Design Anthology is delighted to share here the full transcript of our discussion with authors Swapnaa Tamhane and Rashmi Varma of the beautiful new title SAR: The Essence of Indian Design, out this month by Phaidon. Authoritative text coupled with poetic photographs by Prarthna Singh celebrates Indian design identity through 200 object stories, taking on the long and complex history of design in the Indian Subcontinent. We hope you’ll enjoy this illuminating discussion.
Design Anthology: Tell us about your backgrounds and your relationship to India?
Swapnaa Tamhane: The two of us were born in Canada and we both spent our childhoods in Saudi Arabia (Rashmi was in Al Jubail, and I was in Riyadh and Dhahran) — and so India, in such close proximity to Saudi, was both a bit of home and where we spent our holidays with our extended families. We were also observers of how the country was during the 1980s in the time prior to economic liberalisation – there were many things one could not get, imports were both incredibly expensive and highly desired. Today of course, that has changed.
Rashmi Varma: Over the years as adults, we have travelled independently and discovered the country through art and design. Swapnaa has been researching on performance art, curating exhibitions and attending residencies, and I moved to Delhi where I established my clothing line.
What motivated you to compile this collection? What story did you want to tell and what stereotypes did you hope to overcome?
ST: This collection is the result of a conversation that began many years ago in Toronto when there was little representation of Indian culture in the West. Since 2000, that has also transformed through art biennales, global exchanges between artists and designers, conferences, young budding designers studying design within India and outside, ect. Our conversation was in relation to how to really speak about design, how to recognise why a certain object or utensil was so genius in its construction and how some of these objects developed. Design in India is often relegated to craft and decoration, looked at through ethnographic lenses. We wanted to create a more informed way of understanding that ‘design’ has been of key importance to ways of living; that design could speak more about a culture beyond religion or celebration and is connected to these — but we wanted to study the objects themselves. There are also many everyday objects that are overlooked because they are part of one’s daily landscape. We wanted to take them out of those landscapes, isolate them and celebrate their form, structure, material and use.
RV: Our desire was to form a new language that steps away from the India that is typically portrayed as exotic, colourful, gaudy and loud. One stereotypical word is kitsch. Even though this is a conscious decision we fundamentally gravitated towards an aesthetic that is more quiet and contemplative — which stands out against the background of the beautiful chaos that exists around the country. Our motivation for this collection was to show how objects are linked to multiple things.
You mention that the word ‘design’ does not exist in isolation in Hindi or Sanskrit. Why is this and how do you think it has shaped contemporary Indian design?
ST: There are many words in Hindi that indicate a process of design like rachana (‘composition’), banavat (‘structure’) and banaanaa (‘to make’) and perhaps this is the result of objects being made for religious purposes, or strict guidelines found in the ancient Shilpa Shastras texts. These objects were connected to use, which was connected to religion, which influenced most aspects of everyday living. Therefore, like Thakur says, the idea of ‘design’ as a singular concept is too limiting — design is part of a much larger context that has evolved through time, but certain designs are so perfect like the lota, which would have been made originally following the shape of a gourd, then imitated through earthenware, then brass, and today it is found in plastics of all sizes. The fundamental shape itself however, does not change and does not need to change. It is more interesting that the word ‘design’ does not exist — that there are multiple ways to consider the handmade with the machine-made and that there could be no hierarchies between them.
You talk about the complex relationship of the craftsman to both traditional Hindu society and under colonial rule. Can you elaborate here?
ST: Objects were made initially for purposes connected to religion (which is connected to a larger way of living), that were refined through time; artisans in various clusters working with specific materials were understood by the British as having great economic benefit. The craftsman became a tool for mass-production under colonialism as a result, and the connection of creating objects dedicated only to ritual changed. The work that was produced in India was highly valued and desired during colonialism, but the tools used, the machines — these were considered rudimentary.
How did design factor in eventually to India’s fight for independence from colonial rule?
RV: From the mid-1800s, there were burgeoning independence movements and discussions of how to become independent economically through producing goods within the country, known as Swadeshi. There was an awareness that the way to weaken the British was to avoid consuming good which were taken from India, exported to England, manufactured and then sold back — and in particular, Indian cotton made in British mills. Gandhi started with hand-woven cotton cloth — khadi — the ultimate material that symobilises freedom. Today khadi cloth is still widely worn by Indians, especially politicians, and in recent years the Khadi Gram Industries have collaborated with fashion designers to create clothing to be sold at khadi shops. Many designers, like myself, also feel the need to work with handloom textiles, for so much beauty lies within the nature of the fabric while sustaining the livelihood of many weavers.
I loved your commentary on the nascent Indian design language that evidences a vast crafts heritage while incorporating modern methods and materials. Can you share that again here?
ST: There are many young designers who work in cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, and Chennai, and there is a consideration of how to work with craft clusters around the country. Moradabad, for instance, has for the last 400 years have been working with brass. There is the awareness for collaborating with skilled artisans who have an incredible depth of knowledge of their material. This collaboration can be seen in the products by Tiipoi for example, and how they incorporate copper spinning into their designs. Or there is the direct sampling of the vernacular with the usage of a winnow soop tray that is used daily to separate rice grains from the husk; Farzin Adenwalla of Bombay Atelier has taken this tray and now it is a high stool with the tray as the seat. There is the acknowledgement that good design already exists, and young designers are simply incorporating what already surrounds them.
RV: Another example, is the Wello Waterwheel: a more ergonomic way of collecting water in rural areas that visually references gharas and lotas — a sense of familiarity in the shape helps people understand its purpose and usefulness.
What can we look forward to from the Indian design scene in the near and upcoming future? What unique considerations do today’s Indian designers face?
RV: In the current trends of slow movements and a growing social consciousness of sustainability, the hand becomes again one of the most important tools. It is within this current climate that designers are looking to what has pre-exisited in this country for thousands of years and drawing from, working with, collaborating, celebrating the richness of art design craft heritage that works for the 21st century. As the number of crafts people and artisans dwindle, a greater sense of urgency exists to sustain livelihoods and traditional practices. The realisation that there can be potent combination of the hand and technology. There is a consideration of the economic realities of the nation, environmental issues that pressed for design to have a greater responsibility of sustainability, and there is accessibility, not just for beautiful objects to be consumed by a small percentage of an elite.