The iconic London restaurant brand Dishoom has announced its first merchandise release, titled The Trailblazers. Featuring three T-shirts, the brand collaborated with local illustrator Manjit Thapp on a unique design for each, drawing inspiration from important yet overlooked women from Indian history: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, Rani Lakshmi Bai, and female photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla.
With a practice dedicated to spotlighting the female experience, and in particular South Asian female representation, Dishoom felt Manjit was the perfect fit for the brief. Not only is the spirit of the project closely aligned with her own values, but Manjit’s signature style lends itself well to the type of vibrant portraits needed for such influential and historically significant figures. “I loved Dishoom’s concept for this project and jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with them to honour these three women,” she explains. “In my own work, I illustrate South Asian women because, growing up, I didn’t see myself represented and wanted to change that with the work I made.”
Bringing her eye-catching aesthetic to the project, Manjit created three separate artworks that each pay tribute to the respective women through bright colour palettes, detailed portraits and layered compositions. The latter introduces other elements into the image such as objects that are intricately woven into the women’s stories, and which signify important moments in their lives. With space for very few words in the design, these symbols help to create a fuller picture of the history, alluding to the events and personal details that have become closely associated with each figure over the years.
In Sophia Duleep Singh’s artwork, for example, there's a violet flower representing the Suffragette movement, of which she was a passionate member. Born in 1876 as a goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Sophia dedicated her entire life to activism and was a key figure in various progressive groups. The angel of freedom found in the artwork represents one such group: the Women’s Social and Political Union, while a drawing of a lion acts as a tribute to her grandfather, Ranjit Singh (or ‘The Lion of Punjab’), who served as the first Maharaja of the Sikh Empire in the early 19th Century.
The portrait of Rani Lakshmi Bai, meanwhile, nods to her legendary status as a warrior queen. Ruling over the Indian state of Jhansi from 1853-1858, Rani resisted British invasion at the time by training and leading her own army, and many paintings of her throughout the ages depict her riding into battle with her infant son tied to her back. As such, Manjit’s illustration showcases Rani’s fabled warhorse; a shield with the name of her kingdom‘Jhansi’ etched into the metal; a letter that is the only tangible remaining evidence of her life after the British East India Company burnt down her library in the palace.
Finally, Manjit’s rendering of a more contemporary figure — that of Homai Vyarawalla — highlights her significance as India’s first female photojournalist. Born in 1913, Homai made a name for herself through her ability to get close to her subject. Turning a weakness into a strength, she used her invisibility (no one suspected a woman of working for the press) to gain access to the closed world of Indian politics, and throughout her career captured some of its most important leaders. Fittingly, her design includes a drawing of the Bombay Chronicle, the newspaper that featured her first photo series; an emblem from J.J School of Art, where she discovered her love for photography; a recreation of one of her iconic photographs; and a press card, symbolising her lifelong dedication to truthful reporting.
Together, these illustrations pay homage to some of India’s most seminal female figures, who used their talent and position to pave the way for future generations of brave women. Captured in Manjit’s engaging and modern style, their legacies are renewed and brought to a new audience. Speaking on the project, the artist says: “It was a joy to be able to illustrate these particular South Asian women from history for this project and shine a spotlight on their stories. I’ve enjoyed learning about the rich tapestry of their lives and then weaving elements from it into the final illustration. I especially loved how each of their lives is so different from one another, but there’s a thread that connects them all.”
The T-shirts will be going on sale on 31 July 2023 and for each one purchased, a small donation will be made to The Girls Network, a charity empowering girls aged 14-19 from the least advantaged communities by pairing them with a mentor and network of role models who are women. To purchase a T-shirt, readers can visit the Dishoom Store online.
Dishoom pays loving homage to the Irani cafés of Bombay. Dishoom first opened in Covent Garden in 2010, and now has six cafés in London, one in Edinburgh, Manchester, and Birmingham, a dozen delivery kitchens and an online store.
Dishoom x Manjit Thapp: The Trailblazers – Photography by Shahfaq Shahbaz (Copyright © Dishoom, 2023)