Is there something called ‘Indian Design’?
Text of the Lecture delivered at IES College of Architecture, Mumbai on 8th October 2016
Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
I am going to begin this talk on Indian Design with three quotes related to India and to Design.
‘India is an abstraction… India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator.’ This is from a speech made in 1931, by Winston S Churchill, the then PM of Britain.
‘The design profession has formally existed in India since 1962’.  This is the opening sentence from the Wikipedia page of the Association of Indian Design Industry.
‘Design: to indicate, to draw, to contrive, to form a plan of, to set apart a plan or scheme formed in the mind.’ This is the definition of Design from The Chambers English Dictionary.
I am not certain how many of us will agree with the opinions expressed in these quotes, and to what degree. But, it is a fact that conventional opinions about What is Indian; What is Design; and therefore What is Indian Design, are largely derived from a western cultural stand-point, especially a stand point of an industrialized society. That explains why the Association of Indian Design Industry believes that the design profession in India has formally existed for only about 50 years, even though it should be obvious that the extraordinary variety and level of designs that have been generated in India through centuries, could only have been the outcome of a formal and highly evolved system of design. The fact that it is not obvious, to many of us even in the profession of design, indicates that we are looking at very limited and limiting notions of what constitutes Indian design. Evidently, we need to be wary of unquestioningly accepting such Western, or let us say non-Indian opinions. These opinions are formed on the basis of some underlying sweeping notions, which we should recognise.
What are these notions?
First, is the current conventional concept of what makes a nation. This is essentially a notion of political identity that we have adopted from the western world, which has been formed by their history. Indeed, the very word ‘nation’ is derived from Latin; and the name ‘India’ itself, was given not by the people of this land.
Second, is the concept that India somehow got a distinct identity only after the advent of the British - an opinion circulated by the British, which limits the definition of ‘India’ to a certain size and region, and the definition of ‘Indian’ to ‘race’. However, size and region are not fixed, geographical boundaries and racial composition change over time. As many writers remind us, the British themselves followed a process of ‘making India’, which involved ‘breaking India’ and reforming its boundaries and peoples. Interestingly, Britain itself, today is a fraction of the size that it ballooned to about 200 years ago; and ‘it was only in 1707 that its present configuration resulted from the union of Scotland and England.’ If we were to apply the same logic, and tell the British that they would only qualify to be called a nation when they were a certain size, I am doubtful if they would accept it.
Third, is the concept of design noted in dictionaries and many books on design, derived from Western sources, which almost exclusively limits designing to the act of drawing or planning; and makes a separation between planning something, and actually creating it. This separation is an outcome of a fairly recent occurrence in terms of world history, commonly termed the Industrial Revolution. This happened about 250 years ago - not in India - but in the western world. It is not a universal method of design, either in terms of time or space. It is not the way in which design was practised historically anywhere in the world, and certainly not in India. It did not exist in the Indian perspective.
What is the Indian perspective? To understand this, the first thing to do, is to move away from definitions. A definition, by its very meaning, defines or limits—and especially so in the context of India. The distinguished Indian scholar, Chaturvedi Badrinath, notes in his detailed discussion on the Mahabharata: ‘One characteristic of Indian thought has been that in the place of definitions of things, it asks for their attributes or lakshanas. That is because all definitions are arbitrary, whereas the lakshanas are what show a thing, through which a thing becomes manifest. Thus, not the ‘definition’ of truth, or of love, but the attributes of truth and love by which they are known is what is central.’
The Lakshana of being Indian
So, to understand the Indian way, we need to look at not the definition of Indian or of design, but the attributes of being Indian, and of Indian design. To look for these attributes or lakshana, we have to expand our view to examine India and Indian-ness as conceived by Indians.
To do so, we must go back to the earliest Indian traditions of philosophy or ‘darshan’, which literally means ‘to see’. How we see ourselves, forms our first and primary identity. Our most ancient philosophical works, such as the Isha Upanishad, talk about the infinite vastness of space and time, in which individual lifetimes of human beings count little, and are yet, an important part. In the Indian system, thus, the ideal individual sees herself or himself as an extension of the clan, the community, the country and even the cosmos, all of which are connected, and are part of the same aatman or ‘spirit’. This was not just an abstract principle that scholars studied. It was explained and handed down in stories and tales, and enacted in folk-drama and dance. For example, in the epic Mahabharata, one of the reasons for the great war, is believed to be the King Dhritarashtra’s inability to see and accept this interconnectedness, despite the advice of his minister, Vidura. This basis of Indian culture, of being sensitive to a wide context, led to its overriding lakshanas or characteristics.
