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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A note to self about 'Beginnings' - Deepankar Bhattacharyya

At the beginning there was NID. It was going to drive design in India; it was built on a remarkable vision and unstinting support from an idealistic government and a few forward looking financial partners. 

I entered a world of exploration of material, form, colour; workshops and drawing; photography and film making; general subjects; great products; new ideas; of understanding design methods and processes. Of hearing about the masters who influenced and shaped 'modern design'; meeting some of them, listening to them. All the while, every Saturday morning, with Gautam Sarabhai talking and teaching about the meaning of learning, of freedom, of responsibility. 

There was a pedagogy developing that was fresh and experimental; every body's viewpoint was important, there was going to be no hierarchy and emphasis was on learning, experimenting and doing rather than teaching. Spoon-feeding was absent and everybody was on a very new and open ended journey where solutions were being found on a daily basis and a culture was being established. One was encouraged to not compete with others but to improve on oneself. There were no barriers between learners and teachers and everyone was on a first name basis. The number of people on campus were very few, brand new contemporary equipment courtesy Ford Foundation was available for use. Faculty was being developed and were trickling in after their training stints in the various institutions abroad. Everyone was very into what everyone else was doing and there were no real distinctions between the departments; one generally learnt from everywhere and one dabbled in weaving and screen printing as much as animation and working on form exercises in plaster of paris and acrylic. One knew that exposure to music, cinema and dance was as important as keeping abreast of technologies and the socio-cultural environment. Political awareness - not that much. 

Was this too idealistic to survive? 
Was it possible to maintain this in the long term? 

Government of India thought 'NOT' and at some point decided to start asking for a much more result oriented, less ambiguous, less experimental, more repeatable way of functioning. Gautam and Gira Sarabhai left. They were still available to us old timers though. They would come anytime I called or needed guidance. 

Things started to get tighter; lucky for me, I could continue in the old ways for my six years and left. 

Am I happy that I went through this kind of learning experience? 
I had just turned 16 when I joined NID and I can truly say that this was the best thing that happened to me. 

Of course I wasn't prepared for the humdrum non existence of any design framework and the appalling lack of 'quality' outside of NID. Every day was explaining what 'Design' was and how I could contribute. 

I didn't join the advertising industry which would have been safe financially and which was kind of a sister profession if you could overlook its shallowness and a certain doubtful integrity. Imagine selling fairness creams or soaps that made you completely sanitised and germ free. If you were a designer and system thinker you would recoil at such notions. I did. Tall claims were not for me. 

Building a design ecosystem from the ground up was the need of the times and that's what one set out to do. All of us early birds did that in varying degrees and success. There were many casualties. Not many could muster the grit to face the never ending, sometimes overwhelming, absence of any light at the end of the tunnel. 

You wanted to give up, join a corporation and live like your buddies from IIM. By the way my contemporaries from that institution started out, like us, as rank outsiders. We would all start off at around Rs.1500/- a month and hugely resented by entrenched systems (mid 1970s). Everybody in middle management was 40 something and had come up through hard work and experience. They weren't going to listen to a 20 something mouth case studies from Harvard or in our case from the work being done by the design pioneers in Europe and USA. These guys from IIM worked really hard, were given impossible tasks, showed results and broke through with remarkable success. We designers were still out in the cold, no real need for us, you see. Blame it on an anti competitive market environment and confused ideas of pseudo-socialism of the times. The IIM wallahs overtook us financially very quickly. 

It didn't help that we were trying to do stuff that had roots in other cultures. 
I was trying to find an 'Indian' voice or at least trying to understand whether there actually was one or a need for one. Took many years to sort that one out. One trudged on and could, in due course, painfully slowly, build a more receptive environment and find demand for what one thought was acceptable 'Quality' and real 'Design' 

Cut to the 90s; computers and digitisation were changing the game, younger designers were poised to work the fledgling ecosystems of design that our generation had built; Dr. Manmohan Singh had done his thing and Design Thinking was being taught at business schools. India was, at last, ready for 'Design'.

So ready that it started to proliferate in epidemic proportions; everybody was or wanted to be into DESIGN. Well, a certain kind of Design but it's a start.  

You know the rest. 

I hope this article offers some perspective on where we come from and help to develop insights into future pathways for design education. Design pedagogy needs continuous evolution; we must pay more attention to it, much more than what we are doing presently. We must not become formulaic and close our minds to evolution, experimentation and change. Remember that had we thought too much about employment possibilities when we started out there would not have been a design ecosystem today. Take risks. We really do have a long way to go before design becomes a part of our everyday processes and life.

This one is for you M.P. Ranjan and for you Nilam Iyer Ghosh, two of my closest mates who decided to hang up their boots this year. 
See you on the other side. 

11 August 2015 

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