A conversation with Manjit Thapp

Recently, we came across three trailblazing women from India and Britain’s shared history: Rani Lakshmi Bai, Sophia Duleep Singh, and Homai Vyarawalla. Fierce, talented, rule-breaking women, whose stories were relatively unknown in the UK. We decided to celebrate these women by creating three T-shirts, each emblazoned with an illustration of one of our trailblazers. And we knew immediately which illustrator we wanted to collaborate with: Manjit Thapp. 

Her dazzlingly colourful illustrations, which layer traditional and digital media, and often revolve around female characters, have been featured everywhere from British Vogue to Apple campaigns to Tate exhibitions. Here, she talks about drawing with her mother, bringing her South-Asian culture to her art, and why she felt an immediate connection with our trailblazers.

Hi Manjit, let’s go back to where it all began. When did you start becoming interested in art? 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed doing anything creative. Growing up, my mum would really encourage that, and one of my earliest memories of being creative was when she would draw elephants with mats on their backs. I’d sit for hours decorating the mats; I always loved doing things like that. But it was in secondary school that I started to take art more seriously, and work at getting better, especially at drawing. 

You then went on to Camberwell College of Arts in London, which is such an inspiring place. How did that experience shape you? 

My experience at university was a bit of a mixed bag. I enjoyed my second year the most because we did a lot of short projects exploring the different areas of illustrations. That’s when I discovered how much I enjoyed narrative illustration and being able to tell a story through my work. It was a breakthrough year for me, but I never wholly relied on university to further my practice. I was constantly making personal work alongside my class projects and sharing it online. That helped me develop my style and further my art. 

Your style is a mix of digital and analogue. How did that come about, and what do you love about working in that way?

In my second year at Camberwell, I was doing everything digitally and my tutor said that my pencil work was strong and I should try to retain it. I started to first draw everything by hand, using pencils, and then add digital colour to it. I loved the mixture of pencil texture with flat digital colour. Slowly, I started experimenting, making my own textures with traditional materials and bits of scanned paper. 

The way that I work now is like collaging all those bits together. The way it looks brings me joy; it has a handmade feel but with a digital element to it as well. 

You’ve spoken before about how, as you’ve gotten older, you’ve become more confident about your culture, which has changed the way you work. Can you tell us about that change? 

When I started drawing more seriously at school, all the characters I drew were Caucasian. It was very subconscious, it was never something I thought twice about or really questioned. It was just instinctive. As I got older, I became more aware of things — like how when we went to galleries, there weren’t many artists of colour exhibiting. Or that the people in the paintings didn’t look like me. That’s when I started reflecting on my own work and how I was perhaps perpetuating that without really realising it. I realised I could change the frustration I was feeling  using my own work. 

As you  get older you become more confident in yourself. I started to feel comfortable putting myself in my work, especially in terms of culture and aesthetics – like the patterns and the love of colour I’ve grown up around. I started to infuse more of that stuff, and more of who I am, into my work. 

That’s really lovely to hear. Moving on to The Trailblazers, what made you say yes to our collaboration? 

I really love the concept and I was so excited to be approached for it. It’s such a great opportunity to shine the spotlight on these three women and their rich lives. I also really liked the challenge that came with it – I had to represent their entire lives via one illustration. 

Had you heard about the three women before, and was there one that you felt particularly connected to? 

I knew of Sophia Duleep Singh before, but it was my first time learning about the other two women. As a British Asian myself, there were elements of Sophia’s story that I could relate to, and the dichotomy that comes with being both British and Asian. But there were elements in the other women’s stories that I could relate to as well. When you meet or hear about other South Asian women, you’re always going to connect with them in some way. There’s just that familiarity. 

Are there any other strong female icons that particularly inspire you?

I’m really inspired by female artists, especially Frida Kahlo. I love how much of herself she puts into her paintings. Even the hardest parts of her life that are painful; she lays it all out on the canvas. That’s something I find difficult sometimes, so she really inspires me.

Finally, what other projects are you working on?

I’m finishing work on a project that’s going to turn into a jigsaw puzzle. I’ve never done anything like it before and it’s been a mammoth task. It’s based on a TV show that I love, so I’ve had to draw a lot of characters and a detailed scene. I’m really excited for it to be out in the world. 

Dishoom x Manjit Thapp: The Trailblazers has arrived

We’re overjoyed to announce that our collaboration with Manjit Thapp is now available. Three most special T-shirts bearing a beautiful illustration of these trailblazing, rule-breaking woman from Indian history. Choose from T-shirts proudly displaying warrior queen, Rani Lakshmi Bai, princess turned revolutionary, Sophia Duleep Singh, and India’s first female photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla

This limited edition Trailblazers collection is available by way of the Dishoom Store.

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