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May 18, 2018

The India Story: Divya Thakur On The ‘Indian’ Aspect Of Design

Text by Divya Thakur

Today, Indian design, particularly in the field of art, has brilliantly taken its rightful place on the global stage and India’s design story definitely needs telling, finds Divya Thakur

In the broader sense of the word, design has always held its place of importance in Ancient India. More formal applications of it were perhaps first seen during the post-Independence era when nation building was in full swing. In the interim years from then to now, design took a backseat, but of late it does seem poised to come back to the forefront once again. Today, Indian design, particularly in the field of art, has brilliantly taken its rightful place on the global stage. And fashion seems all set to follow suit.

I personally believe that the ‘Indian’ aspect of design is not an external phenomenon. It’s not like drawing a maatra on a type to make it look Indian or a bindi you may put on as an adornment. It is not even an object, like a lota or kulhar (clay tea cup) or a sari. The essence of Indian design is intrinsic to its being. So it is ultimately seamless with its function — and function has always dictated India’s approach to design. Today, minimalism may be a global trend but aeons ago, we were designing things based simply on what was essential. We weren’t creating wastefully, or for the sake of it. I’ve often heard people say that decoration is a key feature of the Indian aesthetic. Even that was done with reason and not just for the sake of beautification. A temple or statue was painstakingly adorned, painted or carved with the intention to draw out one’s emotions — to evoke reverence in the people who saw it.

Another facet of Indian design which I find very interesting is something I learned when I was working on the exhibition India Past Forward that showed in Stockholm in 2015 — India’s approach to design transcended individual egos; the creator was supreme, and artists were mediums. There was also no singular author to things that were created. When you think of the lota or the charpai, it doesn’t matter who designed it. What was important was that the form was refined and adapted as per the demands of the time. When it was redundant, it went away and when there was a need for it, it returned. The essence of Indian design is not superficial or superfluous; it is integral to who we are as people, what our climate is. It is based on need; it’s not driven by ‘Let’s make something for the heck of it’.

Design in India has evolved with time. A great example of this is seating. British historians say chairs came into India post colonisation. But aasanas were the old way of seating here. We didn’t use chairs, but other manners of elevated seating were long in use. There were bolsters, gaddas, charpais, and stools for the common man and forms of higher seating like thrones for nobility and learned men. We also used our spaces multi-functionally. So, we would have gaddas and baithaks when people came, and when they left the space turned into a sleeping area. Adaptive furniture has always been a big part of our way of living.

Going forward, since it is the era of digital and technological transformation, it is now extremely interesting to see what we are going to develop. Our change will hopefully allude to our cultural context. Until we are completely comfortable with who we are as people, with all our demands and indiosyncracies, it will be difficult for our design to reflect an updated aesthetic. So we have to realise how we will combine our Indian way of being and our desire for globalisation.

I work with a few brands in the luxury and interiors space, like Nilaya wallpapers by Asian Paints. They tell me that there is a noticable surge of interest within the country for better living. And this will hopefully bring an interest in design objects. Earlier, interiors and homes were not really prioritised. There was more emphasis on what you wore, which bag you carried and which shoes adorned the soles of your feet. Cars were also an important part of the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ philosophy, but now the emphasis shows a shift to the design of homes, offices and interiors.

So, is there an urban Indian aesthetic? There is an updated, modern one but I do not know if there is a well-defined urban Indian aesthetic. Beyond some pockets, I haven’t seen enough of it to be sure that it exists. Charles Correa’s seminal work with traditional methods and local materials. Bijoy Jain’s own translation of the indigenous, the handmade and the handcrafted. Rahul Mehrotra’s library for CEPT, Ahmedabad. The design language of Sandeep Khosla’s work, Laurie Baker’s iconic use of laterite in Goa, Ambrish Arora’s updation of traditional features like the jaali at Raas Jodhpur and the pillars at the Baradari restaurant in City Palace, Jaipur and Rajiv Saini’s subtle deployment of luxury at Devigarh Palace are all amongst the gladdening examples of what may be termed as the new Indian Aesthetic. And this does not require you to put flashy elements somewhere to prove a point of having arrived.

In my opinion, the world of Indian art has, by its vision and aesthetic, really earned itself a global platform. It is competitive, international and yet so from our roots that it is exciting to see that translation. I went to Manish Nai’s factory recently and was exhilarated to see his thinking, process and results. It is effortless, as are the creations of Atul Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, L. N. Tallur and so many more. Their work is from a global moment, but you can also feel the pulse of the nation in it. We have to do that in the world of design. I certainly dream of it. And I work towards it, in every big or small way that I can.

India’s design story definitely needs telling — and it would be heartwarming if a greater number of people engaged with the world of design. That was the idea that drove me to curate the exhibition Objects Through Time last year. We felt there was a need to bring out what has transpired in the country, and our primary attraction was to understand how it has evolved and to identify emerging concepts and certain aspects. This was about everyday objects, about design in the service of everyday life, about what’s out there. We juxtaposed mass-manufactured items like Godrej refrigerators against traditional craft objects and bespoke contemporary furniture and lighting by some Indian designers. The idea was to trace our journey, India’s journey!

The supplementary exhibition Ideas Through Time was more experimental. It was an unplanned accidental exploration. Through this show, I put forward eight concepts culled from various texts to evaluate their relevance as we go forward into the fourth digital revolution. We positioned these concepts as the pillars of Indian design. And if you really think about it, a lot of stuff that people are waking up to today globally has existed in our ancient ways of being for years. The Sanskrit word auchitya and the Hindi uchit meaning ‘appropriate’ refer to a basic element of design. Every decision to be made while designing an object can be evaluated against this yardstick of appropriateness.

When I started my career in 1999, the industry was smaller; there were only a handful of people doing things. Today, there are a lot more designers — in fashion, graphics, products and more. When I hear younger talent speaking, I realise they think they have to do an Indian story because that is what everyone is looking for. So I feel they may be embracing this as a trend now rather than as an intrinsic understanding. But, it doesn’t matter. What is really important is that there is an element of consciousness to include who we are and where we are coming from in fashion, graphic design and product design. The defining visual language of India is definitely vibrant, but not kitschy as is commonly believed. There is an absolute influx of colour but it’s actually quite a sophisticated usage of a very wide colour palette, so I’d hardly call that kitsch.

There are designers and brands who appreciate the importance of democracy in design — their solutions lie largely in mass-production. A great example of a brand that uses design resources within the parameter of the Indian landscape is Fabindia. It developed a sound structure enabling people who consume and the suppliers/craftsmen who create.

If we are truly seeking a visible change in the new urban Indian aesthetic, I think it will ultimately come from architecture. The jaali is a great example of an iconic motif that has found resurgence, globally, in the able hands of contemporary architects for use as facade screens for shade and also in high-storeyed buildings as windbreakers.

If we are to make a difference — we need impact. If we are to create impact — we need to reach out to more people and increase the audiences. I think architecture, particularly public buildings, have the ability to stand out, be seen and engage people at greater levels. Followed perhaps by smaller and bigger design objects in the context of interiors.

What is the future of Indian design? I would say mass-production and technology hold immense potential in the coming years. We have the numbers, and we definitely have the need. If we can embrace the problem-solving aspect of design and take it to the people of India, I think we will be on to something inclusive — and for the greater good of the country.

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