Friends were surprised when Shailly Gupta took up painting — a more no-nonsense figure of practicality was hard to find. Until her daughter was born in 2009, her life revolved around a corporate career, which included a role as lifestyle category manager at eBay. Going back to a full-time job after that did not appeal to the Indian expatriate, who turned her attention to art investment.
“An artist I respected told me that to really appreciate art, I should learn to paint,” says Shailly. “I tried my hand at painting and discovered I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment from completing a piece.”
Never one to approach a challenge half-heartedly, she enrolled in a two-year fine art course and, upon graduation, opened her own studio-gallery space to paint in and exhibit her work. Four years after first putting brush to canvas, it struck her that she could express herself through a chic medium she could carry around. She found vendors who could supply high-quality clutches onto which she could print her paintings.
Indian Ocean by Shailly was named after her sense of belonging to India and Malaysia, her adopted home, both embraced by the Indian Ocean.
“I researched it and loved what I learnt,” she says. “The Indian Ocean connected Mesopotamia to the Straits of Malacca and was the conduit of the earliest trade. Its Sanskrit name ‘Ratnakar’ means gems, and that is what I wanted to do with the business: bring out the gems of the region on clutches.”
Hues of blue and green consequently dominate her palette. “There is a lot of geography happening in my paintings because I like to flow my paint and create obstacles for it,” she continues. “My paints are generally very liquid and I direct them. It reflects the way the earth is formed, tectonic movements changing the landscape and redirecting the flow of water to create new river paths. Similarly, to form a river of paint, I create obstacles and manoeuvre around them. When you mix a thinner paint with a thicker one, fractals form, the same motifs that appear on corals. Geography is not a subject but the environment we live in.”
Some of her earliest work was figurative but Shailly now prefers semi-abstract imagery that evokes whimsicality or conjures intrigue. She points to an almost celestial piece featuring an impression of a woman gazing out at a nebula. “I never intended for this to happen but then I started seeing this face in the painting and just gently guided it along to create a sharper silhouette in the abstract setting,” she says. “I didn’t create the form, I just created a negative space and brought that out.”
Other designs include a kite-themed series — one was based on a painting titled First Among Equals to depict leadership and going into uncharted territory — and a fresco collection inspired by symmetrical Islamic art based on embellished tiles from Morocco, Turkey and Iran. Shailly is currently working on a namesake collection dedicated to the Indian Ocean, drawing visuals from the Maldives to the Straits of Malacca.
Case materials range from canvas to wood. Designs are either printed on both sides or on one, with the back kept clean for contrast or covered in velvet, in the case of a tiered fringed back, a departure from the printed versions. Satin in vivid, bejewelled tones lines the bags while finishes include brass, rose gold and silver.
Clutches are priced at RM490 to RM590 and are available at boutiques such as Kita-Kita and Ilham Gallery, and at bazaars and events. An online store is being built. Each design is available only in a limited release of two or three pieces, though another run might follow a year or two after the first batch was launched. No print has been used more than 12 times, retaining its exclusivity. In fact, one of her pieces is owned by a member of a royal family.
Shailly now has her eye on expanding in Kuala Lumpur — “I have only scratched the surface here” — as well as breaking into Singapore and Indonesia. Despite enjoying the unexpected trajectory of Indian Ocean by Shailly, she established the business as a creative studio and does not feel bound to a particular medium or expression.
“Some people call me the bag lady now,” she laughs. “But really, the brand does not have to be limited to bags. It just happened, and who knows where it could go? I am not artistic but I have always been creative. Creativity to me is nothing more than problem solving, and that is what I do with art: I decide on a result and figure out how to best arrive at it. The problems I am working on now just happen to be in the form of canvases and clutches.”
This article first appeared on Aug 20, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.