Inside Sridhar Poddar's Evoke of London — a homage to modern Indian, African handicrafts
Evoke opened in London's swishy Marylebone area just six months ago. And it already has actress Sonam Kapoor flaunting their charpoys in her Notting Hill home.
Top Notch is a fortnightly column where journalist and editor Namrata Zakaria introduces us to fashion’s elite and erudite club.
How many companies can boast of movie star Sonam Kapoor Ahuja as a customer and an advertisement within months of their launch? Even counting them on one hand will be a tall ask. This is what makes Evoke of London an unusual enterprise, more so when you learn that one of its founders is all of 29 years.
Sridhar Poddar – along with his partners, mum Vandana Poddar, and interior designer Leonora Stathakis – opened Evoke in London’s swishy Marylebone area just six months ago. In just a couple of months, Sonam was showing off the spanking new home in Notting Hill she shares with husband Anand Ahuja, for Architectural Digest magazine. Among her favourite pieces, she shared, were a pair of charpoys she had purchased from Poddar’s new boutique. “One of my friends knew someone from her team, so I invited her to our space. She came over and purchased a few things, and began to spread the word,” Poddar says over the phone from London.
He has just returned from Kettle’s Yard, the Cambridge University’s contemporary gallery space. “We loved having her as a customer and patron. But it’s wonderful that she understood our story, and our language,” he says.
Evoke is an homage to crafts from across the world, especially Africa and India. They are obsessed with anything that is made by hand, and modern in its language. They have shields from Cameroon, sculptures from Zimbabwe, and Kantha from Bengal. “It all began when my mum sent me to a collector’s house in South Africa. She was raised there, and we visited often. So this collector was getting rid of some stuff, and my mother wanted a pair of beaded chairs. She had expressed a desire to open a store with him, and he connected her to Leo. Leo eventually loved the idea of opening a curated crafts boutique, and she left her job and joined full time. It was all meant to be,” he says.
The Poddars are a business family with interests in mining. They live in Bengaluru. Evoke draws from the idea of 'Vasudeva Kutumbakam' or 'the world is one family.'
It believes that all crafts cultures in the world are connected and cross pollinate.
“The thing about crafts is that they all come from the earth, and are made with minimum machinery,” Sridhar explains. “We are all people, we all have similar behaviours and tendencies. We have a common bank of materials: wood, stone, metal, sand, mud. Human hand works in a very similar fashion. You know I went for the ‘Epic Iran’ show at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and certain terracotta items resembled Indian terracotta figures or bronzes from Africa. African art, for example, is the purest form as it preceded trade, so all its influences are flora, fauna, and human figures. The same with India: we have the most craft traditions in the world. People are seeking out craft in the UK. There’s a hunger for it, and we are contributing to it,” he adds.
Sonam’s charpoys have an interesting story. “It’s one of the most ubiquitous and ergonomic pieces. It’s the furniture equivalent of the Charles and Ray Eames’ ‘lota’ theory (they wrote about it in the ‘India Report 1957,' commissioned by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru). Across India and the gamut of South Asia, people use the charpoy to rest, sleep, dry spices and vegetables, or as a table. It’s lightweight and stores easily. It's the timeless and universal aspect of things that Evoke likes to bring to the forefront. The legs of our charpoys are inspired by the balam, or the Indian exercise club, which is all the rage in European gyms right now. The oldest things are so contemporary, and I found these balams so fine and sleek, I wanted to incorporate them into our benches. Sonam picked up on it as well,” he smiles.
Sridhar is quick to admit the pandemic slowed down the opening of Evoke (it opened in April 2021). “It was a grinding break for the world. The crafts people, who are so dependent on NGOs and their exhibitions, had nothing to do. But this is when they made their most beautiful work,” he avers.
London has brought its own challenges and its own privileges. “It’s extremely tough to open in London. The landlords ‘curate’ who they rent to. We were interviewed by several landlords before we finally got to Marylebone. We are so happy about the location. Marylebone is eclectic, accessible, and not intimidating. It’s upmarket and yet offbeat, and really the perfect place to start something cultural. It gives a platform for independent companies to grow,” he says.
Back home in Bengaluru, Sridhar has just started a cultural platform called 'Kaash,' named after his grandfather Kashi. Last month, he and Mumbai-based archivist and historian Deepthi Sasidharan presented a talk on Bidri, the metal inlay work of the Deccan, that originated in Persia.”The Bahmani Sultans brought Bidri to South India, inviting inlay artists from Iran to design their tombs. I had seen some contemporary Bidri work, and my mother always found it similar to Japanese kintsugi. We always wanted to bring design interventions to craft, and we have these new boxes inspired by Van Gogh’s impressionism. Our Constellation vase came to be because Google Arts & Culture called Bidri like a star-spangled sky,” he smiles.
Sridhar and Evoke are now content with growing their community in the UK. “We do sell online if someone orders from our website or Instagram. But crafts of this calibre require a slower process, this isn’t a manufacturing business,” he says. The focus right now, is to discuss the world’s commonalities, and not differences.
Namrata Zakaria is a seasoned writer and editor, and a chronicler of social and cultural trends. Her first book, on late fashion designer Wendell Rodricks' Moda Goa museum, is due to be published shortly. Zakaria is especially known for her insider’s take on fashion, luxury and social entrepreneurship in India. Her writing is appreciated for shaping opinions, busting myths, making reputations and sometimes breaking the odd career. Zakaria is also involved in putting together philanthropic efforts in the field of economic and environmental sustainability.
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