1. The first of these lakshanas, is Responsibility and self-reliance. As the poet and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore explains: ‘...unlike in Europe, the State has never been in India a central thing in the life of the nation. While European civilization assigned a central position to the State, Indian civilization from ancient times put in that place society guided by dharma as it was conceived by the people.’
This lakshana of ancient Indian society survived even till the 18th century, until the British changed this system. The Gandhian historian, Dharampal, examined the internal records that the British made for circulation amongst themselves when they moved into India. These records show that despite deliberate efforts by the British to break up the structure of Indian society, people all over the subcontinent themselves took on the responsibility to protect and repair cultivable land, forests, rivers, wells, water-tanks, schools, temples, mosques, market-places, etc. both within a village and between different villages. For instance, in a survey of ‘over 2000 villages in South India in the Chengalpattu district during the mid-18th Century, it is noted that a certain amount of the total agricultural produce of the village, according to ancient custom, was kept aside for ‘maintenance of various institutions and infra-structure’. This was termed swatantrams, which literally means independent. This was the custom in the sub-continent before colonialism - that the community itself always retained independent control over a certain ratio of the land of a village and its yield; which was not taxed, whatever be the political kingdoms or authorities that came over it, but was used responsibly by the people themselves.
2. The second lakshana is ‘Respect for people with divergent views and sub-identities, and simultaneous existence of such identities.
Since it was believed that every individual has the latent capability and the responsibility to channelize the universal spirit, historically, within the Indian culture we see that though there may have been a dominant school of philosophy or religious belief, generally there was space for various beliefs to exist simultaneously, even if they were not practised by the majority. The Himalayas have been venerated from ancient times, as Kulparvatas, a lofty family of mountains, with ‘the idea of one family of people encompassed by them,’ who had overlapping regional, professional or community-based identities, which had room to be changed or re-organised. Thus, most schools of Indian philosophy, in successive centuries, have stressed an interdependence between people, objects and their contexts. For instance, Hinduism in its later years draws from Buddhism, Jainism, and even Islam and Christianity; similarly Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc. arise out of an attempt to distil, adapt, or evolve a reformed idea of Hinduism and other beliefs.
3. The third Lakshana is: Cyclical Ideas of Space and Time
In Indian tradition, space and time are believed to exist in cosmic cycles, which have no beginning or end. Each cycle is actually a process of regression or falling. So, we live in Kalyuga, the last and the worst in a cycle of four yugas, which repeat endlessly. Such ideas are a vivid part of the Indian imagination even today—witnessed as much in our daily conversation as in films, songs, and proverbs. We often fall back on the phrase ‘Yeh Kalyuga hai’ to explain away present day problems. This is completely different from dominant Western thought, which sees time as linear, along which, according to the Darwinian concept of the survival and progress of the ‘fittest’, humans march on, to claim and exploit the resources of the Earth, and now even of Mars and the Moon!
In the Indian traditions, in contrast, since space and time are believed to be constantly expanding and shrinking, with no strict boundaries, human existence is also seen as a cyclical journey with no strict boundaries. Since very ancient times, Indians have journeyed constantly within the sub-continent across the length and breadth of its extremities, on well-traversed routes, regardless of different political kingdoms that may have controlled different parts of these routes. Two very famous such routes, termed the uttarpatha and dakshinapath, are known in Indian history from about 3000 years ago. These routes roughly coincide with present day National Highways 2 and 7, and were taken not only by kings on their way to conquer other kingdoms, but also by ordinary people - pilgrims, preachers, traders, etc., who did not just associate themselves with their immediate family and place of origin, but simultaneously identified with lands, rocks, rivers and forests across the sub-continent. The memory of being Indian is thus, not just linked to being free of British rule, but goes far back in time, linked by ideas of responsibility for its sacred geography and connections with local and larger histories.
