On roots and magic of design : The Tribune India

’Art & Soul

On roots and magic of design

From humble beginnings in 19th century to a rich present, history of design in India comes packed in a yearbook

On roots and magic of design

Gira Sarabhai, in discussion with a designer in the US.

BN Goswamy

Hain kaleed-e ganj-e zar

Ahl-e hunar ki ungaliyaan

The fingers of the craftsman are like keys that open the gate to piles of gold — Old Persian saying

Everything is designed. Few things are designed well. — Brian Reed

THE name has undergone several changes — from Takshashila to Taxila to Takshila — but the association continues: that association with culture and art which made an ancient university of our land, bearing the first name that I mention here, one of the greatest in the then known world, well before the Common Era began. When, following the Greek intervention, the Sanskrit word got more conveniently termed Taxila, pioneering archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham used it and Sir John Marshall, who worked on its material for close to 20 years, gave this very name to his monumental publication. And now, in the present, a fine Society, founded in 1997 and working tirelessly since then, has taken on the name Takshila. This Takshila Educational Society is also steeped in the cause of culture and art, even while maintaining a relatively low profile in our raucous world. It now has an all-India reach from Ludhiana to Coimbatore, from Gandhinagar to Patna, and keeps researching and publishing, expanding its ambit by opening more and more institutions, including schools of course, all centred upon education that draws its strength from our ancient knowledge systems. Year after year, in addition, it brings out a splendidly conceived Yearbook focused on one major theme: textiles at one time, folk art at another, Shantiniketan the next, and so on.

 View of a gallery at the Terracotta exhibition in Delhi by Haku Shah.

This year, the theme of the Yearbook is Design — not design across the world, but specifically in India: a volume which can of course be used as a diary or note-book but which opens doors for the average user or reader that he/she might never have suspected were even there. It is packed with carefully chosen information, thoughtfully condensed but seldom missing a point. Each month zeroes in on a sub-theme: January might have the ‘Beginnings of Design in India’; in February, you move on to ‘Craft’; March opens with ‘Graphic Design’. So it goes, month after month, till one ends up with December and ‘User Interface’. Each month has some 20 pages allotted to it, and each page has, apart from the blank spaces for diary entries, some images, some tightly written text. You can end up, if you are not too careful, with your head completely crammed with information, much of it, fortunately, beyond your own strict ken till now.

Monumental sculpture on a roundabout in Chennai by Dashrath Patel.

To take an example might make this clearer, perhaps. January pages open — since the month is dedicated to the Beginnings of Design in India — with a small photograph of seven gentlemen, all in dhotis except one, with whom began, in 1850, the Madras School of Art, a private art school established by a resident surgeon of the Madras Presidency, Alexander by name. This school closely followed the Government School of Design in Britain which had opened in 1837. When the Madras school expanded its activity later, it added an industrial arts section, leading to the term ‘Design’ being added to the school’s name. The founder was interested in pottery, we learn, for the production of which local resources were wedded to local industries.

Saris on display at Vimor by Chimy Nanjappa and Pavithra Muddaya. All images are from the Takshila Yearbook on Design, 2023

While this was going on in Madras, in Calcutta opened the Government College of Art & Craft in 1854, founded by ‘Garanhata Chitpur’. The principal aim? To provide mechanical arts training and adult education for working men in mainly technical subjects. Two colourful photographs show the façade and the interior of one of the ‘studios’ of the school.

This page is followed by another which speaks of the Sir JJ School of Art and Industry founded in 1857 in Bombay by the Parsi merchant and philanthropist, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy. Impressed by what he had seen in the quality of crafts on display at the Great Exhibition in London, Sir JJ felt the need for a school for art and industry in Bombay and founded it with his own money.

I might pause here for a moment to ask myself: did I know anything of this? Of course I did not, even if I were to claim that I know something about history. But then one moves on to a territory that is a little more familiar: the founding of the great National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. With that come in names like Charles and Ray Eames, Pupul Jayakar, Gira and Gautam Sarabhai, Dashrath Patel. When, soon after India attained Independence, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister, invited and commissioned the Eames, famous industrial and furniture designers from USA, to come to India and write a report on how to encourage design education in India, things began to move rapidly. What followed is now history: the Eames prepared a blueprint; Pupul Jayakar took things in hand as far as handloom is concerned; Gira and Gautam Sarabhai — luminous intellects both, Gandhian in their thought and values — designed courses to be taught at the Institute and its wonderful campus. A great institution, one of the most influential of its kind, was on its way.

This is the way it proceeds in this Yearbook on Design. If the thought crosses one’s mind that this is all history, all harking back to the past, one would be wrong. Very quickly one moves on and in come things like Fashion and Cinema and Animation and Museum Design with notes on leading persons and institutions and what they are involved with. One might get exhausted but will never be bored. One realises that the roots of design — wonderful as they were — might lie in our ancient past but the branches of this magical tree are alive and well and inviting. Much is yet to come, but much is around. One just has to look.

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