The Plated Project
L: A playful memory of the future by Kalakaari Haath

R: A poetic memory of the future by Tarini Sethi

The Plated Project

Putting their faith in the power of a visual story, The Plated Project began with the resolve to end hunger, using the medium of art. ‘Buy a plate, fill a plate’ is the mantra followed by The Plated Project. Each month they collaborate with an NGO and a couple of artists to create and curate collectors’ edition artworks, in the form of decor plates. Fifty-percent of the proceeds from the sales go towards helping the initiative of the chosen NGO, in a bid to fund meals for those in need. Thus far, they have facilitated the migrant workers’ society, people with down syndrome, and are currently working on providing meals for people from the transgender community. Tying together social impact, innovation and curation, The Plated Project is forging ahead undeterred, and we spoke to its founder Chitresh Sinha to learn more.

When did the idea for The Plated Project strike you, and how did it come to fruition?
This began as a passion project at my day job. I worked for a brand consulting firm. We wanted to launch something of our own to show clients how we can marry social impact, innovation and branding. When we were researching which social issue to pick up, we saw this ad about how hunger kills more people than malaria, AIDS and terrorism combined, every year. Living in a place like India and especially Bombay, you become quite immune to it, right? You see people begging and hungry all the time and you say ‘okay fine it’s part of India’. But this crisis is massive and that’s when the whole team came up with the idea of ‘art against hunger’, which led to creating art plates.

We reached out to the chef and influencer Pooja Dhingra and we got lucky that she partnered with us for our very first series. But before we could launch, COVID took over. That’s when we put all our plans on hold because we’d started this to really make an impact. We put down the goal that we’re going to sponsor 100,000 meals in a month, with the help of NGO Goonj. We put our heads into it and found sponsors and partners. We ended up sponsoring about 150,000 meals in a month and a half. It really feels good to be able to do something like this and the whole team was quite surprised.

How would you describe The Plated Project’s aim?
Our aim is to use art against hunger. We started with decor plates but we will also move towards everyday objects and use art to totally reimagine them. When somebody buys one of these pieces, two things will happen. One, the funds will straightaway help us reach our goal of sponsoring meals. Second, all of these objects that we create with artists will become conversation starters. Our goal is that we want to tell stories about social issues, but do them in a non-preachy, non-boring way. So those are the two goals.

The Plated Project Living windows by Aashti Miller

Living windows by Aashti Miller

From choosing an NGO to work with to ideating themes and selecting artists — what does The Plated Project’s curatorial process look like?
There are a couple of things that happen. Firstly, NGOs reach out to us and we reach out to NGOs, and this is irrespective of any curatorial process. Now we’ve started a calendar outlook, where we plan out our entire year. We first sit down and look at hunger as a starting point, but we also look at the issues which directly or indirectly affect hunger and focus on the ones that people really need to become more aware of. Let me give you an example. In March, one of the NGOs that we had reached out to,  told us that down syndrome and autism is a huge issue in the world and in India but not enough people talk about it. So when we researched we realised that less than 15% of people with down syndrome actually have full-time jobs. So we made that the starting point. When we have a social issue like this, then the team sits down and brainstorms how we can get conversations to start around this which aren’t boring and which won’t make people feel like we’re preaching? So that’s when we come up with a creative theme, like trisomy. 

Trisomy as a theme was about getting artists to create artwork where each artwork had three repeating visual elements in it. It is called Trisomy because that is the condition which causes down syndrome in 95% of the cases. So we told people that over this month you will hear stories from people who have down syndrome, but are doing something really cool in life. And you will see art and content with this whole element of three in it.

Why art?
I think it’s two things. One is our background. All of us come from the art and design space. Secondly, art can really connect with people at an emotional level. That’s the whole starting point. Art means different things to different people, but you connect with it emotionally. If we’re talking to people and we want them to engage with us, art really helps. Art also makes people pay for something. Also, when you buy a piece of art, you put it up in your house and show it to people. People will talk about it — why did the artist choose this, and all such questions arise. So that was another reason. 

What have been some of the challenges you've faced while trying to enable conscious living among people?
I don’t think we’ve had any challenges with enabling people to believe in the cause or become a part of it. I think all of the challenges were on the ‘putting the idea into execution mode’ front. We had this idea and we thought we’re not going to just sit on it and complicate it with various thoughts. We just wanted to launch it quickly. So we did it in three days and we were very happy, but six months or eight months down the line we realised stuff like analytics matter. You need to look into this side of things also. So that was a major challenge. 

