MAKING MUMBAI BEAUTIFUL ONE MURAL AT A TIME
An art form they learned from their creative grandmother, Aashika and Tanishaa Cunha’s childhood hobby has evolved into a lucrative career. They transform nondescript walls into canvasses with their gorgeous, hand-cut mosaic friezes.
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Strolling down the Carter Road Promenade in Bandra, it’s highly probable you’ll have been stopped in your tracks by a stunning mural. Near the amphitheatre, beyond the real mangroves, rendered in mosaic is a flamingo nestling in the mangroves. This little nod to one of Mumbai’s favourite annual visitors was created by South Mumbai siblings, Aashika and Tanishaa Cunha.
There’s an old-world charm to the girls, none of the overconfidence and arrogance I often encounter in ambitious youngsters, PR agents in tow. Instead, these shy, self-effacing sisters remind me of the era I grew up in. In their 20s, both seem almost too embarrassed to talk about themselves.
At the Cunha residence on Malabar Hill, the girls talk about their inspiration – Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi and his over-the-top, surreal work in Park Guell, Barcelona. But the art may be in their genes. Their first mosaics were created in tandem with their avant-garde granny Anne de Braganca Cunha whose irreverent personality and celebrated creativity touched the lives of everyone she met. “Our grandma was always making mosaics out of anything she could lay her hands on,” says Tanishaa, “shells, old ceramic tiles, beads, and scraps of glass way back in the ’60s. As kids, we would assist her in her artistic endeavours, and I guess that’s as far as our formal training went in the initial stages.” Tanishaa has since completed her Bachelor's degree in Design from Goldsmiths College, London this year.
Their mum, Erika, goads them gently into talking about their first project in Honolulu. The girls become animated as they tell the story. “In 2015, we created a piece for our building terrace, which our parents uploaded to Facebook, much to our dismay,” says Tanishaa. “A common friend liked it so much that he flew us to Hawaii to create what was our first mosaic mural. At the Ala Moana Mall in Honolulu, we created a 252 sq. ft piece Ke Aloha O Ka Āina (Love of the Land) for the Ala Moana Center based on Hawaii's natural beauty. The challenges were completing the piece in 32 parts and shipping them all the way to Hawaii; so the continuity had to be perfect.”
It was a monumental task with no margin for error whatsoever, but the girls haven’t looked back since. Work poured in via word-of-mouth, Instagram posts, and, of course, the gorgeous pieces of mosaic all bearing the A&T Cunha signature that adorn the humongous gardens in the private homes of the who's who in Alibaug, “the playground of Mumbai’s rich and famous”!
It’s back-breaking work. There’s the sorting, designing, and cutting each tile individually, all by hand. Dad Ravi pitches in with mathematical calculations when the girls need help with scale and form. They work for more than seven hours at a stretch. It’s enough to make the girls an orthopaedic surgeon’s delight, but the results are unbelievable!
Each of the 80 mosaics they’ve completed, both public and private commissions, reveal a bold artistic streak that belies their timid nature. The landscapes leap out at you, demanding your attention. And the lifelike portraits draw gasps of disbelief. With the landscapes, volume is conveyed through colour gradation. Colours can be easily interchanged, so they are comparatively easier to render than portraits. “[Portraits] are definitely the hardest,” says Aashika. “Getting the characteristics of the person down is difficult. People can be quite fussy – wanting to look slimmer or fairer. And you can't just change it with a stroke of paint like in paintings. You have to remove the tiles from the board with a knife (and a lot of energy), smoothen the board again and re-stick the tiles. The glass colours available are limited, unlike paints which you can mix and create more shades; so sometimes it causes a constraint especially in skin tones.”
Amongst the Cunha siblings’ recent work is a 110 sq.ft. mosaic of the Mumbai skyline for The A Club, a private members’ club newly-opened at India Bulls, Lower Parel. Their personal favourites include two 24 sq.ft. pieces for the Butterfly Park at Rani Baug Zoo in Byculla that showcases various species of butterflies and flowers in the park. And while mosaic maps of Mumbai have become the flavour of the season, portraits and florals are consistent hits.
It’s hard work, but it pays well (commissions start at Rs. 10,000 per square foot depending on the scale and intricacy of the design). Still, what is most important to these young women is that it furthers their passion for enriching public spaces with art and installations. Aashika currently works at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS). “Mosaics like the one on Carter Road brings focus to the Mumbai mangrove issue and remind people to enjoy the beauty of our diminishing natural habitat,” says Aashika. “Public art is the best way to initiate an interaction with citizens, and it can create social awareness.”
Photographs courtesy Aashika and Tanishaa Cunha