Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
The implication of being ‘Indian’ and an exploration of what is meant by ‘Design’, are both fundamental to the context in which we work and learn, and therefore to our growth as individuals and as designers. Yet, surprisingly these questions are generally not even thought of, much less used to advantage, in much of current professional education in design.
So, what is Indian? What is Design? What is Indian Design?
The answers to the first two are readily available in any dictionary. The Chambers English Dictionary1, for instance, defines ‘Design’ as: ‘to indicate, to draw, to contrive, to form a plan of, to set apart a plan or scheme formed in the mind’. ‘Indian’ is defined as: ‘belonging to India (with various boundaries); a member of one of the races of India’. It also defines Indian as belonging to the ‘Indies, East or West or to the aborigines of America’, but that is evidently not the meaning that is relevant to us.
The dictionary has more words under Indian, including Indian berry, Indian hemp, India rubber, Indian fig, Indian ink, India shawl, Indian gift, etc. There is however nothing that is listed or distinguished as ‘Indian design’. Clearly then, our description of Indian design needs to be based on an understanding beyond the dictionary, derived from our own experience.
Is Indian design identifiable as Indian? Considering the fact that the Indian civilization is one of the oldest, if not the oldest civilization in the world (as recent research seems to indicate), and considering its reputation in technology, art and craft since ancient times (one of the main reasons for repeated invasions and the colonisation of the Indian subcontinent), it seems safe to say that the tradition of Indian design is both well-reputed and well developed. But, what of Indian design today? Are there any obvious characteristics in form, or external treatment or any intangible features about designs made in India that render them recognizable as Indian? If yes, would not this identity of Indian-ness in design be something that designers today can positively capitalize on—to project the image of being Indian, to continue certain characteristics which can be an asset for India and for design? If not, then is it not time that we look within to seek out such qualities that help Indian Design to stand out in an increasingly standardized and homogenized world?
Needless to say, the context of an Indian identity in design is a controversial and difficult one, since the context of Indian identity itself is a deeply debated one today. Does Indian imply only the urban, middle-class? What about the many Indians who live in slums in the metropolises, those in small towns, in rural areas, or in tribal communities barely represented in mainstream imagination? What distinguishes as well as unites Indian society and culture from those in other parts of the world? Can designs of all Indians, even those not residing in India, be considered as Indian designs? And what about the designs of people from other nationalities working here, with Indian resources, crafts, materials, workmen? In other words, is nationality more important or the premise of working in the peculiarly Indian context? Or should we instead be looking for any common perception of aesthetics in art and in the attributes of objects of daily use in the lives of Indians or in their common history, which make them responsive to and create certain elements in design? Is there thus, any common link that binds a young child in Niyamgiri in Orissa to a young man battling for his life in a Maoist conflict in Jharkand, to a clerk in a small town in Uttar Pradesh to a fisherman in Kerala to a college student in Delhi? Should designers be thinking about such things at all?
Certain attributes apparently distinguish the tradition of Indian design, whether in rural or vernacular contexts or those in urban classical practice, ranging from objects in the kitchen to those in Court. When I asked my students in the Post-Graduate Course of Industrial Design what they thought made the tradition of Indian design unique, they enunciated the following attributes:
Responsiveness to climate, to resources;
Attention to detail and the evidence of craft;
Inspiration from nature;
Combination of beauty and utility;
Sustainable cycle of design, production, use and disposal.
The fact that the class chose to list such attributes of Indian design, rather than seeking to define Indian Design, seemed to me an unconscious continuation of an Indian way of looking at things when I read Chaturvedi Badrinath’s recent note: ‘One characteristic of Indian thought has been that in the place of definitions of things, it asks for their attributes or lakshanas. That is because all definitions are arbitrary, whereas the lakshanas or the attributes, are what show a thing, through which a thing becomes manifest. Thus, not the ‘defintion’ of truth, or of love, but the attributes of truth and love by which they are known is what is central.’2
Conversely, much of current design in India is the antithesis of such attributes, and did not seem to be particularly ‘Indian’ to my students. Constructed by large-scale mechanical means that guzzle huge resources and cause widespread pollution; in materials such as metal, glass, plastics which have a toxic effect in their cycle of production, use and disposal; and generally ‘inspired’ by trends in western industrialised countries whose culture, climate and resources are very different from that of India. Such designs do not render them with any identity, Indian or otherwise, but instead give them a standard, amorphous, even anonymous appearance. This seems quite a long journey from G.C.M. Birdwood’s observation, originally meant to form part of a popular handbook on the industrial arts of India, in connection with the reopening of the India Museum under the Science and Art Department at South Kensington, London: ‘In India everything is hand wrought, and everything, down to the cheapest toy or earthen vessel, is therefore more or less a work of art’.3
Written 130 years ago, Birdwood notes even at that time that ‘Indian collections are now also seen to be more and more overcrowded with mongrel forms, the result of European society, European education, and above all of the irresistible energy of the mechanical productiveness of Birmingham and Manchester.’4 He goes on to predict that
…if, owing to the operation of certain economic causes, machinery were to be gradually introduced into India for the manufacture of its great traditional handicrafts, there would ensue an industrial revolution which, if not directed by an intelligent and instructed public opinion and the general prevalence of refined taste, would inevitably throw the traditional arts of the country into the same confusion of principles, and of their practical application to the objects of daily necessity, which has for three generations been the destruction of the decorative art and of middle-class taste in England and North-west Europe and the United States of America. 5
Thus, we have a situation today, where the positive attributes of Indian design do not seem to be associated so much with the products of ‘modern’ methods of production or sensibilities, but with crafted, time-tested traditional designs. The analysis of the qualities of design, their form, proportions, detail, are areas that need to be worked on and developed further, as part of a search for qualities that help to improve our performance as individuals, as Indians and as designers.
1. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, Edited by William Geddie, Great Britain.
2. The Enduring Epic, Seminar April 2010, ‘Living with the Mahabharata’, p. 69
3. The Arts of India, 1880, Reprint 1971, The British Book Company, p.131.
4. Ibid., pp.132,
5. Ibid., pp.134-5.