IMPACT: DESIGN THINKING AND THE VISUAL ARTS IN YOUNG INDIA

CURATED BY CHATTERJEE & LAL

The post-independence period in India witnessed the beginning of a new design culture with the founding of quality institutions and initiatives in arts, crafts and cultural projects across India. In the quest for a unique modern identity, the architecture and design trajectory of an independent India aspired to establish a significant voice in the making of a new kind of society. In this context, the exhibition: IMPACT: Design Thinking and the Visual Arts in Young India attempts to foreground the radical design discourse in India in the 20th century, featuring select works of individuals, groups and organisations at the intersection of art, craft and design.   

Mitter Bedi (1926-1985) | Godrej Chairs c.1970 | Image Courtesy: Mitter Bedi Collection, Godrej Archives

CURATORIAL NOTE

IMPACT: Design Thinking and Visual Arts in Young India proposes a cultural environment – dating between the 1950s and the 1980s – which was characterised by an increasing fluidity between the disciplines of design and the visual arts. Two key examples of this phenomenon are the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, and the pan-India initiative of the Weavers’ Service Centre; in both cases, cross-disciplinary thinking was a key driver to the success of these institutions.

The creative promiscuity that this exhibition celebrates incorporates disciplines as diverse as book design, animation, advertising, industrial design, photography, textiles and painting. At the same time, a sense of collegiality functions as the bedrock from which sprang many of the collaborations evident in IMPACT.

National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad

In the decade after independence, Nehru and his circle of advisors worked to realise a common interface between government, industry and consumer. An institute dedicated to design thinking seemed an essential component of this strategy. On the advice of Pupul Jayakar, American designers Charles and Ray Eames were invited to visit India. In 1958, having spent time travelling through the country, the couple submitted The India Report, a document urging the synthesis of tradition and modernity so that India could compete in world markets. Based on the suggestions made in the Eames report, and with the help of the Ford Foundation and the Sarabhai family, the government of India set up the National Institute of Industrial Design (later the National Institute of Design – NID) in Ahmedabad in 1961.

Educators, artists and design thinkers, both from inside the country and internationally, formed the founding team of NID. Dashrath Patel, Nelly Sethna, and Kumar Vyas comprised some of the nucleus of early faculty. These early years also saw leading design thinkers – such as Louis Khan, George Nakashima and Adrian Frutiger – holding lectures and workshops.

NID was active in the crafts sector from the outset. At the same time, as an autonomous body under the Ministry of Commerce & Industry, various government projects were assigned to the institute. In subsequent decades, various collaborative projects were undertaken wherein NID become the link between academia and action groups.

In 2015, NID’s Photography Design discipline began the herculean task of archiving the institute’s massive wealth of material collected during its fifty-seven-year history. This project involves digitising, metadata tagging, data organisation and physical reorganisation. Peripheral research has required the study of all available sources, including the extensive use of oral histories.

(Chatterjee & Lal is thankful to Rishi Singhal from Photography Design at NID for his help with this text.)

 

Weavers’ Service Centre

Among various efforts to develop the handloom sector, the Government of India instituted bodies like the Indian Institute of Handloom Technology and the Handloom and Handicraft Export Promotion Corporation. Pupul Jayakar made monumental contributions to the government’s policies on Indian crafts as chairman of the All India Handloom Board. She identified the need for an all-India body that would catalyse and transform the traditional design aesthetic of the weaver within a more contemporary framework; this paved way for the establishment of the Weavers’ Service Centre in 1955.

Rather than putting in place a plan for large-scale production, the idea was to allow artists to create design samples in the spirit of experimentation. Artists were hired on their ability to interact and collaborate with craftsmen and weavers, while remodelling personal design vocabularies to strengthen handloom designs.

There have been an astonishing number of artists associated with Weavers’ Service Centre since its inception: Haku Shah, K.G. Subramanyan, Prabhakar Barwe, Manu Parekh, Jeram Patel, Jogen Chowdhury, Himmat Shah, Gautam Vaghela, Shona Ray, Toofan Rafai, Bhaskar Kulkarni, Amrut Patel, and Arpita Singh to name a few.

