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Remixing Indian design anthropology

Indian students and Kala Raksha staff performing garba folk dance. Elizabeth Tunstall, CC BY-NC-SA

Tuesday was the beginning of Navratri, the nine nights Hindu religious festival that celebrates the Mother Goddess Durga in her nine avatars. In the Indian state of Gujarat, the festival is celebrated through nine nights of dancing a traditional folk dance called garba. Coordinated feet and hands move in concentric circles around a sacred pot in which the essence of Durga’s life giving power gestates and feeds all things.

In May, I led a design anthropology workshop for 12 Indian postgraduate design and anthropology students as part of a one month Wenner-Gren Foundation funded project to answer the question:

What might be an Indian-based and decolonised design anthropology?

Group photo of participants in the 2015 Indian Design Anthropology workshop. Elizabeth Tunstall

The students and I explored the question through intense alternating research practice and anthropological theory sessions each day, excursions to important museums and historical sites in the cities of Ahmedabad, Bhuj, and Mandiv, and interactions with six artisan partners from the NGO Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya.

We chose to present our answer the question in a culturally appropriate way. We created a music video, DAnthro Garba, which combines three essential values of what might serve as a basis for an Indian design anthropology:

  • Grounded in Indian languages
  • Provides processes that continuously connects people to the sacredness of all things
  • Offers tools to help the Indian people establish the appropriate balance of Western, Folk, Gandhian, and Islamic values.

DAnthro Garba music video (3 mins) by Dori Tunstall and the 2015 Design Anthropology Workshop students.

Grounded in Indian languages

According to a Forbes article, only about 30% of Indians can speak English, yet it is the language of higher education instruction throughout most of India. Sahith Aula writes:

One need not mention that universities and even government jobs require fluency in English […] Therefore, a person’s socioeconomic state in Indian society is approximately in line with his or her fluency in the language. In others words: a new caste system.
Lyrics to DAnthro Garba song by Nihar Desai and Kautuk Trivedi. Elizabeth Tunstall

Indian design anthropology should be based in Indian languages. During the workshop, I asked the students to present in Hindi or Gujarati when our artisan partners were present, as the partners understood only a little bit of English language. We were all surprised to find how much the students struggled to translate many terms into common Indian languages because academic terms are all taught in English.

We decided to present the video in Hindi, the most spoken language in India with more than 422 million speakers, to reinforce the importance of using Indian languages to discuss and debate the present and future of Indian design anthropology.

Connects to the sacredness

Seemant Chourey’s drawing of his connection to the southern Gujarat land of the workshop site. Elizabeth Tunstall

The lesson that the students said most moved them was when we explored traditional Indigenous Australian values systems in relationship to the land. In particular, they appreciated how Aunty Mary Graham described the way in which in Aboriginal culture land is the law:

The two most important kinds of relationship in life are, firstly, those between land and people and, secondly, those amongst people themselves, the second being always contingent upon the first. The land, and how we treat it, is what determines our human-ness. Because land is sacred and must be looked after, the relation between people and land becomes the template for society and social relations. Therefore all meaning comes from land.

This is not a new concept within India. In fact, the Navratri festival celebrates the exact same principles, represented through the worship of the Mother Goddess Durga.

Yet as urbanised Indians, the students had awareness of this way of living in the world through their grandparents, but only reconnected to that feeling directly while interacting with the land and listening respectfully to the artisan partners’ stories about their lives on the land.

The students believed that an Indian design anthropology should help provide people with processes to help them better live the sacredness of things. In particular, the practice of designing should come from a sense of sacredness that respects all things.

The music video represents this through the performance of the garba folk dance. The choice of dance is not incidental it is one of the means by which humans bind to one another. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Dancing in the Streets, talks about the importance of dance as a form of collective joy:

To submit bodily to the music through dance is to incorporated into the community in a way far deeper than shared myth or common custom can achieve. The synchronous movement to music or chanting voices, the petty rivalries and fractional differences that might divide a group could be transmuted into harmless competition over one’s prowess as a dancer, or forgotten.

The dance itself is a design in which the preparation of food, often elaborate dress and make-up, the music, and the steps require careful planning and imagining of the future event. The collaboration required to perform garba demonstrates the collaborative processes required in contemporary Indian design. Yet, the final design should be grounded in sacredness, not just commercial outcomes.

Balance the multiple Indian value systems

Students’ ideal and actual balances among Indian value systems. Elizabeth Tunstall

I have written before on The Conversation on three Indian value systems that designers have to balance. Upon deeper reflection in India, I would add a fourth, Islamic value systems to the three of Western, Gandhian, and Folk.

The most important aspect of an Indian design anthropology is that it provides tools to help Indian people find the appropriate balance of Western, Folk, Gandhian, and Islamic value systems to guide both the practical designs at the project level and the nation’s future at the policy level.

One of the main partners on the project, Sakthivel Vilvipathy, from the National Institute of Design, stated in the workshop:

India is still a very Western country. Even Gandhi’s values were a mix of Indian and Western.

During the lessons focused on India’s value systems, the students all expressed the ideal situation of moving towards greater reflection of either folk or Gandhian value systems in their practice as designers. Yet, all were concerned that the companies and clients for whom they would have to work would not share the same value mix.

In spite of my earlier exclusion of Islamic values in the chart, design anthropology provides two important tools for its Indian practices. The first is a means to visualise the simultaneity of the values at play in Indian society. Sometimes the language of binary conflict of values, such as tradition versus modern, obscures how people select bits that they like from multiple value systems while discarding other bits.

The second is a means to evaluate the value systems working in people’s designs. The students underwent one of their major epiphanies when they had to evaluate their design concepts for they artisan partners against the value systems chart. It led to some significant changes to their final design outcomes.

The Danthro Garba music video would be evaluated as 50% folk values, 30% Western values, 15% Gandhian values, and 5% Islamic values. The melody is based on the traditional garba folk song, Kesariyo Rang Tane. The dance is the garba folk dance.

The lyrics are both folk and Gandhian in inspiration. They evoke the movement of dance, the sea, and the connection to the sacred womb of the earth. These are put into practice to achieve Gandhian goals of self-sufficiency.

DAnthro Garba lyrics in Hindi and English. Elizabeth Tunstall

The production of the song and the video uses Western technologies: laptops, iPhone cameras, Garageband and iMovie software. It is distributed through YouTube. Also, in the video background and a low hum in the music are the power plants that provided the electricity for the project.

The 5% Islamic values are represented through the dress of the some of the dancers, which were made by the local Muslim community, and some of the electronic music added to the mix.

The DAnthro Garba video demonstrates the possibilities of what an Indian-based and decolonised design anthropology might look, feel, and sound. It represents the essence of design anthropology in the Indian context. Kautuk Trivedi, one of the participants responded via email:

The workshop gave a hands-on evidence of the fact that design can create joy. Through careful and conscious process and the spirit of co-creation positive transculturation can happen in any context. Its very re-assuring to know that.

Special thanks go to the participants of the 2015 Indian Design Anthropology workshop: Nihar Desai, Agam Arora , Naila Ansari, Deepmala Dutta, Swayamsiddha Panigrahi, Abraham Jacob, Seemant Chourey, Veethika Mishra, Komal Shree, Kautuk Trivedi, Anjumani Boro, and Neha Singh. The Kala Raksha artisan partners: Lakhi Ben, Vallu Ben, Shila Ben, Sikander Bhai, Khimji Bhai, and Kanchan. The NID hosts: Sakthi V. and Shilpa Das. The Kala Raksha hosts: Mukesh Bhanani and Vimal Bhanani.

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