Shapes of India: Jahnvi Lakhota Nandan’s Pukka Indian
Zooming in on a curated list of 100 definitive objects, Jahnvi Lakhota Nandan’s book Pukka Indian is a vibrant celebration of desi design. Through its pages, it presents images of products drawn from an Indian context and spotlights familiar shapes — like the lota, matka, dabba, agarbattis, the Sumeet mixer, the Ambassador car and more — that have dotted everyday life in the country.
Believing that the form of anything is largely driven by innovation and utility, the author looks at issues, causes and events that have been instrumental in creating things that are today icons of India. It is fascinating to read the tale of each item — as the narrative gives a historical reference to the chosen products that are part of the lifestyle and social fabric of the country.
Interestingly, the Lucknow-born writer lives and works as a perfumer in Paris. Having studied perfumery and armed with a doctorate in architecture design, she has also penned Tokyo Style File: A Shopping Guide. In an interaction with Verve, Jahnvi speaks about how her passion has shaped her life….
How would you interpret design?
The word is hard to describe. One must look at its starting point through materials, designers, forms, and also the purpose for which the product was created. For me, design is as R. Buckminster Fuller once described it — the deliberate ordering of rather disparate components.
What sparked your interest in this field?
Since childhood, I have been interested in the making of things. I did have the opportunity to go to a school in Japan that specialises in product design, and that wonderful place inspired me because I was able to look into the close details of small objects like flower vases as well as large objects like cars. Although I studied architecture, the environment around me was that of product design. I also had the opportunity to look closely into the design of a spaceship, because the professors working in the neighbouring laboratory were in charge of designing furniture for spaceships. All this fed my imagination.
How did the idea for Pukka Indian come about?
Coming from a product design school, I think it was natural for me to question objects of daily use. Objects like the bangle, bindi, pressure cooker, sari blouse, dupatta, tandoor were part of a long tradition of the design of household objects. Objects like the Kalnirnay calendar, bahi-khata for bookkeeping, and the mandira — a tool used to churn milk into butter — uniquely reflect Indian habits like churning and calculating, gestures I became acutely aware of while studying architecture design at the School of Art and Design, University of Tsukuba. Here, I realised that few contemporary cultures have as close a relationship with objects that were invented 5,000-7,000 years ago as India does. Kitchen tools like the tava — the oldest of utensils in India used to roast the country’s staple food, the roti — are a testament to this long and uninterrupted use of objects. Design thus became the chain linking the last two decades of my life; the chain that propelled me to this architecture school and brought me to Paris to design with smell, the most elusive of all materials, which in India finds expression through incense.
Having lived and studied abroad, how Indian is your sensibility?
I practise Indian classical dance and am very aware of Indian perfumery compositions, but I do know that I have a very Japanese aesthetic too, and my fragrances incorporate French styles as well. I think we are a sum of our experiences and I am, therefore, a happy blend of mine.
What was the starting point and extent of your research for Pukka Indian?
It was a few texts that I wrote on the meaning of design. I was very inspired by the Dymaxion concept of R. Buckminster Fuller, B. V. Doshi and his vision of modern India, tools used in the Indian kitchen which are very different from Japanese design, and the presence of spirituality and symbolism in Indian design. We did extensive research — we looked in the archives, studied documents, and conducted interviews not just with designers but also with fiction writers who have used these objects.
In Pukka Indian, you have created a ‘portrait of Indian design’. What were the challenges in shortlisting the ‘100 objects that define India’?
This was quite a feat. We sat down with the publishers and had an ongoing conversation for almost a year on what should go on that list. So, though the choice of products has been limited to 100 classics that have changed India’s landscape, I have also considered their time of design. The most contemporary design unique to India was created in the last 100 years, starting with that which was born out of the Swadeshi movement. But an exceptional quality of materials, skills and construction is also seen in timeless objects such as the lota, the simplest object of everyday use. Therefore, the list of products covered in the book equally includes traditional as well as contemporary design. While choosing them, I gave special attention to products that were uniquely Indian or products that resonated with an Indian language or form such as the Ambassador car.