 


DISCUSSION

While the exhibition draws attention to a progressive evolution of the arts and design early on in India, it simultaneously showcases a rich archive that is accessible to study and learn from. With an established narrative around the beginnings of design and visual arts movement, the curation gathers from a multitude of perspectives a commonality in ideology which is reflective of the spirit of that time. Matter reached out to Mortimer Chatterjee– curator of this exhibition, to understand their interest in the curatorial process and the history of design-thinking that is specific to post-independence India.

MATTER [M]: How did you initiate the conversation around this specific idea?

Mortimer Chatterjee [MC]: For some time now, we have been interested in the manner in which the commercial arts impacted the visual arts, and vice versa, during the first thirty years after independence. Our research suggested that porous borders between disciplines allowed for a more sustained dialogue than which would be possible towards the turn of the 20th century.

M: Tell us a little about the process of curation.

MC: At the outset, we decided to anchor the exhibition around two institutions: the National Institute of Design (NID), and the Weavers’ Service Centre. It soon became clear that we had to limit the number of creative practices we could showcase and so we focussed on polymaths Haku Shah and K.G. Subramanyan. For this exhibition, we needed to travel extensively, visiting archives and artists estates up and down the country.

M: What would you say is the core intent? 

MC: Our ultimate aim was to produce a coherent exhibition in a commercial gallery context. Here, we were concerned to display provocative exhibits that would excite and intrigue our visitors. In no way did we feel compelled to re-tell the whole story of design thinking in India: we are not equipped to tell that story and would not presume to be able to have space or the access to mount such an exhibition.

M: During the process, were there any new discoveries?  

MC: The works in the exhibition by Riten Mazumdar are a particular revelation. Having studied in Shantiniketan in the late 1940s, Mazumdar worked with leading design firm Marimekko in Helsinki before moving back to India to head up design for Fabindia. He was also to be found working with furniture designers and developing his own gallery practice. The works in IMPACT are a series of paintings utilising dyes on silk.

 

M: How would you describe your interest in the history of design-thinking in India and why do you think it is important? 

MC: Our interest is two-fold. The first is that without a sense of design history in post-independence India, it is difficult to fully understand the practice of many artists who were constantly shifting between disciplines during the middle of the twentieth century. The degree to which an institution such as the Weavers’ Service Centre impacted the career of a fine artist like Prabhakar Barwe is difficult to overstate. Secondly, we want to problematise the slightly slopping thinking that has blurred the histories of design thinking and fine art in order to present one as the other, often for reasons that are motivated by the mechanics of the art market.

 


The India Report emphasises on the development of a unique design market that would be informed by “all the disciplines that have developed in our time – sociology, engineering, philosophy, architecture, economics, communications, physics, psychology, history, painting, anthropology… anything to restate the questions of familiar problems in a fresh clear way.”

The agenda that was jointly established by the State and institutions of the likes of NID, aspired to develop an avant-garde model of design education. In the context of contemporary India, where there seems to exist (more now than ever before) lack of an ideological or ethical frameworks in the practice and pedagogy of design, it is this ‘modern history’ of design-thinking that remains a reminder of an a unique thought process and state of affairs at foundation of our modernity ♦

Download The India Report by Charles and Ray Eames for further insight.


Gallery

 


Chatterjee & Lal

Chatterjee & Lal was formed in 2003 by husband and wife team Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal.  Today based in Mumbai’s Colaba art district, the gallery is an important node in the city’s maturing art scene. Whilst the gallery has always focused on the work of emerging and mid-career artists, more recently programming has included historical material that adds to the corpus of knowledge on twentieth-century histories of art and design. Mortimer and Tara, are also published authors regularly sharing their insights on art in national and international publications.


Exhibition Poster | Courtesy: Chatterjee & Lal

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