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Designing for many Indias

The excitement of being a jury member at the Kyoorius D&AD Awards was being able to go through a wide body of work coupled with discussions on the work with fellow jury members.

At the dinner table, the day before the jury process, I happened to sit across Michael Johnson, an eminent designer from London, also the Jury Foreman. Right from our meeting, our times together were filled with interesting exchanges on practically all aspects – right from the food served, the coffee, the demand of beer to serious design topics and of course the judging! Our conversations were all mingled with great humor and lightness. More than once we touched upon the subject of ‘Indian Design’ and it felt that Michael was seeking to find an Indian consciousness on this trip, in the places he visited and through the work at the competition.

The origins of design

Soon enough, on returning to London, Michael wrote The Search for a Voice about the need for India to find her own roots in design. Many times, an outsider’s viewpoint can make us pay attention to things we pass by. There are scenes we walk by everyday, piles of garbage or slum dwellings next to a posh multiplex and all that is India. It’s the India every foreigner cannot understand and the India we take for granted. There’s another side as well. Quite often, as an Indian designer, I have had interactions with foreign visitors and guests who say, “Why is it what you do has nothing Indian about it?” It used to annoy me a bit, but I got very used to this question. In a way I treated it like the landscape. But like the landscape, it did bother me somewhere. An outsider commenting on the lack of a sense of place in Indian brand identity could have easily led me to react – Who does he think he is to question what is Indian? Instead, it felt like a gentle tap on the shoulder like someone nudges you when you are standing in line, impatient to get to the counter. “Look”, he seemed to be pointing. Of course, I had looked before, but this time it was written on paper and it made me step out of line and pay attention.

Engaging with an Indian sense of patterning

Michael notes that when he was on the plane about to land, the view of the tarp covered slums by the airport looked like a lot of swimming pools. Later, he discovered to his embarrassment that they were tarpaulin sheets on roofs. This visual of interesting graphic patterns was by coincidence also captured in Sameer Kulavoor’s illustrated book in Kulture Shop. Those new to India are captivated by the truck graphics and the ability of truck drivers to zero in on a kind of communication that is unique to India. On the other hand, this local flavor is not evident in mainstream graphic design and brand identity. The desire for most of these brands was to look western. Yet, a unique Indian voice is emerging in small ways. This needs to grow.

The Global mix

These arguments made me revisit the old debates about how to shape and discover our future in design by becoming conscious of our roots. We were never one India to start with. We were always a mix of cultures. The Moghuls infused their culture with ours, the British ruled over us for more than 200 years. As we progress into the 21stcentury, constantly bombarded by visual material from all over the world, the search promises to be tough, not just in India. I saw a poster once in Amsterdam that asked: Can anyone tell me how to make fucking real Dutch design? As a third world country, we aped the west. This happened in Japan and in China. Then, a new consciousness emerged. Now, can we in India find a way to infuse a sense of place into design? Is it enough to be Indian? And by virtue of being Indian, is whatever we do Indian?

How can we find our place?

Design is our visible identity. When we design, it puts things out into the world. And those things are what we identify with. The designer therefore has a big responsibility in shaping culture. The kitschy truck graphics cannot fit into mainstream graphics. Yet, there needs to be a conscious effort to identify the vernacular idioms that make up our unique fabric. We are a country with rich sources of information. One cannot rush to Tantric symbols, yoga and snake charmers all exotic symbols of India the way the West sees us. In art, we have begun to see the transformation. Indian advertising has bridged the gap. Sometimes, the context in print and television advertising is so fine, that a foreigner may not even get it! The nuances and takes are special to an Indian way of life. I am certain that this Indian idiom will evolve.

Necessity for one is fascinating for another

When Michael wrote about flying down from a plane and seeing tarps, then finding that very same visual in an illustrated book, it made me think of one thing. The thing about tarp is that it is ordinary. It is a necessity. Blue tarp is the cheapest. To me, it is a sign of the economy. For someone unfamiliar to the Indian landscape, it appears as a fantastic eco-art installation. Necessity for one can be fascinating for another. Either way, design responds to need and fascination can also shape need.

By choosing a new government we responded to the need for change. Shri Narendra Modi’s proactive stance and turn to find strength in our identity has given us confidence to lean less on Western ideals and look to our own land. The business community is energized as Modi moves to India’s future by grabbing the reins to driving her own chariot. On Independence Day, his words to “Make in India” till everything becomes “Made in India” resonate with the way all of us really feel. Wearing an orange bandhini turban, Modi does not shy from the symbols that make him Indian and he exhorts us to find our symbols. With this new found belief comes the search for self-expression. We need not shy away from the truth. And in truth, we have the real power to become.

By Anthony Lopez on Aug 24, 2014
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