A big part of our learning has also been on the production and operations side. Because we are not an NGO, we do this for profit. We willingly have made our business model such that 50% of our profits will go to charity. This puts a lot of pressure on us to optimise each and every rupee that we spend. So we are not blasting Instagram with ads, we don’t do any paid PR. This also puts a lot of restrictions on how you scale up with the idea that you have. Those are the challenges, but it’s been a fun journey. We’ve had people who’ve joined us along the way and have come in with the right skills at the right time. It’s all going well and we don’t have anything to complain about.

The Plated Project The wait by Neethi

The wait by Neethi

What has been the most gratifying aspect of your endeavour?
The first time when we managed to actually donate eight lakh rupees to somebody, it really hit us hard. Last year, when the whole migrant worker crisis was happening and we were reading about it, we thought that we need to change this. We needed to do something to sponsor those meals. And nobody had a clue about what to actually do. But a month down the line we actually gave eight lakhs to Goonj, and that sponsored about 150,000 meals. That I think for me has been the biggest highlight so far. 

We’ve also got situations where we’ve spoken about down syndrome and a lot of mothers of kids with down syndrome DM’d us that it’s so nice to see somebody doing this and ‘my own daughter has done this and this and it really makes me feel so proud of her as a parent and you guys for doing this’. It’s small things like this to really big names reaching out to us on their own, saying we want to work with you.

Among the myriad themes and series you've worked on, which is your personal favourite?
I think all of them are close to our heart, we’ve worked so hard on them. But the most recent one that we did in collaboration with Marriott for Art Basel in Hong Kong is really special because it started off a year and a half back. There are artisans in Hong Kong, just like India, who are being replaced by technology and cheap production. We went to Hong Kong and realised that there was this one stencil maker who used to take a bus for two and a half hours, come and sit on the side of the street and make these signs by hand. And he’s the last living stencil maker in Hong Kong. There’s nobody else who’s doing this anymore. We started the project and we did great stuff, but then COVID hit and this person stopped coming. Because he was over 80, people said that we don’t even know if he survived the last six months. 

We launched the project last month, and Marriott as a part of the project, is going to donate all of the sales proceeds to the hunger-related charities in Hong Kong. I think for us that’s really fulfilling. We also didn’t have money to spend on the project, the client only pays a certain amount for sponsoring it. So we were making calls to people who are fans of Mahjong and who are running blogs in the US, for example. And we were asking them for help and asking them to tell us the history of Mahjong. We couldn’t even speak the language, so we had to have google translate on our phones all the time. However, it’s come together quite well for us. Launching a project at Art Basel in less than a year of our existence was the biggest thing ever. And obviously the whole circle — the artists we work with and the art that came out of it — everything gives back. So this would definitely be a big highlight for us this year.

The Plated Project R: color of chillies in hand

L: an ordinary afternoon walk

R: color of chillies in hand

Lastly, is there anything more you wish people knew about The Plated Project and the issues you are trying to solve?
I think people need to understand that this is not like a charity. What we’re tying to do is create a totally new business model, where the whole idea is to give back to the artist. For most of our artists, we tell them that put your art on our platform and very transparently we will share 25% percent of the profits after deductions. But for artists in India, and specially the not very famous ones, it’s a huge business model that we are piloting. If it works then we can really scale it up and inspire others to do the same. We are a for-profit business, with giving at its core. So that changes a lot of ways in which we approach things. Last month we gave 100% of our profits to charity. That was a huge business decision, but at the same time, if you’re running a business like this, how can it be sustained and how can it grow needs to be planned out. A lot of people told us that this is nice as a fad, but we don’t think you guys will survive in the long run. But so far we are surviving and we are trying to grow. 

It’s important to look at this as an experiment in how you can redefine the way business is done, more than the art and it’s impact. Maybe we won’t become the next Amazon in the world — we don’t even want to — but our hope is that we’ll inspire a lot more people to take that plunge and say let me look at impact in a very different manner, rather than just giving money or raise awareness as one or the other. Do both. It would be cool to see people applying that lens to make real impact.


Text Devyani Verma
Date 17-06-2021