Srila Chatterjee, on rolling with the punches

Srila Chatterjee is a woman who dons many hats. As a producer who helmed Highlight Films for several years, she has had a successful career in cinema, fashion, production and set design. Apart from curating the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in its early years, she co-founded blueFROG -the eclectic music space in Bombay. Her unique furniture and craft-based concept store Baro in Mumbai was known for its iconic brand value. That was where she curated original and exhilarating art experiences. In the new pandemic- stricken world, she has taken all her curated treasures – that cover the gamut of home, fashion, art, gifting and beyond – online on her Baro Market.

Srila Chatterjee
Srila Chatterjee

Tell us about your early days, education and first inspiration(s) into art and design.
I grew up in Calcutta [Kolkata] surrounded by a very creative spirit. My father was an architect and my mother was a specialist in teaching methods for children. My school, Loreto House, always taught me to think out of the box. With inspiration galore in Calcutta, art was intrinsic in my life, right from the craft we did at home to the cards we made for people, to the way the table was dressed, and the innovative jewelry we wore.

How did you venture into film production and what kept you inspired to stay there for 25 years?
I moved to Bombay for my MBA. Later I met Mahesh [Mathai, her husband], who had his own production company. I was offered [the chance] to take over the production in November 1989. Since Highlight Films was the gold standard in the advertising business, I took up the offer. I was always … setting the bar higher at a time when facilities were very limited.

“OUR BELIEF IN EQUITABILITY WAS CLEAR IN ALL WE DID, AND OUR PRODUCTS ALWAYS CHAMPIONED A LOCAL-GLOBAL DESIGN EVEN BEFORE THE TERM WAS FASHIONABLE”Srila Chatterjee

Tell us about the transition from films to furniture design and the genesis of Baro. How was it different from other stores?
I met Siddharth Sirohi when I was posted on an assignment in Udaipur. He loved designing furniture and knew I was very interested in design and had worked on interiors for friends. So we decided to experiment in the Highlight office and [we] started Highlight Living. That experiment turned out to be successful and we decided to take it further – and Baro was born. Baro was a very special store that felt more like home. It had a casual, friendly vibe and soon became a community center. We had a big space, and we used it extensively for exhibitions, performances and shows that were almost always open to anyone for free. Our belief in equitability was clear in all we did, and our products always championed a local-global design even before the term was fashionable. Most importantly, we were a place that was always led by stories to tell.

How difficult has the pandemic been and the transition from Baro to Baro Market online?
Baro was a casualty of the pandemic. We could not afford the rent and had to shut the store and start [an effort] online. The team did everything, from building the website to organizing all support. I don’t think of how difficult or easy transitions are. I’ve always believed the only way to go is forward, so all energies get redirected and the journey moves ahead.

Baro is a platform for Indian art, artists and brands. Tell us more about the kind of art and artists you promote at Baro Market.
Baro Market loves things that come layered with multiple stories such that they become a part of your own story. Everything here is small batch and hand crafted, and you can feel the character of the person who has made it. We love the collaboration of designers and artisans, using age old skills and reinterpreting them in a contemporary way. We work with people who are proud of their skill, who do not compromise on quality, whose primary objective is not to sell millions, who do things with integrity and who always strive for an equitable world. Pottery from Shanti Niketan, hand carved shola flowers, seasonal, organic food produce, a portfolio of art from masters of ten different art forms and fashion from small, handpicked labels are just some of our unique offerings.

How has the venture supported artists during the pandemic, Srila?
We have concluded our Chitrakar Relief Sale where we raised 15 lakhs [Rs 1.5 million, or about $20,500] for our 10 traditional artists, who were deeply affected by the pandemic. We sold their art and gave 100% to the artists. We recognize how bad this time has been for everyone. We did not have unlimited resources, so we focused on the worst distressed because if we didn’t tide them through this time, these art forms would die.

What are your future plans?
While the future remains uncertain, what we would love is to have Baro Market be available everywhere online, and to keep taking the real experience to as many places as we can through regular, planned pop- ups, because nothing beats the first- person telling of stories, of the touch and feel.

Any advice for women who want to take an unconventional path in their careers and pursue their dreams?
I would just say, be clear about what you really want to do, and if you are true to yourself, your whole life will move towards making that happen.