Aviral Saxena's 'weird beard' is an apt extension of his personality. It saves his attire from seeming formal - a half-sleeved white shirt and grey trousers. (The rest of the wardrobe is said to be far more casual.) The inventive goatee has also helped bring this graphic designer his 15 minutes of television glory. He has been featured in an Airtel ad, as also the 'Vote for Taj' campaign; a Rasna TV spot is on the cards too.
The unassuming model says, "I think the producers just said, 'Go look for a weird-looking guy' and they found a guy with a weird beard. I don't care about it too much, but at least it gives me a chance to say, 'Hey mum, I'm on TV!'"
To yell out to his mother, though, Aviral would have to pick up the phone. His parents live in Lucknow, while he shares the rent of a two-room Bandra flat with fellow National Institute of Design (NID) graduate Prateek Sethi. Describing his housemate as "a perfect curry mix of madness, creativity and fatherly love" Sethi also adds that living with Aviral gives him daily share of free entertainment - "When he goes for a shower, you know it's popcorn time. He will spend the 15 minutes after standing in front of a mirror carefully grooming his beard, setting it just right. It's a treat to watch."
Their living room's colour scheme is pleasantly symmetrical; beanbags and floor cushions add to that sense of perfectly adequate comfort. When not at the Bindaas office - a channel for which he works as senior graphic designer - Aviral can usually be found here clicking away furiously at his Mac, designing logos, album covers, publicity material, websites, stationery and more for one of his many clients. Over the years, the list has come to include more than a handful of recognisable names - MTV, Channel [V], Sony Music, Smirnoff, British Council, Westside and filmmaker Ketan Mehta, to name a few.
Not being confined to a staid nine-to-five schedule helps the 26-year-old find a fine balance between his job and his prolific freelance career. "I don't want to lose my freedom. I am a free bird," he affirms while flicking his cigarette in the nearest ashtray. In a sense, Aviral has been footloose and fancy-free all along.
In a family where almost everyone was an engineer, Aviral stuck out like a sore thumb. Ever since he learned how to hold a crayon, the only thing he did was draw, draw and then draw some more - "I used to love winning art competitions. Everyone in our family knew I was different." Picking a word straight out of the John Lennon dictionary, Aviral describes himself as a 'dreamer.' And to a certain extent he is being literal; he has always loved sleeping.
The designer's fertile dreamscape was inhabited by octopuses that had 10 eyes, mythological characters with distorted faces, men with the bodies of dragon-flies, thorn-filled forests and, more worryingly perhaps, cats that were ripped apart. To the great amazement of the Saxena household, all these weird and wondrous creatures were then depicted on paper - "I liked floating in my own thoughts and seeing things. It's a dream world. You can see so much there. My mum would ask me 'What is this?' And I would say 'I don't know. It came in my dream.'"
It was apparent to all that Aviral had 'the touch'. Aware that newer job opportunities were presenting themselves with each passing day, his parents encouraged him to hone his talents. When in Class 11, he enrolled at the College of Arts, Lucknow, in order to brush up his skills.
One fine day, a distant cousin, who was a student at NID, Ahmedabad, came calling. After seeing Aviral's work, her instant reaction was: "Why don't you apply for a place in my college?" He took the advice seriously, sat for the entrance test and got selected that very year.
During his first three months, the seemingly bohemian NID environs gave Aviral quite a culture shock. He recounts an early morning incident: "I was brushing my teeth when I suddenly realised that the person brushing next to me was a woman. And I was meant to be in a boys' hostel!"
Everything from people's dress sense to women's smoking struck the fresher as a bit odd. "Coming as I did from Lucknow, I was not as exposed to different forms of media and culture as, say, someone from Mumbai."
After that initial phase of mandatory adjustment, however, Aviral started finding inspiration in all that he had once found alien. He says, "The alternative music that I started listening to, the people that I met, all of it started translating into my work. It gets to a point that your plate is overflowing and you don't know which influence to keep, which one to let go."
Even though the faculty spent weeks drilling into students the fundamentals of design - for days, they would only practice drawing straight lines without a ruler - the young protégés were also encouraged to break rules at every step and come up with a style that was distinctively their own.
Interested primarily in print, street art and street graphics gave Aviral the succour he needed. He remembers walking down a street in Lucknow, picking up random matchboxes, beedi packets and hair-removal soap that had bikini-clad women on its packaging. "My mum then started walking 10 metres away from me."
His love for kitsch led him to MTV, where he finished his diploma project and worked for another six months. He says, "That was the first time I was introduced to on-air graphics. I really started enjoying it and got to learn a lot there."
Aviral's MTV stint concluded with an offer to work in Dubai. A few months in, however, he was rather disillusioned. Apart from the fact that all forms of expression had to be client-forced, he found that the land of malls and fast-cars had absolutely no inspiration to provide. "What I wanted to see were rickshaw graphics, not limousines and Lamborghinis." Armed with the realisation that he wanted to work in the Indian entertainment sector, he returned to Mumbai and kicked off his career as a freelancer.
Not knowing too many people meant that the first few months were a bit hard. The big break came in the form of a music duo called the Bandish Project. Aviral designed their website and stationery - visiting cards were made in a WWF Trump Card format - "The first time they performed after that, I got 10 new contacts that very night."
Work since then has only multiplied, giving the graphic designer enough to pay for his bread, butter, wine, ham and cheese. He says, "My friends had once started referring to me as the furniture at Toto's (a pub in Bandra)because I used to be there every day."
Working simultaneously as a senior graphic designer and freelancer helps Aviral earn Rs 2.3 lakh to Rs 2.5 lakh a month. "For a freelancer in Mumbai, there's lots and lots of work because everybody wants to do something different. Everyone wants to come up with his or her own identity," he says.
Joseph Joseph, an independent graphic designer who recently founded the design company Inkinc, concurs: "People are now beginning to trust independent designers. Work isn't just trickling down, there is a lot of good work that can be found in the city."
Joseph moved to Mumbai from Bangalore five years ago and experienced a complete shift of pace. "There is a drive in this city. Kids in college are simultaneously working out of their homes. Rather than joining a company, they start off on their own."
Having been acquainted with Aviral and his work, Joseph feels that the 26-year-old typifies the work culture that exists in the metropolis. "Not having worked for a company in the formal sense, he is still able to make a distinction between the passion of a designer and the business angle of the industry and, more importantly, find a balance that works."