Which was the first object on your list?
Right from the inception I did have a considerably large list of at least 50 objects. And this list kept changing with additions and subtractions being made depending on the various conversations I had with people. Since its inception there were a couple of objects that were a given, such as the Ambassador car and the kulhad. There were some other objects that were perhaps less obvious — such as the petrol pump.
Which elements in your personal life left a lasting impact on you?
I don’t practise perfumery — what is considered the most complex and is often called the last bastion of design. Turning the invisible into the visible is such an important part of my day-to-day life now. This has, on the one hand, brought me closer to the problems of design, whereas distancing me from its materiality. I work with the shapeless material, and try to give form to it. This is intellectually stimulating and challenging at the same time.
Design plays an integral role in the Indian social fabric….
My entire book is about its relevance in the Indian context. Sometimes, as in the case of the book, I celebrate all that is wonderful in the Indian scenario.
What role does an object’s material play in its ultimate form?
Shape and form, the most visible aspects of design, are given great importance in India, but represent only one aspect of the whole. Matter or material is equally important because it gives form to an object. Material comes from the word ‘metre’; a unit of measure, and the word ‘measure’ comes from the Sanskrit word maya that means illusion. Often, the choice of material is based on the abundant availability and the relatively low cost of a certain material. For example, Godrej started making its CH-4 chairs because steel was subsidised by the Indian government. Organic materials such as cow dung for handcrafted design, would be considered with a certain amount of caution, if not outright disbelief, but not in India — where the multiple facets of cow dung usage read as an anthology of ingenuity.
Does the Indian sensibility veer towards a particular genre?
Yes, definitely. The decorative aspects, particularly surface embellishment, play a historic role in Indian design — its origins go back to the making of utensils for gods. It is also reflected in the design of kitchen tools where traditionally utensils were used to cook as well as serve; they were used in temples as well as homes. Ancient utensils used during rituals gave rise to those for daily use. Some like the deep, rimmed patelas for boiling milk exist from the later Vedic period and were used both in temples and homes for the same purpose. This combination of the sacred and the profane is unique. The design combined both decorative and utilitarian elements. This is the reason why the objects can be used for multiple things — for cooking, storing and serving.
What impact does the context of the creation of an object have on its design?
This is a great question and is perhaps at the root of design. The word itself is hard to describe. We tend to take the design of an object for granted. We are mostly interested in using things. This is a very natural human reaction. As human beings, we tend to create objects that will then amplify our behaviour and all our actions.
Design appeals to all the senses, not just the visual….
Absolutely! It must appeal to all the senses. This kind of very integrated cohesive design is quite complex.
In India, jugaad drives many aspects of life. What role do you think it plays in the design of objects?
I am not particularly interested in jugaad, when the result is merely reductive. It is however interesting to find solutions through scarcity. This is a model that has now been adopted all around the world.
The world has moved ahead in terms of technology and sophistication. How relevant are ancient Indian designs in this scenario?
Indian designs have constantly involved and included sophisticated technologies. Even during the Harappan period, simple kitchen tools such as the skillet and the tong for making rotis was an extremely ingenious and innovative response to the conditions around. If you take a simple thing such as the box for chapattis, it is fascinating to note how over thousands of years its material has evolved from terracotta to metal and now it is available in various polymers.
How can traditional design co-exist harmoniously with new-age developments?
This is what traditional cultures like India teach us. We don’t need to choose between the old and the new, because tradition is still current, and current defines the future. Cultures like ours are unbroken. This thread of continuity is expressed in design too.
Indian design has stood the test of time. Your take….
Creativity is at the core of Indian culture. Design is concerned with finding solutions and in a country plagued with so many problems, there is automatically an enormous space for design solutions. Indian design often includes all the senses including taste and touch and this is one of its unique characteristics.
It is constantly evolving. But we need to innovate thousand times more than we are able to do at the moment. Having stood the test of time is just one of its unique aspects. The success of Indian design is because it continues to be flexible.
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