Un-Design

Un-Design

India: design futures of everyday pluralism

Postgraduate student display case at the National Institute of Design - Ahmedabad. Elizabeth Tunstall

The designer’s main task in these countries [like India] is to operate at the levels of protohistoric continuities and chaotic discontinuities and to introduce a sense of order into this highly fragmented environment.

– Rajeshwari Ghose.

In six weeks, I will travel with design students to India in order to explore natural indigo dyeing and weaving at the National Institute of Design. The purpose of the trip is to give students a first-hand experience of what the Australian Labor Government declared in 2012 as the Asian century. While the current Liberal Government has archived the policies attached to that declaration, it does not change the fact of India and China’s growing economic and geo-political ascendancy.

India’s unique history and status as the largest democracy in the world creates a different trajectory for its role compared to China. For example, the Chinese government has built more than 400 design institutions over the last 10 years. In contrast, private industry has been responsible for design’s growth in India. According to the India Design Report, only the number of private design institutions has grown exponentially in the last five years.

One of the challenges for Indian design institutions is determining the design philosophies they will impart to students and practise as professionals. In preparation for the trip, I have been considering deeply the design philosophies of India.

Sudhir Sharma, CEO of Indi Design in his office. Elizabeth Tunstall

Sudhir Sharma runs Indi Design, one of the peake Asian design strategy and innovation firms, and publishes Pool Magazine, India’s first international design magazine. He and I had many conversations about Indian design when he hosted me for three weeks in India in 2013.

Based on my discussions with him and other Indian designers, the reading of academic papers, interviews in Pool Magazine, and blog postings, it seems that the Indian designer must contend with three distinct values systems:

  1. Indigenous Indian values in all their pluralism
  2. Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of pre- and post-independence
  3. Colonial/post-colonial Western values.

Indian Indigenous pluralism

Adalaj Step Well (built in 1499) outside of Ahmedabad, India. Elizabeth Tunstall

The primary value system in India is that of its more than 5,000 years of cultural pluralism. India’s linguistic, religious and geographical pluralism has earned it the epithet of “unity in diversity”. According to reports from The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), there are more than 780 languages spoken with 86 different scripts.

The census notes that India is the birthplace of Hinduism (827 million), Buddhism (8 million), Jainism (4 million), and Sikhism (19 million) and contains nearly 138 million Muslims and 24 million Christians, as well as those who maintain strong tribal religions.

Its more than 639,000 villages inhabit every type of landform: the northern mountain ranges of the Himilayas, the great deserts of the northwest, the central plateau, the coastal plains, and various tropical islands.

In the book Handmade in India, design Professors Aditi Ranjan and MP Ranjan describe how the Indian craft sector reflects this diversity:

The range and diversity of Indian crafts is staggering…The prolific variety was a result of each regional or sub-regional group asserting its own identity in the objects and cultural expressions. Therefore the vast array of artifacts, implements, built environments, ornaments, clothing, headgear and personal body decorations all showed the deep need for holding on to their unique identity as distinct from that of their neighbours.

Indian Craft Centre in New Delhi’s replica of a bride’s nuptial chamber by Shanti Devi and Girindra Mohan of at the Madhubani area, Bihar, India. Elizabeth Tunstall

The Indian craft sector is the second largest employer of persons after agriculture, sustaining over 23 million practitioners. Design institutions, such as National Institute of Design-Ahmedabad and the Indian Institute of Craft and Design, include craft documentation and training as a significant part of the curriculum. The IIDC states as their mission:

The central idea of the Institute is to evolve a sustained programme of growth and development of both crafts sector and craftsmen in an integrated manner, i.e. to generate requisite knowledge, to upgrade relevant skills and to foster right attitudes in order to develop high quality, motivated human resource and change agents, in a vibrant climate of experimentation and innovation.

Terracotta craftsmen working at the Indian Institute of Craft and Design in Jaipur, India. Elizabeth Tunstall

Professional Indian designers continue to show respect to the Indian indigenous value systems through their engagement with the craft sector. In March, Be Open, a philanthropic organisation, held an exhibition Made in … India Samskara, which showcased the collaborations between 23 top Indian designers and crafts peoples, resulting in over 350 handcrafted luxury objects.

Mahatma Gandhi’s principles

Image of Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram. Elizabeth Tunstall

The second value system consists of the principles expressed by Mahatma Gandhi during India’s struggles for independence from Great Britain from 1857 to 1947. There are eleven principles or vows articulated by Mahatma Gandhi. Of the 11, the one most associated with the field of design is swadeshi, the use of locally-made goods. He describes it:

Swadeshi is that spirit in us which requires us to serve our immediate neighbours before others, and to use things produced in our neighbourhood in preference to those more remote. So doing, we cannot serve humanity to the best of our capacity, we cannot serve humanity by neglecting our neighbours.

According to Indian industrial designer and design historian, Singanapalli Balaram, Mahatma Gandhi and other intellectuals established schools in remote areas in order to protect craft’s role in Indian economic self-reliance. The most well known of these was Santiniketan, which was established by Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore in Bengal.

Today in India, swadeshi is expressed through the use of Indian crafts people to manufacture the designs of contemporary designers. But as one of my Indian colleagues, Vilvapathy Sakthivel, discussed in a recent Skype Q&A. Indian designers often see crafts people merely as manufacturers, not as co-designers who can bring their own ideas and values back to the fore of contemporary Indian society.

Colonial and post-colonial Western values

Shopping centre in Ahmedabad, India. Elizabeth Tunstall

The third value system is the one imposed by India’s colonisation by Great Britain. The concepts of modern design were brought to India by British bureaucrats who established art schools that included craft in order to produce a class of Indians to serve in its Colonial government agencies. Design historian, Rajeshwari Ghose, notes:

No wonder then that neither of the terms design nor development have natural equivalents in most of the Asian linguistic traditions, for they carry with them all the ideological underpinnings of First World associations, aspirations, and debates.

Ghose goes on to describe how contemporary Indian designers must contend with Western “consumerist, labor saving and, therefore, capital and technology intensive, and, finally, overdeveloping” values when they design for global markets or even their own elites.

Transculturation and Indian design

Ornate portable sound system used for traditional wedding parades. Elizabeth Tunstall

One of the concepts important to Design Anthropology is that of transculturation by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz. It is the process by which each generation transforms culture through the acquisition of that from other cultures, the loss of one’s own culture, and the creation of the entirely new. The concept of transculturation reminds us to think of cultures as dynamic.

Indian designers everyday must make decisions that will give tangible form to the values that embody India’s pluralistic cultures. Their decisions transform Indian culture. Because of the scale of India’s economic and geo-political growth, the decisions they make will have significant impact on Australia.

By understanding the value systems that are at play for Indian designers today, we might gain a better sense of what they will mean for Australia’s future.

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