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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Design History; an Alternative Approach – H Kumar Vyas


Professor Kumar Vyas has been there since the beginnings of modern design in India. He played a major role in the development of design education at NID and was the Dean when the undergraduate programme was started in 1970, the year I joined. Those were heady days, there was little awareness of design in India and a novel education method was being tried. He and the other members of the faculty along with Gautam and Gira Sarabhai designed a framework where learning could take place in an atmosphere of great freedom, learning based upon experimentation and a spirit of enquiry. Nothing was spoon-fed, everything was debated, dissent was encouraged and the ability to think independently was nurtured. It is in this environment that I understood the meaning of freedom and that it comes with responsibility, it is also here that I learnt to think on my own and to know that there are no shortcuts and problem solving required one to develop familiarity with ‘all there is’ in one’s environment. This has stood me in good stead and has kept me fresh through the years when almost everything has transformed unrecognizably, from the technologies at our disposal to the cultural complexities that we work in. It is a privilege to carry this article by Professor Kumar Vyas, wherein he offers us an insight into our design history and a timely reminder of the complex forces that have worked to get us where we are. – Deepankar Bhattacharyya

One of my preoccupations since the early 1980s has been to explore relevance of design against its historical backdrop; and that too in the context of modern design that is design the way we know, learn and practice today. Simultaneously I would also search for suitable historical sources that I could refer to design learners at the NID and later at the SID (CEPT). Over time I came to realise that if at all there is to be a history of modern design in light of the new, end-of–the-millennium dispensations reflecting the concerns of the emergent societies of Asia and Africa, it must look beyond the conventional sources.

Secondly, so far as I know there have been very few efforts to assess design, especially international design, in the Indian context. This is particularly so when we refer to the time soon after the arrival of modernism and the Modern Movement in India in the final decades of the nineteenth century and of modern design soon after India’s independence.

Attempting a historical narrative within these conditions is bound to beg the obvious question; what should be the approach? There of course can be several to choose from; but I am certain about one approach that must be avoided. And that is the conventional method of single linear narrative of chronologies, events and personalities. An alternative approach I feel would be the one that allows to explore several parallel historical ‘threads’ traveling in time. By way of an exercise, I can see here at least four tentative threads that seem to suggest themselves:

The first thread, not easy to describe, demands a vast canvass of time and space. At best it may be called the human instinct for innovation. I feel that no history of design, modern or otherwise, can entirely ignore this most primordial human compulsion, namely to innovate in order to survive. The particular instinct of innovation is almost as old as the birth of the Homo sapiens. The basic tool, the basic language and the taming of fire are perhaps the very first acts of innovation triggering off a profusion of further innovations that eventually (after many millenniums) lead to agrarian societies and the dawn of civilizations. It is crucial that this singular continuous thread of innovations be perceived in a ‘designerly’ context so that it does not get lost among the usual ‘lessons’ in history of civilisations.

The second thread can be best described as the prehistory of modern design. It is a huge jump in time from the first thread and is indirectly linked with the story of land routes connecting the civilizations of Asia and Europe that act as arteries along which the fruits of people’s innovations are regularly exchanged. This process of exchange intensifies following the Age of Enlightenment (circa 1500 CE). Explorations of sea routes to Asia must be attempted by few Western European nations solely because Turkey’s occupation of Constantinople blocks the Silk Route. But eventually this turns out to be a boon to these nations as they come to possess vast overseas colonial empires in Asia, Africa and the Americas. The ‘guilty party’ consists of no more than four to five Western European countries which, interestingly enough are also the first ‘victims’ and later beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution. Somewhere here it becomes necessary to think with utmost objectivity over the relative importance and treatment of the concept of eurocentricity in relation with design history.

Gradually a ‘notorious and mutually supporting partnership’ develops between the outcomes of these two processes which are, the fallouts of Industrial Revolution and the imperial adventure. It works like this: plunder and procure raw materials from the colonies to be fed into the hungry mills at home and sell the surplus processed goods back to the hapless colonials. All this bring in an unprecedented prosperity to these European nations who also make sure to actively discourage indigenous innovations especially those related to production, both handwork and machine.

