In a reconstructed warehouse, with high ceilings and large windows, V Sunil leans back on his seat and says, “Over a certain period of time, you develop a level of confidence, when you know you can walk into a place and change it.” As the creative energy behind the mega-campaign that is ‘Make in India,’ Sunil has spearheaded India’s image as a global force. The former creative director of Wieden+Kennedy, he is currently working on the Jodhpur Urban Regeneration Project, which reimagines the city beyond its clichés, and seeks to respect its heritage while making it modern and enterprising.
Brought up in Kannur, Kerala, Sunil dropped out of school as a teenager and moved to Bengaluru to stay at his uncle’s place. He wanted to apprentice at a mechanics factory, but fate had other plans. The factory, Gears and Pinions Pvt Ltd, decided not to hire anyone new that year. A neighbour noticed him sitting idle and pushed him into his first creative gig: designing cassette covers for a company that made Gujarati devotional songs. The job didn’t last, but his love for design did. Twenty-five years and a string of advertising jobs later (including being creative director at Ogilvy & Mather), he set up his own boutique firm called A, which was eventually merged with Wieden+Kennedy. It can be said that you’ve admired Sunil’s work without knowing it. He is responsible for the striking ‘On Time’ IndiGo campaign, in which even the nuts, chips and biscuit tins were transformed; along with Amitabh Kant, current CEO of NITI Aayog, he designed the world-famous Incredible !ndia project. He is one of the masterminds behind the Kochi Biennale, which has transformed the port city into a force to reckon with in contemporary art. And, ‘Make in India’, well, let’s just say it has fans in high places.
“Something big should come out of creative spaces,” he says. When he talks of scale, he isn’t doing so casually. For ‘Make in India,’ he was determined to create a symbol that could portray a country as huge and diverse as India, and at the same time, be “cool” enough to attract the young to manufacturing. “In order to make manufacturing sexy, you have to bring art and culture into it,” he states. Together with Kant, he fashioned the lion icon. The lion travelled through screens into people’s homes and imaginations, through a massive launch that was planned with precision, carefully choreographed to the minute.
The office of Motherland Joint Ventures, his current venture in which Sunil partners with Mohit Dhar Jayal, reveals a cutting-edge, minimalist aesthetic. Teal windowsills, exposed brick and glass walls embody a desire to rework space through design, with an efficient blending of the old and the new. This continues in Sunil’s ongoing initiative: the Jodhpur Urban Regeneration Project. In collaboration with Kanwar Dhananajaya Singh of Raas Hotels, the idea is “not just to buy and sell havelis, but to actively redefine the area.” This historical city in Rajasthan has long held a romantic allure, but this project endeavours to move beyond the exotic notions. Jodhpur’s walled city is a densely packed labyrinth of lanes, bazaars, public tanks and homes in a desert landscape. Along with his partners, Sunil has created a mood board of a possible ecosystem, one that merges hospitality with art, culture and retail.
A few of the first steps in the project involved a thorough clean-up, beginning with the old city’s Toorji ka Jhalra, a stepwell built in the 1740s. Deemed unfit for use due to high levels of toxicity, it is now open to locals. Interestingly, it has also attracted tourists that come and swim in its waters on a hot day, and in this way, has become a buzzing area. The havelis that line the main bazaar boast of large courtyards and gorgeous, intricate carvings. These buildings were falling into disrepair, and the collaborators saw their immense potential. They were bought from all kinds of families and have been remodelled as hotels, restaurants, retail stores and community spaces. The brands that are opening branches in the bazaar have been carefully chosen, such as Rajesh Pratap Singh, Nicobar, Good Earth and Forest Essentials. The big brands are fused into the market area along with super-local ones, so that people can continue to sell their traditional handicrafts: spices, textiles and silver trinkets. “We don’t do typical marketing,” says Sunil. The idea is to foster diversity, so that young people can stay in affordable and trendy hotels, while others can get a taste of royal luxury. “No matter where you stay, when you walk out, there’ll be plenty of common places to meet people: whether it’s the bar or an art gallery.” The most important way to keep such a historical pocket relevant is by ensuring that the revival is sustainable. Thus, the team is working with intensive waste management technology and looking to use sustainable energy to power the project.
Sunil has the remarkable ability to see what’s possible in the broken and the discarded, and to be able to fix it. Matching scale and ambition with a vanguard imagination, he can make things happen, and is just the kind of person who can aesthetically transform our cities. The next time you experience a magical moment in Kochi or Jodhpur, you should know you’ve been guided by Sunil’s invisible hand.