So, how do these lakshana of Indian-ness manifest or reflect in Design?
The unique characteristics of Indian design arise from a design-philosophy of there being no barriers in the cosmos. This gives humility to the designer, instead of an arrogant attitude of specialisation. In fact, in the Indian tradition, there is no strict division between the arts and sciences; or between art and craft. Craft is held to be a science, vijnana, and the knower of crafts, called vijnanika or scientist, is given an important status. There is also no difference between art and craft; as S. Balaram reminds us in his book Thinking Design, in India the word used to denote both is kala. Neither is there any separation between architecture and art. For example, Silparatnakosa, a 17th century text on Orissan temple architecture, starts with a prayer to Visvakarma, the divine architect in Indian tradition, who is also the God of the arts and crafts, and whose five sons are the ancestors of the important groups of craftsmen. And in a complete contrast to the way in which design is generally practised today, there is no separation between theoreticians and practitioners; between planning a design and making it. Texts on architecture, Vastushastras, specify that the architect must not only know mathematics, sciences, and how to draw, but also how to build on the ground. The Mayamata is a vastu-shastra written in the 10th century. As its name indicates, it is held to be authored by Maya, one of Visvakarma’s sons, and the ancestor of practitioners in wood-craft. He is called the ‘wise and learned architect’,  showing that a thousand years ago, the craftsman was considered to be both the designer and builder, as well as an intellectual who could explain the rules governing design and building. Historical examples of Indian designs across various fields, share some lakshanas generated from this design philosophy, which I will talk about, while focusing on some outstanding examples in the fields of architecture and attire.
The first of these, is:
1. The Lakshana of Flexibility and Versatility. In Indian architecture, this is most evident in the way in which built and open space combined together in flexible ways; for multiple purposes, users and occasions. This is visible from the time of the oldest urban architecture in India, such as in the remains of the cities along the banks of the Saraswati and the Indus. Probably the most evolved instance of such multi-functional architecture is the magnificent seventeenth century palace-fortress built in Delhi for the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. Most of the buildings in the Fort were designed as single-storeyed pavilions linked by colonnades and courtyards, as can be seen in this map; instead of one fixed purpose, they were formed and located such that they could be used for different functions at different times. For example, the Emperor’s own pavilions, were not just used for sleeping and living, but also for administrative meetings and for receiving visiting ambassadors; or for celebration of festivals such as Holi. In Indian attire, this lakshana can be best seen in the tendency to use unstitched, woven garments—despite the technology and the knowledge of stitching from very ancient times. The most famous of such unstitched garments is the sari. Since it is not tailored and sewn to fit one individual, it can be handed down to several generations, to suit multiple users for multiple years. These are some saris that have come to me from my mother and grandmother-in law, which like the saris of most women from their generations and before, are stunning and individual pieces of design. The counterpart to this in men’s wear, is the multi-purpose dhoti, mundu, or lungi, which depending on the fabric, the weave and the drape, may be used for celebratory occasions such as pujas and weddings, or for informal occasions such as simply lounging around at home. Even traditional stitched garments in India, such as the ghagra and the lehnga, though with a naturally diminished scope in comparison to unstitched clothes, also have the flexibility of multiple use, and are handed down as family heirlooms.
2. The lakshana of Individuality and improvisation—Improvisation is an intrinsic Indian design-strength. Consider, for instance, the stonework of the famed Taj Mahal, or the sculptured bases of many ancient temples all over India. Despite an impression of symmetry and order, motifs are never repeated in exactly the same way. Or think of the pavilions and courtyards of traditional palaces. The sizes, details and proportions of such formal architecture are never replicas or duplicates. Perhaps the most widespread living example of this lakshana is the sari. Though the overall dimensions are more or less fixed, there are many variations of the sari. Even saris from the same region are never identical, though they may have characteristic motifs special to that that region. Not just that - even when based on a similar overall design or created by the same weaver, no two hand-woven saris are ever exactly the same. Nor does the individual uniqueness of a sari, end in its making. Though urban Indians generally know of only one way to drape it, a sari can be reputedly draped in 108 recorded ways, and can be pleated and tied to individual preference and skill. This improvisation is visible in other forms of design practice, particularly in classical Indian theatre, music and dance. Habib Tanvir, the famous theatre actor and director, who acknowledged the influence of the design traditions of both classical and folk theatre in his creation of a distinctive style of modern Indian drama, has voiced his strong belief, that “…in Indian art it’s important to …improvise.” 
