Design in India : Towards an Agenda?

by Mayank Mansingh Kaul – Guest Editor

Shahid Datawala, Let it grow, 2008, Image courtesy: The artist.

As a student in India a few years back, I was often struck by the lack of analysis on the events, people and thinking that had led to the present state of design in the country. My own background in studying History and Sociology informed a need to probe things, and pursuing Textile Design in India necessitated an exposure to its vast older trajectory. With my personal passion lying in Fashion – where our consumption was primarily of publications of Western formats – I wondered how we were expected to professionally address an immediate reality about which we knew very little.

By then, the ability for design interventions to address grassroot concerns had been fairly established: In the 1980s, in Jawaja, Rajasthan, an entire community of leather scavengers had been transformed into skilled craftspeople, giving India its first iconic bag. And there were similar such experiments in Andhra Pradesh; in Chirala involving handloom weavers, and in Kondapalli involving wooden toymakers. There was an underlying sentiment though that the field of design needed to prove its case to the business community more actively, and a critique of the blind imitation of defunct imported products that found ready markets here. Examples that were routinely thrown up were led by that of the ‘Himalaya’ brand overhaul by an Indian firm – as a result of which the clients’ profits went up exponentially – in stark contrast to the general tendency by Indian multinational companies to outsource this to foreign ones.

Continuing into now – there has been the need for an overall platform to build a historical framework for Indian design, comment on contemporary developments and speculate further on its vast possibilities in imaginative ways. This collection of writings, interviews and photo-essays, is a very small step towards fulfilling this. Its premise is the generation of such reflective attitudes as important to the growth of design practises and expressions. And it brings together diverse perspectives on the history, process, curation and showcase of Indian design

Defining Design

Borrowing from the beginning quotations of a piece written a few years back by textile designer Asha Sarabhai, I’d like to put forth the following questions from an interview with designer Charles Eames and his responses. These are from the catalogue of an exhibition entitled ‘What is Design?’ –

Q. Does design imply the idea of products that are necessarily useful?

A. Yes – even though the use might be subtle.

Q. Is it able to cooperate in the creation of works reserved solely for pleasure?

A. Who would say that pleasure is not useful?

Design has been understood variously around the world. In general, it is seen to refer to objects with specific physical and social functions: Architecture; fashion garments, accessories and textiles; products and graphic communication content. Some definitions come from movements speculating the functions of design itself – Form follows Function (Bauhaus), Form follows Line (Art Nouveau) and Form follow Fun (Memphis). Some, define it in relation to art, science and philosophy, as an approach to view visual and material phenomena. Some emphasize its aesthetic role in beautifying environments. And some see it as a practice to create systems of functioning – humans, machinery, cities – better. In international discussions, its chief role is seen as a process of convergence – of disciplines, ideologies, materials, thought processes and paradigms.

Its ability to inform all of culture – the way a people think and interact – concerns itself with the quests and tools for change. And the question of values, therefore, is central to design. These values – aesthetic, emotional, material, intellectual – are those anchors that inform quality of life, and are reflected in the forms and colours of considered making. This allows design to be seen as a means through which values are held onto, discarded, sifted, sorted and refined.

Today ‘Art’ – ‘Design’ – ‘Science’ appear separate and insular in their applications, and I myself though more inclined to a view which sees diverse systems of knowledge and creativity as a part of a whole. It is from here essentially, that the more fundamental human ideas, observations and expressions come. In this way, one can say, that this issue merely reflects aspects of creativity in India that have not been often discussed before.

And perhaps, this is a little problematic? Especially in the context of this being an art magazine, whose consistent success conveys a comparatively more established level and organisation of intellectual discourse than design. But the lucid ways in which words like craft, design and art, and further – craftspeople, artisans and designers – are used in this issue, reflect the assumptions and ambiguities that design communities acquire in India. It is likely that with subsequent publications and writings, some more of these will come to light, and will explore the requirements and exigencies of such definitions.

Traditional, Modern, Contemporary?

The writing of history is often divided into terms like ancient, traditional, modern and contemporary. There has been no attempt to suggest how they apply in the context of Indian Design here, and we might need to refer to similar words in Indian languages like Kala (art)? Karigari (workmanship)? And how do they relate to these segregations across time?

My further reflection of these terms come from two references, which complement each other in their situational differences, that of Europe and India in 1940s and 50s: The origins of the term ‘modern’ in the international context of design is often linked to the post second World War period, where the development of manufacturing was both a necessity for employment generation as it was of re-structuring economies that had seen immense destruction. The forms such manufactures were to take in my own speculation – were a way of forgetting a past, and re-building emotional connections. There was deep sorrow and despairing foreboding. And through fresh optimism, subsequently, did the ‘Swinging’ 1960s in Britain come from a need to radically renew?

In India, the kind of destruction and renewal after 1947 belonged to a longer history of European  colonization and social transformation. M. K. Gandhi’s struggle for political freedom from colonial rule was linked to the dissolution of feudal divisions in Indian society itself. And even while India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideas of development may seem directly opposed through the period currently after, they cannot be divorced from those of Gandhi’s, which influenced state policy until much later. This lead to institutions like the NID ultimately performing towards rural upliftment, and state patronage for crafts and design continuing till the 1980s.

How do we then create parameters to show the layered continuities in traditions here? Especially since the disruptions in such traditions, also convey a kind of need to sustain newness and older resolutions?

