We first encountered Priyesh Trivedi on Instagram and our response to his paintings and graphic design was pretty much love at first sight. For the cover of Issue 1 of WITH we wanted to work with an Indian artist, and we were drawn to Priyesh because of his intersection of a very recognizable use of Indian educational posters, Deities, advertisements, and storytelling, but with a subversive, humorous, modern take on them. His sharp eye and irreverent commentary have placed him in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and garnered him a sizable following of admirers.
In the midst of Cyclone Tauktae, Priyesh kindly answered the questions we put to him.
WITH: Your IG page is an awesome mix of mid-century Indian graphic art and Western graphic design. What was your childhood like in India that gave you your artistic perspective?
Priyesh: I grew up in the nineties, which was the most confused and culturally pivotal decade in India. The economy was liberalized and trade with the West was no longer restricted. In the past, it was rare to find something like a Walkman, but my generation had MTV and Playstation practically handed to them. That changed things for us.
In terms of the vintage Indian imagery, it just looked cool in relation to everything I was seeing around me. Growing up, there was no shortage of material as we had so many old calendars, magazines, and posters lying around the house. These images, combined with what you might call my dark sense of humor, helped to create the overall style.
W: The messaging you do with the Indian “sadvertisements” are both funny and biting – for example the Parry’s Eclairs or Taj Mahal Tea. Can you tell us about where this came from?
P: ‘Sadvertisements’ is a mini-series of illustrations parodying old Indian print ads with overt existential and cynical commentary. I remember watching Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology a few years back where he was talking about Coca-Cola to make a broader point about Marx’s idea of how a commodity is not simply an object we buy and consume, but it has an aura of a certain metaphysical or even transcendental quality that is not inherent to the commodity but is assumed by the desire for it.
I wanted to convey desire through the lens of extreme escapism and denial.
Like the Parry’s candy ad where the kid has obviously been drained of joy in life. His only drive to live comes from the fleeting pleasure of eating the candy. In the Taj Mahal Tea ad, the woman is completely indifferent to the apocalyptic situation behind her. She wants to enjoy a good cup of tea.
To be clear, I see a lot of myself in these illustrations so it would be hypocritical to pretend that I am above any of it. My goal was to make the viewer chuckle and feel a bit less miserable.
W: One of my favorites on your IG is Kali’s tongue with what looks like an acid tab on it. I don’t want to read too much into it, so what’s going on in this image? It’s kind of genius in its subtlety.
P: It was just pure subversion with no real thought or intent behind it. I think a lot of times I make something just because it looks cool in its vagueness. Most of my illustrations are intentionally ambiguous because I like to not limit the viewer to how I see things. Instead, I like to let them come to their own conclusions. Maybe it was just to flirt with the taboo around certain drugs like LSD and something that’s considered intrinsically pure as religion or deities.
W: It’s not very common for Westerners to be exposed to subversive art from India. For example, you have done many works that poke fun at the educational posters found in Indian schools in the 1990s. Have you faced any pushback for creating and sharing these images?
P: The project that you’re referring to is called “Adarsh Balak”, which was a series I worked on from 2014 to 2017. It was a series of illustrations and comics critiquing the highly propagandist educational posters in Indian schools from the ’80s and ’90s. This series got me real recognition. Not just in India, but around the world. I was actually surprised at how little “trouble” I got in.
It’s easy to make something go viral by being rude and preachy, but I always believed in being subtle and not being provocative for the sake of being provocative. It’s easier to change someone’s opinion if you can get them to laugh.
Things have changed recently in the last couple of years though. I think there is a tendency both among the cultural right and the cultural left to mob up in the most primitive manner on anyone expressing themselves in a way that they find troubling. Artists are always an easy target. Just as an example, one of my paintings where a woman is lighting a cigarette using a diya (an oil lamp used mostly for religious rituals in Hinduism) really got people worked up and I got a lot of angry messages saying it’s insulting to women and Hindu culture. It would bother me if I wasn’t so indifferent to people’s opinions, but fortunately, I am.
W: Tell us about the painting of the Sadhu by the pool.
P: I think many of us struggle with what to renounce, how much to renounce, how much we can indulge, and how badly we should feel after we indulge. Like my other works, this illustration is a bit vague. What it is trying to say is that maybe he’s really in such a place living it up but he’s resting on a bed of nails in order to remind him of whatever remains of his ascetic lifestyle. Or, maybe his ascetic lifestyle is truly genuine and he is completely at peace inside his mind enough to experience a nice poolside summer.