3. The Lakshana of ‘Utilitarian as Decorative’: The latitude to improvise within a context, not only gives a huge creative opportunity, but also elevates the everyday activity or artefact to something special. This contributes to another lakshana of Indian design, where objects of use - from saris to cities to kitchen-ware - are simultaneously useful and beautiful. This was true for the majority of designs in the Indian tradition, and points to a lakshana of rigorous design-thinking based on frugality despite an outward semblance of opulence. Looking at traditional designs, one finds that each object of use was also a work of art; and each beautiful object also had a use. The presence of this lakshana even till about a hundred years ago, is recorded in an observation by George Birdwood, meant to form part of a popular handbook on the industrial arts of India, in connection with the reopening of the India Museum in London: ‘In India everything is hand wrought, and everything, down to the cheapest toy or earthen vessel, is therefore more or less a work of art’. These are some images of toys, kitchen are and other household objects from across the country, hand-crafted ‘works of art’.
4. The lakshana of Sustainablity: Since nothing was designed as simply utilitarian or purely decorative, most objects had a continuing use, and were thought of in their entirety, to form a way of life that was a celebration of all the senses. The ultimate idea of luxury even today, is that of 'bespoke design’, which is sold with a tagline of ‘…not just ownership or consumption of an expensive object, but an enriching, individualizing, personal experience…which stays with the user for posterity’. As for instance, these beautiful saris. This is unlike the western ‘modernist’ way of design based on making huge numbers of standardised, machine-made and repetitive products. To make this method of production work, products are designed with a shortened life-cycle, in a design-method especially promoted by Western designers after the World Wars; the name they coined for it was ‘planned and perceived obsolescence’. Superficial changes are applied cosmetically to make these products look ‘different’; and aggressively marketed as new and novel, to instil ‘in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary’.
5. The Lakshana of Optimum efficiency: In contrast, Indian design-education and practice, stressed an optimal use of resources. Preliminary drawings and models were used very rarely and only in important or unusual building-projects. Thus, the huge urban-design project of the Red Fort of Delhi and its city of Shahjahanabad, took less than 10 years to build, and did not require voluminous drawings or models. The court-histories of Shah Jahan record only one instance of an architectural model being made for the Red Fort, that of the Chatta Chowk, a type of covered market-way made for the first time in the Mughal empire. In a Report on Types of Modern Indian Buildings prepared in 1915, to survey and record how Indian designers built in the indigenous way, Gordon Sanderson, an architect employed by the ASI, notes that ‘excellent specimens of modern architecture’ were constructed in the traditional method of Indian design, in projects of different sizes ranging from the huge Tajul-Masajid in Bhopal, established by the Begum of Bhopal, to individual houses, dharamsalas, temples, etc. all over the sub-continent, with practically no drawings. Even in complex work, such as carved jaalis or Agra pietra dura, the masons or inlayers drew the patterns themselves on the stone, without any help from a draftsman. The designs were also highly efficient in that they integrated structure, decoration and form; it is difficult to separate a building element into just structure or just decoration. This spirit of optimum efficiency, where no element is superfluous, is a well recognized quality of good design. Similarly, if we look at most traditional saris, we find that the decoration is part of the structure of the cloth. That is why it is resilient enough to withstand continued use. The design effort integrates decoration, form, and structure; it is part of spinning the material, composing the patterns and directly weaving them on the fabric. And rarely is it made through elaborate drawings. This is true of not just saris, but also of many crafts in India even today, as for example, in the highly complex patterns made in Sanjhi work, where the craftsperson skilfully cuts out patterns in paper, without making any drawing before-hand.