This longish thread may not be allowed to conclude without discussing the backlash of the European Academism (Academie des Beaux Arts et al) that is directly responsible for one of the most unholy caste systems of our time: Beginning with pure arts vis-à-vis useful arts and resulting into today’s fine versus applied arts. This caste system visits India where it never existed before and results in three Schools of Arts and Crafts, set up in three important commercial centres of British India: Calcutta, Madras and Bombay( between 1853 and 1859).

It is with the third thread that the history of modern design as an international movement actually begins. This may promise to be the core part but should not be allowed to overshadow the rest of the threads. The advent of the Modern and modernism, initially a preoccupation with French intellectuals during the first few decades of the nineteenth century, spreads to the rest of the Western Europe. Joined by the groups of plastic artists and later, architects, designers and others, it turns itself into the Modern Movement. Meanwhile the historical journey of modern design has already commenced with (of all things) an ideological split. It seems to be a case of anti-machine vis-à-vis the Machine Aesthetics (at least in the initial years, circa 1850’s). The two streams eventually reconcile and flow into the central event of the thread, The Bauhaus.

The post WWII years see design becoming an international movement in true sense. This is to be followed with the postmodern interlude that also includes the influence of the Information Revolution and indigenous design traditions and socio-cultural mores of the emerging nations (India being one of the most important) on the thinking and work of designers. The final part of this thread may be devoted to designers’ typical turn-of-the- century concerns, ranging from Green Design to design for the Other 80% of the World.

The fourth thread exclusively deals with the Indian parallel. Obviously a big canvas and if not handled well, may tend to get out of control. The fact that it is one of the threads of the design history necessitates it to be written within the format of an overview. The challenge here is not just to search and identify innovations through ages to enhance the human environment but to back them up with those concepts that have ‘design parallels’ from the available Indian treatises on human knowledge and practical sciences. Care must be taken so as not to fall in the usual trap of entirely depending on ‘sarkari’ sources available with various archives of the national museums or departments of the Ministries of Culture or Education or whatever. Or on works by certain learned people, which though well researched might have been written and presented with a specific agenda.

To me the right approach for this particular thread would be akin to the one employed by Dr Amartya Sen in his now famous book, the Argumentative Indian. Accordingly, one begins at the beginning and for the benefit of the international, and Indian, audiences search for design related concepts from the ‘classical’ periods onward. These are the concepts which, live and vibrant in their time, still make their presence felt as strong undercurrents in our time. The carefully charted journey may end with the entry of modern design through two separate points in time; Chandigarh and the India Report.

To reinforce the above argument, any discussion on Indian equivalences to modern design concepts and idioms will naturally have a mention of design education in India. In this context one sees a further need to which this kind of historical enquiry will have to address. It is a need that is purely culture specific and not yet adequately addressed. First of all, it is by now well accepted that to learn design in our time is also to develop an acute sense of belonging to a fluid and dynamic global process; in fact this has already been described as international movement. Alternately, this can happen only when one acquires a right kind of understanding of one’s own bearings and whereabouts in this rather volatile space. This in other words, means it is equally necessary to be acquainted with important developments in the course of India’s history that strike resonance with their counterparts in international design arena. And in order to appreciate these developments in their ‘prehistoric’ perspective, one may be required to undertake a backward journey to pick out relevant historical ‘threads’ directly related to India’s philosophy and cultural traditions.

It is important to remember at this point that these four threads are to be seen as warps which are to be crosswoven with help of the wefts of transcultural influences and exchanges cutting through age old prejudices of all kinds.

And finally, the reason for narrating a particular approach to design history based on above four threads. This is what seemed to help me prepare the groundwork when about one and half year ago, I was asked to write history of modern design in the international as well as Indian contexts. The work has now been completed and the book is being published under title, “Design the International Movement with Indian Parallel”. Enquiries to: SID Research Cell, School of Interior Design, CEPT University. Ph +91 79 2630 2471, 2630 2740. Email: research@gmail. com Website: http://www.cept. ac.in

As indicated earlier such historical narratives must go beyond setting right the past distortions by our British ex-rulers who incidentally, and quite unknowingly, acted as harbingers of modernity and the Modern Movement to India. It is also to be seen as an attempt to relate the concept of modern design directly to India’s past traditions as well as her present aspirations to bring the fruits of modernity in its most relevant sense to her people without inhibiting the very humane aspect of a many-splendored cultural continuum.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.