There is that air of supreme confidence and grace as she walks towards you. Not one to shy away from trotting the path less taken, Theresa Joseph George has managed to unlock the potential of Typography, whose importance is often undervalued in the digital product segment. She has tweaked and fine tuned the letterforms to symbolise contemporary Malayalam visual culture through her company ‘Via Kerala’.
The quirky products?
The products are novel and quirky filled with interpretations of traditional Kerala motifs that can be used in everyday life- all with a contemporary twist. Started as a typography experiment, it grew in leaps and bounds and soon branched out as four design shops in Kerala, stocking the work of 25+ artists, illustrators and graphic designers. That novelty leaps right out at you if you visit her design stores like the one in Xandari Harbour. Everything quintessentially Kerala is on display here, but in an old world charm-meets-new world style or even an Indian meets Western style- all with a Malayali touch. Packs of hand-illustrated playing cards, ‘Kutty’ T-shirts large wooden Malayalam letters in green, yellow and orange hues, some in three-dimensional format, novel screen printed texts from classics like ‘Indulekha’ and ‘Chemmeen’, terracotta and ceramic magnets, ‘ganji’s’, jute and cloth bags with Malayalam typography incorporated in them. The most popular merchandise would be the T-shirts with ‘Kerala Kutty’ written on it –a word quintessentially Malayali. This has been sported by many celebrities too. Also available are jewellery, cushion covers, caps, hanging postcards, books, greeting cards, posters, terracotta products, magnets and toys not to mention the colorful stuffed elephants popping up everywhere, begging to be taken home. The price ranges from an affordable Rs. 100 and goes upwards to the thousand brackets.
The nostalgic inspiration for Via Kerala stems from Theresa’s own life. “My relationship with Kerala is all about how I saw it as a child. I was studying outside Kerala and it is easy to understand how much one longs for home and anticipate coming back to the warmth of a family.” Theresa remembers driving down to Kerala from Chennai and nostalgia taking over. Blessed with a self-confessed flair for drama, she says,” The trees would look greener, the soil more darker and the Malayalam texts on the walls would become curvier. Everything would just change once I reached Kerala.” All these left a huge impression on the young Theresa who left Kerala when she was just four years old. That nostalgia and longing was one of the influences behind Via Kerala.
The second influence was Theresa’s professional work as a graphic designer. “In my line of work, I work a lot with English typography,” she says, “I also write but not in Malayalam because I could not read or write the language then. For me, the connection with Malayalam were the posters and banners I used to see enroute to Kerala, which was hand-painted. I remember those vividly and so my association with Malayalam fonts became a visual element rather than a reading element!” Theresa saw the letters not as alphabets but as scripts that were a strong identity of Kerala. She also noticed that people of her generation, who moved out of Kerala, knew to speak Malayalam but nobody used the language to write. That’s when Theresa thought of exploring – using the Malayalam script as a fun element or a motif or even a symbol that she could play with and convert to something more. She was fortunate enough to get a team of artist and illustrators who understood her vision and were able to translate it through the years to the present time. Novelty, quirkiness and exclusivity are her USP.
The cute flying elephant logo
The cuddly elephants scattered everywhere are locally sourced from handloom cotton. Theresa’s connection with the intelligent animal goes deep and it is now Via Kerala’s logo. The elephant to her symbolises Kerala like nothing else. While looking at motifs that expressed the identity of Kerala, the elephant was her obvious choice and it was also the state animal. “Almost everyone in Kerala has encountered an elephant, whether it’s on the road or temples and the sight of it still evokes excitement when seen in real,” she smiles. Via Kerala felt resonance in using the elephant, and that too a flying elephant as its logo because it aspired to be a part of a Malayali’s daily life as well as include that nostalgia, playfulness and auspiciousness attached to it.
The new visual culture
Not that this question needs to be asked judging by the way Via Kerala products seem to be flying off the shelves, but how are the millennial Malayalis responding to this new visual culture? Stating that Via Kerala is not into educating about the language, Theresa adds,” We are in a space where Malayalam becomes a symbol of Kerala or a motif,” she says, adding that it entrusts a huge responsibility on her. “We have to be very good at what we do because the internet has brought the whole world under one roof. The new gen has the resources to find exactly what they want and know where to find it.”