6. The Lakshana of Egalitarianism. All this was possible because, instead of the idea of centralised control, the Indian approach to design was decentralised. The Mayamata states that all the four categories of building technicians must always be honoured. The hierarchy and division of responsibilities amongst these four categories—the sthapati, the architect; the sutragrahin, who measures length, height and proportions; the taksaka, who cuts/carves stone, wood and bricks, and the vardaka, who assembles and erects the building, is clearly stated; as is the fact that, depending on occasion and ability, the sutragrahin, taksaka etc. can take on the duties and even the title of the sthapati. Thus, there was no rigid compartmentalisation. A sculptor could also be an architect; a painter could also be a mason, and so on. This is the main gateway to the 17th century Guru Ram Rai Durbar in Dehradun, also called the Jhanda Durbar. Tulsi Ram, one of the artists who made many of the beautiful murals here, has painted himself on a side-panel; he names himself as mistri, tasveerwala (mason, painter). This was possible because of a linked system of aesthetics, which evolved continuously through diverse crafts-practitioners, who came together to create distinctive design. Thus, in the Red Fort and Taj Mahal, we find mention of not just the main master-builders, Ustad Ahmad and Ustad Hamid, but also of 40 different guild-heads and their teams of calligraphers, garden-designers, carpenters, dome-builders, finial makers, masons, stone cutters, sculptors, and inlayers. The royal city of Jaipur made in the 18th century, also successfully used such a system. Even till the 20th century, as The ASI Report of 1915, notes, much of the decision-making and design was left to the workmen. Since knowledge about aesthetics was also shared by the users and patrons, design choices across different economic classes were similar. In the sites of the Harappan cities, as Neil Macgregor, Director of The British Museum, notes, ‘there seems to be little difference between the homes of the rich and the poor’. And a Persian text from the 1820s, documenting eleven trade-crafts and their practitioners in Bareilly, describes their clothes as being ‘just like other inhabitants of the country’ or ‘like upper-class people’, while a British officer in the Nizam’s court at Hyderabad, writes that he could not distinguish much difference between the poor and the rich.
Models of Identity and Design
How we identify ourselves individually and collectively, affects what we create and how we create. If there is anything recognisably Indian in designs created and used by Indians, it is owing to an understanding of, and an identification with, indigenous aesthetics and ethics – which, we must remember, are inter-linked. Most of us have lost that understanding. Many Indians today grow up without the sustained company of an extended family or strong local networks, and in an atmosphere where empathy and attachment to our land and our culture, are eroding. Additionally, our educational curriculum generally transmits a system of learning derived from the modernist tradition of Europe and America. So, we only find isolated lakshanas of ‘Indian-ness’ in the practice of design - for example in the widespread ability of Indians to still improvise; to be self-reliant rather than follow centralised decision-making. But, this lakshana is no longer guided by a unifying aesthetic and moral vision, leading to a breakdown in society and in design.
If ideas of nationhood, like design, are modelled on imitations from the western world, we, as individuals and as designers, will model our identities on stereotypes of European or North-American cultures. To reclaim our identity, we will need to shrug off the brain-washing that makes us constantly look to the Western world, and which classifies our indigenous systems as ‘less-developed’, ‘less-attractive’ and ‘backward’. This does not mean that we unquestioningly accept these systems, but that we analyse them, and find for ourselves what is most relevant in them. Such a process of self-realization will lead to self-reliance in sync with our times. The famous Australian landscape designer, Michael White who re-named himself, Made Wijaya, is widely attributed to be the ‘creator of ‘Design Bali Modern’. He has written about the popular belief amongst the Balinese, “called the Desa, Kala, Patra (juggling place, time, situation), an ancient Hindu tenet; where balanced harmony and flexibility are as important as a strict adherence to the religion’s code, and how it has allowed the Balinese culture to move unscathed into the 21th century.” Nationality, then is only incidental. Designers who cultivate the lakshanas of harmonious flexibility and frugality, historically seen in Indian design, may be said to represent its timeless and unique qualities–whether or not they were born in India, such as the architects, Joseph Allen Stein and Laurie Baker—or whether or not they are trained in the modernist way, such as the craftspeople, who have designed the interiors of the Tribal Museum at Bhopal, and transformed its industrial framework through local hand-crafted materials, into mesmerising spaces, textures, colours and details, which are completely different from any Museum anywhere in the world. Such lakshanas, in terms of sustainability, are the need of the hour today, in the entire world, and should be recognised and fostered not just as desirable qualities of Indian design, but of good design universally.
India: Speeches by the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1931), pp. 163-70. John David Olsen, The Churchill Papers, archive reference CHAR 9/98
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_of_Indian_Design_Industry accessed 12th sept 2016
 Its definition has varied over time, but essentially it is understood as ‘a large group of people sharing the same culture, language or history, and inhabiting a particular state or area’. Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, Indian Edition 2003, OUP, Delhi, Catherine Soanes, Alan Spooner, Sara Hawker. It defines ‘culture’, as ‘the arts, customs, and institutions of a nation, people or group’.
 The Oxford dictionary defines Indian: as ‘belonging to India (with various boundaries); a member of one of the races of India’.
 Seminar, April 2010 Issue: The Enduring Epic, ‘Living with the Mahabharata’, p. 69
 A thought-provoking exploration of ‘Is there an Indian Way of Thinking’, can be found in pp.34-51, The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan, edited by Vinay Dharwadker; See also ‘Bharatiya Chitta,
 Mahabharata, Udyog Parva, ViduraNiti; see Bharat Gupt, India: A Cultural Decline or Revival, Preface, p. xiv, D. K. Printworld (P) Ltd, New Delhi, 2008; Chaturvedi Badrinath, Mahabharata, An Enquiry into the Human Condition, p. 91; http://blog.practicalsanskrit.com/2009/11/renounce-smaller-selfish-interests-for.html
 The Mahatma and The Poet, Ed. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, p. 25, Introduction.
 This survey also recorded the total land belonging to each village, the utilization of this land for various purposes, the net cultivated land, the details of land assigned to various village institutions and functions, p. 19, Dharampal, Essays on Tradition, Recovery and Freedom
 Some Aspects of Indian Culture, C. Sivaramamurti, p. 5
 Sanjiv Sanyal, Land of the Seven Rivers, pp. 70-73
 Silpa in Indian Tradition, Concept and Instrumentalities, R.N.Misra, p. 13
 Silparatnakosa of Sthapaka Niranjan Mahapatra, Edited and Translated by Bettina Baumer and Rajendra Prasad Das, IGNCA and Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt ltd. First published 1994
 The Indian Craftsman, ‘Religious Ideas in Craftsmanship’, A.K. Coomaraswamy, p. 46
 Mayamata, p. 1
 For a detailed analysis of the design of this fort, see The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, OUP 2003.
 Evidenced by the archaeological finds of needles in sites of the Harappan civilization - in Lothal, Rakhigarhi and Banawali. See S.R. Rao, Lothal, p. 54-5, Archaeological Survey of India, 1985, Reprint 2009. Silk and wheel-spun cotton have also been found in two new sites, Michel Danino, The Lost River, p.112, Penguin 2010. And seen in the representation of both draped and stitched clothes in sculptures. Anamika Pathak, p. 13, Indian Costumes
 ‘My Milestones in Theatre, Habib Tanvir in Conversation’, p. 23, Charandas Chor; his daughter, Nageen, in an interview,
 The Arts of India, 1880, G.C.M. Birdwood, Reprint 1971, The British Book Company, p.131.
 Living, Issue 7, The Park Magazine, ‘Made to Measure’, p.03,
 The practice of artificially shortening product lifecycle in order to influence the buying patterns of consumers, popularised in the last century by Clifford Brooks Stevens, an influential American industrial designer. , accessed 24.04.1014. See also: http://jayhanson.us/annie_leonard_footnoted_script.pdf
 Ibid. pp.11-17
 The Taj Mahal and its Reincarnation, R. Nath
 Building Jaipur, The Making of an Indian City, Vibhuti Sachdeva, Giles Tillotson, 2002
 Neil Macgregor, p.81, Indus Seal, A History of the World in 100 Objects
 Ghulam Yahya, Crafting Traditions, Documenting Trades and Crafts in Early 19th Century North India, Trans. Mehr Afshan Faroouqui
Dharampal, Essays in Tradition, Recovery and Freedom, Collected Works Vol.V, 2001, pp. 17-8
 Geeta Doctor http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/geeta-doctor-pays-tribute-to-balis-maverick-architect-made-wijaya/article9115038.ece