The Search for Culturally Relevant Roots: Towards Writing a History of Design in India

Title page of The Earmes Report, Image Courtesy: Suchitra Balasubramanyan.

by Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan

Modern design education was introduced in India in the early 1960s as a little-known part of Nehru’s nation-building programme. It was a time when he had perhaps realised the limitations of only building big dams and concrete cities, in designing a newly independent India. So the focus shifted to rejuvenating small and cottage industries, and reconsidering and rearticulating what the Indian people really wanted and needed. And, just as he had invited scientific and technical experts, architects and filmmakers from all over the world to assist in the birth of the India of his dreams, Nehru invited American designers Charles and Ray Eames to suggest a programme for design education and training here.

Nehru probably could not have chosen a more sensitive person, for this American had already been drawn to India. He was alive to the changing contours of a post-World War II world and had begun to develop new pedagogies for shaping a society emerging from fascist destruction and moving towards industrial consumerism. Travelling extensively through rural and urban India and meeting people from diverse backgrounds, he wrote The India Report. This document not only paved the way for the introduction of modern design education in independent India, but was also the first modern articulation of a vision and praxis for Indian design through an examination of the traditional Indian approach to design, and its relevance for the challenges faced by modern India.

I was a student at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad in the early 1980s and, looking back, it was an unusual time. The general public still knew nothing of design; my extended family thought I had failed high school which is why I was heading off to this unheard-of place, and none of us students really knew what we were going to do after the six-year course. The remnants of Nehruvian idealism were still palpable on campus and there was a great deal of enthusiasm to engage with ‘the other half’, to work with potters, weavers, turned-wood toymakers and design craft-manufactured products, albeit mostly for urban India. Of course, there were those who looked forward to careers in advertising and in companies manufacturing televisions and kitchen appliances. There were still others who wanted to set up design studios to do a bit of both. From where we stand today, in a globalised and liberalised world, the campus of my student days might look like some Jurassic age of design. Yet, this was the process by which the modern profession of design made a place in India.

And what was our sense of history? We were told ours was a young profession emerging out of an ancient human impulse to make. We were the descendants of Homo faber. However, our intellectual anchors were in the Bauhaus, the Royal College of Art, the Ulm and Basel schools of design, and the India Report rapidly gained the status of a Design Purana that would guide us to rescue India from the shambles of colonialism. We could not have asked for a greater sense of purpose. But we could have had a more robust and realistic sense of our roots.

Where do the roots lie? Not in 1958 when the India Report was written, or a century before that when industrialisation came to India. And how do we trace the roots, recover and articulate them? This is the challenge before us and while I do not claim to have any clear answers, I will offer a few thoughts. One of the most vivid images I have of my student days at the National Institute of Design is of the library. Design journals were our only window to the world outside and every issue of Domus, Graphis, Ottogano, Form and Design was well thumbed and often coming apart at the spine. But volumes of the Journal of Design History and Design Issues would lie on the display stands, often with uncut pages still fused together after years. It was clear that accounts of design practice appealed to students learning to be practitioners, but reflections on practice or its history somehow did not.

I can think of several reasons for why such journals are uninteresting or perhaps even intimidatingly inaccessible for practitioners. One is the dense social science – art historical vocabulary, especially after post-modernism, which these journals have. Or perhaps they have this vocabulary because design history is written by social scientists and art historians. Second, their worldview is almost always west-centric and assumes a periodisation that design began as a response to the industrial revolution. Invariably, the history of design in all settings is viewed in this way implying that this is somehow a universal given. And third, there is almost always a conceptual framework derived or connected to western philosophical trajectories, that too are limited in their relevance across cultural geographies. Whatever the reasons, my concern is that histories of design that are inaccessible to practitioners of design result in their functioning ahistorically, cast adrift without roots to provide anchors, vulnerable to the whims and vagaries of State and markets, leading to a weakening of the agency of design and designers. And this is a critical situation given the present scenario of cultural homogenisation set in motion by globalisation. Now, more than ever, design practitioners need a place in the past from where to respond to present in order to shape the future.

And I am not suggesting some kind of jingoistic design revisionism or a weakening of scholarship or a narrowing of diversity of viewpoints. All I would suggest is that more designers need to write their view of the history of their practice, more writing needs to come from places like India to join the debate and fill the lacunae. And for a fuller understanding of history, we need to expand the inquiry into the sociology, anthropology and political economy of design. And also design a vocabulary that makes these reflections accessible to everyone. Equally, reflection on design – from the diverse viewpoints mentioned here – needs to find a central place on design campuses that have till now focused solely on training for practice.  Only then can design fulfill the transformatory role that it has visualised, rightly, for itself.


Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan studied visual communication at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Her research and teaching interests include design history (with a focus on India), orality and visual literacy, development communication and the politics and sociology of design. She is now Associate Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. She has written, with co-author Achyut Yagnik, The Shaping of Modern Gujarat: Plurality, Hindutva and Beyond (Penguin 2005) and Ahmedabad: From Royal City to Megacity (Penguin 2011) and has edited (with Sharmila Sagara) Ahmedabad 600: Portraits of a City (Marg 2011). 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: