Wednesday, June 19, 2013

National and Regional Identity in Design: Part III

Part III - Moving Beyond ‘The Market of Things’ To ‘The Maker of Things’
Aiynakari in the ceiling of the Shah Burj, Red Fort, Delhi, 1997, © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

Are the attributes that set out much of design practice in our history, still valid when our regional and national boundaries are increasingly threatened and fluid, and when local contexts are considered to be insignificant in the march of progress? And does the presence or absence of such a regional or national identity affect decisions we take as designers, as citizens, or as policy makers? What do regional and national identity mean for the creation of design?

Perhaps the most visible answer is in architectural design. Architecture once formed the most public and potent image and identity of different regions and shaped the ways of life, particularly its cities – think of how Hyderabad was distinctly different from Trivandrum, which appeared quite different from Agra. Agra, in turn had an identity of its own not to be confused with Delhi, or Ahmedabad, or Agartala. As in architecture, the context-sensitive was pervasive in every aspect of Indian life, whether in daily ritual, music, literary texts, language or philosophy as A.K. Ramanujan demonstrates so clearly in his essay, ‘Is there an Indian Way of Thinking’.[1] Today, different regions could be interchangeable, particularly in their architecture. Cities and towns within the country seem to not just follow, but actually promote, a homogenised catalogue of buildings. Superficial permutations are then applied in an effort to render these buildings ‘different’ from each other.
 So the preferred mode and material of building all over the country uses concrete, steel, glass – all products of large-scale industry used piece-meal by local designers, contractors and users, who choose to ignore both regional types of architecture as well as local materials. Architecture is but one facet of this standardisation – it is reflected equally in other forms of design, apparel, product, urban design. Most designers of clothes, objects, appliances – which also form an integral part of our daily world – follow a similar path. In The Island of Sheep, a novel that is as much about the quest for ‘self-identity’ and the notion of ‘home’, as it is a swashbuckling adventure, one of the villains cast as a stockbroker, is described thus: ‘The patron of every new fad in painting and sculpting and writing. Mighty condescending about all that ordinary chaps like you and me like, but liable to enthuse about monstrosities, provided that they’re brand new and for preference foreign. I should think it was a genuine taste, for he has that kind of rootless, marginal mind’. [2]

Most of us today have a genuine taste for ‘brand new and for preference foreign’, and ‘that kind of rootless, marginal mind’. Many feted designers today opt for industrialised materials and processes in the form, construction, and material of their designs. Naturally enough. If the intention is not to celebrate national identity but to graft on an international identity – generally governed by the need to establish a ‘market’, then it is obviously unlikely that there will be any expression of a specific region or a nation in one’s creative work.
Some designers do deliberately choose a larger-than-life, an ‘in-your-face’, assertion of regional and national identity. Often it is a gimmick to stand out from the standardization that marks most people and products today. Sometimes, it is certainly more than that – perhaps a political statement to declare their beliefs and hopes. A very few designers actually seek to explore the possibilities of a larger meaning for their communities or their societies through their work. The effect that designed form, material, and the process of production, can have on the poor of their regions and nations, the crafts of their regions and nations, and the ecology and culture of their regions and nations, are very rarely considered by most contemporary designers.[3]

An instance of intelligent and creative packaging design, crafted to integrate form, material and process of production

We are all participants or victims of ‘…the industrialized impotence which affects both rich and poor. Where this kind of poverty reigns, life without addictive access to commodities is rendered either impossible or criminal. …The liberty to design and craft one’s own distinctive dwelling is abolished in favour of the bureaucratic provision of standardized housing, as in the United States, Cuba or Sweden. The organization of employment, skills, building resources, rules, and credit favour shelter as a commodity rather than as an activity’.[4] So, as a government,[5] we in India consciously promote products - including even saris - generated by large-scale mechanization. As designers in India, home to the largest number and the most skilled craftspeople in the world, we ‘design’ objects that require mechanized, industrialised modes of production.

We even ‘tailor’ saris in what we believe are progressive western modes[6] and often in artificial materials, making a mockery of the basic principle and design-strength of one of the most aesthetically and functionally brilliant designs ever generated. Consequently, we have a strange and sad situation. Small farmers, craftspeople, and weavers are pushed out of their livelihoods, while the rich are willing to pay for industrially processed and audaciously priced objects such as ‘designer saris’. Paradoxically, hand-crafted saris made of natural materials have become too expensive for the poor, who can now only afford cheaper mill-made saris of artificial materials. So, my cook who dislikes wearing the nylon saris that make her perspire profusely in the kitchen and are a great fire-hazard, cannot but wear them. The cotton saris that she buys even in her village in Bengal cost a minimum of four hundred rupees, so she reserves their use for special occasions such as Durga Puja.

A failure on our part to sufficiently promote traditional designs, in turn leads to their ‘de-recognition’ as ‘proper’ or ‘appropriate’. The Times of India recently carried a report about a 67 year old Indian visitor being denied entry by a policeman into the Etisalat Metro Station in Dubai. Why? He was wearing a dhoti. Such a denial of the right to use public transport, despite the Roads and Transport Authority there having no official dress code or policy, and despite the policeman being explained that the dhoti is modest and traditional Indian attire, points to a penalisation for no offense but expressing national or regional identity.[7]

If we are to recover our individual and larger identities, we need to move beyond the obvious confines of the market, and discover and uncover for ourselves, and for people from other cultures, the implicit values that still make up many of the particular attributes of Indian culture. Today, when television sets beam a standard, so-called ‘global identity’, and villages and small-towns aspire to be like metropolises, there is a certain sense of shame in aligning oneself with one’s region, and there is a certain sense of pride in displaying ones’ refinement by patronising obviously Western or global products which either overtly portray a modern western identity, or one version of a standard ‘national’ identity. That this was not always the case is evident from the example of Amir Khusrau Dehalwi, who like many others before and after him appended the name of his beloved city, Dehli, after his name, and took pride in describing himself as Toot-e-Hind, or the parrot of Hindustan. His regional and national identity defined him as an individual, and formed the spring for the great outburst of his creative work, which lives on centuries after his time. Another pervasive aspect of his identity, was his humanism, reflected in all that he did and expressed most ardently in his devotion to his Sufi master, Nizamuddin Auliya. Khusro was deeply attached to Dehli, the city of his birth and youth, and a place he continued to come back to whenever he could.

Interestingly enough, even when is deeply immersed/ trained/ exposed to one’s own regional customs, it does not necessarily imply that the choices in design or ways of living will necessarily be informed by that awareness. Conversely, even when is aware of the significance of one’s own regional and national identity, it is perhaps only by locating it within the knowledge of what comprises the rest of the world, that one makes an informed choice embracing one’s region and nation. The training for this should ideally begin in school. As Sri Aurobindo says: ‘In any country the best education that can be given to children consists in teaching them what the true nature of their country is and its own qualities, the mission their nation has to fulfil in the world and its true place in the terrestrial concert. To that should be added a wide understanding of the role of other nations, but without the spirit of imitation and without ever losing sight of the genius of one’s own country.[8]

This attachment with the land of our birth, while it gives a sense of security and fulfilment to all of us, irrespective of what we do, can also fuel our creativity, which is of course, not confined to the designer alone. The empathy that the essays and stories of the much loved Indian writer, Ruskin Bond, evoke in so many readers, have a lot to do with the memories he transmits of the trees, the birds, the places, and the people he has lived with. In two recent publications, Bond, whose grandfather came to India from England, clearly writes about his feelings ‘On Being an Indian’ and the state of mind that can make you ‘Love your Art’. Though his family’s association with India is barely three generations old, Bond writes:
But India is where I was born and grew up….so the land does hold me…But its more than the land. I know that I’m as Indian as the postman or the paanwala or your favourite MP. Race did not make me one. Religion did not make me one. But history did. And in the long run, it’s history that counts.[9]

And he returns to history to illustrate his precept of ‘love your art, poor as it may be’:
…in the persons of Mahboob Khan and Ramji Mal, stone masons who were engaged in restoring Shah Jahan’s Hall of Mirrors in the Agra Fort. They had been at work for ten years, slowly but deftly bringing their epic task to completion. The restoration work is so intricate that these two skilled craftsmen can restore only about six inches in a day. In recreating the original stucco-work on walls and ceiling, everything has to be done impeccably; millions of pieces of tiny mirrors and coloured glass have to find their exact place in order to reflect just the right amount of light and, at the same time, conform to a certain pattern.
It is a small art, theirs, but it requires infinite patience, skill and dedication. No fame for them, no great material reward. Their greatest reward comes from the very act of taking pains in the pursuit of perfection.
Surely they must be happy, or at least contented men…those who work with wood or stone or glass those who fashion beautiful things with their hands are usually well-balanced people. Working with the hands is in itself a therapy. Those of us who work with our minds composers or artists or writers must try to emulate these craftsmen’s methods, paying attention to every detail and working with loving care.[10]

[1] ‘Is there an Indian Way of Thinking’, pp.34-51, The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan, edited by Vinay Dharwadker, OUP, 2012
[2] Ch. 6, p. 86, ‘Sundry Doings at Fosse’, The Island of Sheep, Penguin Books, 1956, London
[3] Some artists/architects/designers/entrepreneurs who are working on integrating indigenous needs and skills with the needs of today:,,,
[4] Ivan Illich – Towards a History of Needs, pp. viiix; Contrast this with the manner in which Indian society, both in the village and the city, functioned, as for instance described in The Indian Craftsman, A.K. Coomaraswamy, First published 1909, Second Revised Edition 1989, Reprinted 2009, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi,
[5] For a brief and clear analysis of our official policy on the role of handicrafts in the national economy and culture, see K. G. Subramanyan, Do Hands have a Chance, Essays on Art and Culture, Seagull Books, Calcutta 2007
[6] In the July 28, 2013 issue of Hindustan Times Brunch, the cover story of “Indian Fashion’s Greatest Hits’ by Yashica Dutt, quotes Manish Malhotra as saying how he ‘made saris sensuous by using chiffon, satin and net’, titling her piece, ‘The Sexy Sari’. (p.8-9) She writes that ‘armies of women are getting customized saris, with Malhotra’s designs’. Ignoring the fact that the sari was always a customized article of wear, this statement is rather typical of large-scale commerce and media which denies the attributes of customization or design sense to small scale enterprises and the traditional craftspeople. That Malhotra chose to ‘make-over’ the sari into the hands of large industry, and into materials spawned by large-industry is more than unfortunate. See also Delhi Times, The Times of India, p.3, Monday 5 August 2013, where ‘two of India’s finest couturiers’ as Jyothi Prabhakar writing in the newspaper declares, Ritu Beri and Manish Arora, have showcased their collections, named ‘Punjabi Rock n Roll’ and ‘Indian’ respectively. The images of the collections that accompany the news item may be interpreted as anything, and to my eyes, appeared interchangeable, but not particularly illustrative of the names of either collection. The collections can be viewed on,,,
[7]Dubai Metro denies entry to Indian in dhoti’, The Times of India, 5 August 2013, p. 16, PTI
[8]  The Right Object of Education – And India’s National Education, Words of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
[9] Ruskin Bond, A Garland of Memories, ‘On Being an Indian’, pp. 6-7,  ETCH, Nataraj Publishers, Dehradun, 2013
[10]  Ruskin Bond, Notes from a Small Room, ‘Love your Art’ pp. 126-8, Penguin Books, 2009 

Images © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji; Text © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

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