STEP INTO LIFAAFA FOR BEAUTIFUL DESIGN
WORDS BY GENESIA ALVES AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA
From pottery to clothing to wallpaper, the wares at Lifaafa are authentic, delightful pieces you’ll want to hold on to.
Lifaafa is in a tiny, standalone old structure that was probably once the staff quarters of a large bungalow called Vithal Bhavan. The area, close to Bandra Station – a network of lanes like fine capillaries trailing off Bandra’s metal, fuel and human infested bloodlines – is one of the suburb’s last little secrets. The heavily wooded Shia Imami Ismaili Kabrastan suddenly releases a flock of cheeky parakeets. Bandra “aunties”, Parsi and Catholic women in “frocks” still stand at low gates. An old army barracks (now converted to quiet homes and offices) shudders as trains rattle the railway lines right behind.
Meenal has just finished painting a wall an eggshell blue, and, as she makes us espressos, she peels masking tape off the corners. “When I’m stressed, I paint,” she explains. I have trouble imagining her stressed but none whatsoever imagining her just getting the job, whatever it is, done herself.
Meenal is a photographer, artist, production designer, and aesthete but ask her what she does and she’ll grin and say, “I’m a street fighter.” I first met Meenal nearly 20 years ago. This must have been shortly after she was picked alongside the likes of artist Atul Dodiya and photographer Dayanita Singh to have her photographs displayed at Tate Modern's “Century City”, an exhibition created to explore the influence of nine global cities at the turn of the millennium. The exhibition was a combination of art, photography and cultural references from cities like Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, New York, Vienna, Paris and Mumbai. Meenal remembers being almost too poor to get to London to see her work displayed in the Turbine Hall. “I think I just attached myself to one person the entire evening,” she says. “I was 26 and there were heroes of mine there, but I was too intimidated to talk to anyone.” I didn’t know about her exhibit, though, until it came up casually in a conversation last year.
She puts the impostor syndrome, street-fighter spirit down to the insecurity of the autodidact. Meenal wanted to be an architect, but when that didn’t work out, she went ahead and taught herself the basics of architectural design. “Now I’m a fraud architect,” she says laughing. It was the same with photography where the professionals were there to beat you with the book “It used to be a show of technical strength, right?” she says. “This aperture, that lens. Even if the picture was rubbish.” But she found confidence in the brilliance of the self-taught. Whether it was celebrated architect Tadao Ando or her “unqualified” carpenter who bested trained architects to create a three-story chawl for a film set in a matter of a month. “It withstood heavy equipment, crew and long hours of shooting,” she says. “That combination of instinct and experience is unbeatable.”
Meenal asked Suzanne Caplan Merwanji about working in film production and design. There was no looking back. Meenal’s preternatural intuition as a production designer is evident in every film she has worked on, and she refers to Merwanji as “my guru” now.
A fauji-kid, Meenal has lived around the country, but her ancestral home in Grant Road was always the place she imagined running back to. There was a reassuring sense of permanence. “My mum is Parsi, and this was my nana’s house,” she says. “I was born there and loved it, but eventually there was construction that came up around. The house grew dark, and as its residents aged, not just literally. We sold it, but I still regret not hanging on to the fan regulators or the brass taps.”
Lifaafa is, in some ways, the sum of who Meenal is. She believes in design, utility, beauty, that “everyone has at least one good design in them and they should produce it. Come, I will produce it!” but most importantly, things that are meant to last. Generations if they have to. She balks at the idea of people “doing up” their homes in one go, “taking printouts from Pinterest and telling the carpenter ‘bhaiiya saste mein banao’.”
Lifaafa’s roster of gems this “open day” features stunning, delicate crocheting by a French woman who lives in Mumbai; bronze glazed pottery from two artists in Japan, Koki Kitaoka and Wakako Senda; and minimalistic light-work by Atul Johri. There will be a “Bandra” inspired wardrobe on sale, "Lady Pow", working whimsy and vintage. Then she shows me samples of wallpaper sourced from Bien Fait, a French manufacturer with a collection that takes my breath away. There are storybook animals by illustrator Beatrice Alemagna, misty windows, a collection inspired by Henri Rousseau.
Lifaafa is for the discerning; there is no shame is saying that. Prices range from a few hundred rupees to tens of thousands, but each piece is marked by a unique authenticity and integrity rarely seen today. In a hot, lurid world filled with cheap remakes and trendy-tat, you’ll find intransient things here, touched with the sublime that will last generations.
Stop by Lifaafa from 15 to 22 December to meet the artists, makers and bakers whose work it retails. Timings are from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Lifaafa, Vithal Bhavan, Guru Nank Marg, Behind D'Decor Bandra (w), Mumbai 400 050.