story.

Having been outside of Kerala during your childhood, how acquainted are you with the language?

I’m from Kochi but I did most of my schooling in Yercaud. I remember coming to Kerala only during vacations, so I lost touch with the language but the nostalgia always remained. While traveling, the one thing I distinctly remember is that, the minute you cross the border, you immediately know that you have entered Kerala – not just because of the greenery or the landscape but also because of the visual impact, the curvy typography of the Malayalam language which is on every wall or building. I feel, being a literate state, everyone uses the language and script to communicate – be it political propaganda, movie and product promotions, the language is everywhere! It has very much become a part of our identity and day to day living. After returning to Kochi and settling here, I have revisited this notion of Kerala
through its visual impact.

What is your brand philosophy?

Even before we started as a physical entity, we had decided that any product, by default, has to be inspired by Kerala, it will be from here and made here – the process should have ‘Kerala’ in it. And that’s exactly what you find in our product range. Majority of our products are made locally, except T-shirts because we don’t have such a unit here. But the message on the T-Shirt would reflect a ‘Kerala’ idea. Using the Malayalam letter form as the design element in the entire product range is something new and what I have found is that once people see our product, they never forget us because it is so unique

There is a strong social responsibility element in your brand…

Yes, like the name suggests, Viakerala products are ‘via’ Kerala. We get the stationary printed locally and bound by smaller vendors here. Bags and toys are all hand stitched by self-help groups of women. We train them and supply the raw materials. They give us the products at a service charge. So we are imparting a skill and empowering them financially too.

Which are the popular products?
The most popular products would be the three dimensional Malayalam letters, toys – specially the stuffed elephant, jute bags, T shirts that have the writing of ‘Kerala Kutty’ on it. ‘Kutty’ is a word that is used very commonly here. If you are a Malayali, at some point or the other, you would have either been addressed as one or would have come across the word as a part of someone else’s name. I think it’s a great word to describe the identity of a Malayalee! We also have stationary, handloom bags, jewellery, posters, toys and ceramic products.

Price range: Starting from Rs. 100 upto 3000.

Your logo has a Flying Elephant…

The Elephant is again an indispensable symbol of Kerala and we find it in most of our Government emblems or signage. As Malayalis, we would have seen theelephant atleast once if not more in our lifetime as it’s so much a part of our environment. On the same lines, we have tried to create a brand that is not anything new, it is very close to our heart and identity – just that it has taken wings! A new or contemporary perspective to what already exists.

You also spearheaded the ‘Malayalam project’ in collaboration with the 2014 Biennale.

The Malayalam project is a collaborative forum with my design firm, Thought factory, which is a design consultancy for commercial brands. For the project, we teamed up with our network of artists, film makers and designers who are practicing in Kerala. The thought behind the project was that our social conditioning has been influenced by Malayalam literature or poetry which has been handed down for generations. So we took ideas from literature that dated back to a 100 years and each artist interpreted it visually through posters or canvases that were specific to the Kerala scenario. Essentially, we tried to bring in different perspectives in the same thread.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Getting skilled manpower, be it designers or workmanship is a challenge. Keeping up with the philosophy of making every product here is not an easy choice either. It is very difficult to ensure that we get a timely delivery of the products. As it’s handmade, there are quality issues, which leads to a lot of rejects. The strikes and hartals also add to our woes. When we are giving orders to an individual or a self-help group, there are unpredictable delays. The only way out is to keep ourselves and the team motivated. But that is also our strength as I feel, in the long run, it is very fulfilling for us and for the smaller enterprises to work hand in hand.

Do you have an online presence?

www.viakerala.com. Apart from that, our flagship store is in Lilly Street, Fort Kochi. We also have stores in Mattanchery and Thekkady and have sales from the studio in Girinagar, Kochi.

What is in store for 2018?

Expanding our product range to other stores as well as making our onlinepresence stronger. We have new handcrafted products that we develop with existing designers and keep them at stores. The next edition of the Malayalam project is also in the pipeline, we plan to take it to other cities like Mumbai and Chennai in the second half of 2018.

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