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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Towards articulating visions of design education in India - Deepankar Bhattacharyya

There is a buzz in the design communities in India, especially among those who have had something to do with NID and are miffed that they have not been consulted on the setting up of four more institutions bearing that name in different parts of this large and diverse land.

I am an alumnus of NID from the first batch, an endeavour that was started with a dream and unbounded hope and enthusiasm. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, Pupul Jayakar along with Charles and Ray Eames laid the foundations of what was envisaged as the premier institution that would drive modern design in India. I do not use the term 'modern' lightly, modern design anywhere in the world was barely 35 years old when the India Report was written in 1958. We had had a taste of what rational thinking could do to the built world as early as 1951 with Corbusier's Chandigarh exploring sensibilities and thought that was definitive of this kind of modern thinking. A leap of faith, dreams of Utopia, a belief in modern thinking and a desire to catch up with other parts of the world prompted the commissioning of American planner Albert Mayer, with his associate Matthew Nowicki to build this city. The sudden demise of Nowicki brought Le Corbusier into the picture and he turned out to be a perfect complement to Nehru's visions. A vision of the modern, of Utopia, of entitlement for the poor and of Indian-ness that was being articulated in the policies of that time had been brewing in the prime-minister’s mind for quite a while.

This Nehruvian vision became the backbone of much that defines our early independent history.

NID was a part of this vision; it started to get a form in 1961, three years after the India Report. By 1970, the year I joined, it was felt that post-school education to train designers needed to be part of the mix along with projects, industry linkages, craft intervention, outreach activities etc.. That it took so long to happen was symptomatic of the times and was actually quite normal. We were, as H. Kumar Vyas our first dean and later head of the Executive Committee liked to say, the 'guinea pigs' in the start of this experiment that was unique in many ways. Gautam Sarabhai had fresh and innovative ideas on education, interesting people from all over the world would visit and we knew that we were in the middle of something that had never happened before and rarely since.

That experiment floundered in subsequent years on the realities of inadequate finance, quality of participants, changing government policies and the demands of an under-developed market economy. Government control, their distrust of individual initiative and their sometimes misguided if well intentioned lip service to socialist ideals bankrupted the economy and produced a generation of individuals and businesses who had no real initiative or motivation. It built a mammoth system of corruption and lethargy and a power structure that was not answerable to any rule of law.

The world has changed radically since then. The main camps driven by capitalist, communist, socialist or non-aligned ideologies have all but disappeared. The entrepreneur in the Indian has been unleashed and the distrust with which wealth has traditionally been viewed in Indian society and government is a thing of the past. Central control, license raj and the role of the government in everything from industry to health and education has been modified forever. Individuals, collection of individuals, trusts, associations, cooperatives and corporations are at last finding outlets for their initiatives and creativity in all fields.

Also in Education.

We are far more globally connected; the internet has empowered the individual to access information and communicate his/her views on anything.

The Indian caste system has lost its grip on our collective psyche; many sections of society who were traditionally at the bottom of the heap have found their voice and the means to get ahead.

Indian craft scenes have changed unrecognisably, it is difficult to find the 'Eames lota' in everyday use, it has been replaced by the colourful plastic variant that has put the potter out of business. Crafts are well on the way to joining the world of big business and brands, with the craftsperson struggling to redefine his/her role. Indian industry and services are maturing rapidly. Indian corporations are becoming multinational.

Urbanisation has become an unstoppable force and inequalities have formed stark lines of conflict. Environmental concerns have never been so urgent and the desire for upward mobility and the improvement of one's surroundings is being felt at all levels of society. 

Has the time for 'design' to play a much broader role in our lives finally come?

Notions of 'Quality' have changed radically. Post-Modern attitudes and easy exchange of cultural influences have forced us to think afresh on questions of good, bad, desirable and possible.

Indian Demographics have the young in a majority and the promise of them staying that way for some time to come. They do not carry the baggage of past ideologies, hopes, attitudes and conflicts.

Neither do they believe that you can plan their lives for them. That you can plan their education for them. That you can tell them what and how they should be thinking. They are connected to happenings in other places and they have aspirations that are fresh and sometimes radical. Even in the village.

The pace of qualitative change is ever increasing and a generation that did not experience it in their childhood cannot possibly appreciate its meaning. Our students are barely being prepared for today's challenges and who amongst us has glimpsed what is to come?

I know that we must 'let a hundred flowers blossom' to quote Mao (with none of his penchant for executing dissenters ;0) and be open to the changing meanings and directions that 'design' and design education is taking. The four new schools of design being envisaged must be open to new ideas, must be experimental in nature, must be different to one another and must be trusting of all sections of society.

India is a complex place, there is no 'one' India. The India at the bottom of the heap is nothing like the India of sophisticated markets. The India in modern urban centres is very different from the India steeped in tradition and folklore. There are many ways of 'seeing' and 'understanding' that exist simultaneously and enrich us. I hope that all of this difference can be celebrated and can be part of our guiding principles when we articulate our visions for the new centres of design learning. I also hope that we bring humility to our deliberations with the sure knowledge that we cannot fully comprehend the complexities at play and that the future has a way of shaping itself in ways that can never be second guessed.


  1. great article, deepankar. very succinctly and convincingly articulated. din

  2. food for thought, deepankar...thank you!

  3. Very well said.
    "Our students are barely being prepared for today's challenges and who amongst us has glimpsed what is to come?".. this has to be the guiding principle behind every attempt at making any school of design. The main skills that should be imparted are the skills of 'anticipation' and the skill of being 'ready for action'. The rest will unfold..


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