Questions from the Post-Liberalisation era

The post- liberalization era of the last two decades has enabled changes in opportunities for designers, rise of entrepreneurship in the field, agencies of export and import of designed products, and access to greater purchasing power. Faster means of communication, sharing information, and a wider dissemination of related technologies have made possible cross-cultural dialogues on an unprecedented global scale. And these have brought universal questions to the fore-front of the design profession: What does it mean to be ‘Indian’? What is ‘Indian design’? Who are its authors? How does one negotiate the complexities of ‘ownership’ in relation to Intellectual Property Rights’ tools? How can policy help give the sector the feet it needs?

Linked to these, are observances of how the idea of design can be outreached to the maximum number of Indians. Stressing on its ability to create value for corporate businesses, leverage heritage towards revenues, and facilitate the growth of other creative sectors like publishing and tourism have been highlighted in forums for design initiated at the private sector and government level. And such commercial aspects have led to a more organized emergence of graphic and brand-design companies, animation and film production infrastructures.

These can be seen in direct relation to an established advertising-environment, the phenomenal rise of the Indian business community at large, the outsourcing of software, animation and gaming from other countries to India by other ‘developed’ countries, and perhaps India’s biggest cultural export, Bollywood! To some extent, such manufacture is being outsourced to India in the fields of Fashion and Automobile design too. Here, however, there are serious concerns about India becoming a hub of such manufacture alone, and not creating original content, only which can allow the true potential of new ideas towards wealth generation. A symptom of this, in my view, is also that India has been unable to form international labels in design that tap the cultural and financial potential of global markets in outreach, despite a business-entrepreneurial climate with increasing international interests and ambitions. And if in India this is not aspirational, then why does such underlying resistance to commercialization exist?

Constituents of ‘Made in India’

Acknowledging that Indian design represents a wide spectrum of specializations – architecture, interior and landscape; graphic, animation and film-making; industrial, lifestyle and craft; textile and fashion; digital, software and user interface – the take of this issue lays bare the dilemmas of the ‘Made in India’. By reaching out to willing colleagues who have shared the need to self-introspect on the fields they occupy and the work they do, the group of contributors and authors also represent lesser-published ones, hoping that this issue can pool into such resources from established authors which already exist, even if, in disconnected quarters.

One has not made connections with the field of architecture and interior design, as they both have established a certain expertise in dialogue, scholarship and bringing together practitioners, which is in stark contrast to the other fields discussed here. The only such reference comes in Abhishek Poddar’s curation of photographs by Derry Moore, of spaces – inherited and appropriated – to make something anew. Joined to Jahnvi Dameron Nandan seeking an ‘Idea of India’, these also show an innate sense of how we construe elements towards a sense of familiarity or new-ness, where beginnings and endings coalesce. ‘Social Design’ is also a field that one has not approached in the way Euro-centric forums have started to more recently, to talk about how living and non-living interactions take place in shared environments. To me, in Indian conditions, where – as Thoughtshop Foundation and Ishan Khosla show – the collective and individual conversations take place in a spontaneous manner, prisms like design for social change and design for development, also take on the broader character of addressing systemic exchanges.

It is also essential to point out that, as much as one would have liked to engage with projects in international designers- Indian craftspeople collaborations like the Golden Eye in New York in 1984 on the one hand, and initiatives in design in Corporate India, both have not been possible due to the lack of access to information, despite repeated requests. The first represents an unfortunate state of affairs – to individually institutionalize public memory, initially generated through public funding, and which must be brought into the public domain. And the second, perhaps, due to constraints of protecting content generated through long periods of financial investment. In both regards, Parmesh Shahani’s candid sharing of an open-ended, experimental, think-tank model within a private Indian multinational company, is a symbol of a new India, led by young voices and eyes, and towards impacts for wide audiences.

A new self-referral paradigm?

What is the agenda for Indian design now? And what are the agencies to take forward such examinations? Has the ‘market’ where much of design’s viability is tested, become the chief player as it is now? Can private connoisseurship enable the kind of networks in art that Maithili Parekh talks of, which have helped create a vibrant scene for it in India overall? And to link her belief that design can take an entirely different trajectory, to Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan’s, of design history here needing to find its own paradigm.

In this regard, Bandana Tewari, Vogue India’s Fashion Features Director, has repeatedly written in her columns about the emergence of a Bengal School of Fashion in India now. With many leading designers coming from Kolkata, they represent a unique aesthetic interpretation of tradition through contemporary design. It is hard not to bring up The Bengal Renaissance here: In what can be considered one of the first creative responses of Indians to a European encounter, revolutionary art, literature, theatre and cuisine came up. Nuanced in its ability to bring the best ideas from the west and east in synthesis together in the 19th century, it founded a sense of new Indian identity and aspirations.

This is what led to the setting up of Shanti Niketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s utopian vision for a cultural centre for the meeting of creative streams, later. It is poignant to mark that it was also within such radical ideas, that the birth of the sari style – as it is worn today – took place: The story goes of Gyanonandini Tagore wearing a front pallu sari on a trip to Bombay. She was refused entry to a British Club, as Indian dress way not allowed on the premise. She tweaked it by pushing the pallu at the back, simulating a western dress, and that’s how The English Sari came to be!


Mayank Mansingh Kaul is a Delhi based textile and fashion designer working with hand-crafts. He has worked in the past on Cultural and Creative Industries’ Policy and is the Founder-Director of The Design Project India, a not-for-profit organisation to initiate and develop curatorial ideas and writing on Indian Design. In Feb 2011, he was the Co-curator of The Idea of Fashion, an Art-Fashion residency at Khoj International Artists Residency, Delhi.


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