Summer 2006

Imperialism by another name?

India’s designers need to compete globally, but Western-style professionalisation could threaten the country’s confidence

An Indian photographer recently told me how the West had taught him to fear his own drinking water. He hadn’t developed a phobia so much as a growing mistrust. Only a few years earlier he and his friends would find great amusement in seeing Western tourists clutching on to their bottled mineral water. Yet now, after years of gentle coaxing, he wouldn’t dream of taking a long journey without buying water prepared by Pepsi or India’s good friends at Coca-Cola.

Such a subtle erosion of confidence is nothing new to the world’s largest democracy. During the 1850s the Raj set up art schools in the major cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras to meet the demands from a new world market. Arguing for the necessity of Western techniques such as perspective, the traditional Hindu and Muslim art of the princely courts was sidelined to make way for an imported British syllabus. But the effect was to train a generation of ‘copyists’ churning out European-style watercolour studies for British military officers. Not surprisingly the suppression of the ‘native’ approach in favour of Western naturalism and the implication that Indian taste was somehow ‘inferior’ fed a growing insecurity within Indian artists: the idea that ‘West is best’ had taken deep root.

Strong resistance came from Gandhi, Tagore and the English art educator Ernest Havell, who took charge of the Calcutta School in 1896. Fuelled by the growing nationalism, they championed the pursuit of swadeshi or ‘indigenousness,’ and called for a return to an art that truly reflected India’s spiritual heritage.

Yet India’s readiness for assimilation secured the Western hold. In Calcutta, Havell’s attempts to re-introduce Indian teaching methods led to a strike organised by students keen to maintain their Western art education. Meanwhile the growing popularity of the painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) – who successfully blended Victorian salon art with Indian history – had reached a entirely new generation of urban graphic artists, signwriters and illustrators. Untrained in the formal sense, these artists were entirely comfortable taking reference from the increasingly accessible Western advertising and print material. With an easy oblivion to categories of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art their joyous hybrids, in the form of educational charts, packaging and calendar art have found recent favour with many Western publishers.

And so with the benefit of hindsight we may ask whether their work is sufficiently ‘indigenous’? Or would the Gandhian drive for nationalism, together with the ‘homespun’ spirit of swadeshi, demand the extraction of a purer form of Indian-ness?

Walking with graphic designer Rabia Gupta through an awful shopping mall in central Mumbai (formerly Bombay) it is difficult to avoid parallels between the effects of colonialism and globalisation. From the familiar gathering of known logos she picks out the Indian brands, each carefully camouflaged to fit within the bright monoscape of pastel colours and backlit plastic fascias. The brand names and typographic treatment are studiously Western, offering little clue to the brands’ origin.

Gupta is head of RGD, based on Mumbai’s Worli seafront. Having set up the company fifteen years ago, she has witnessed the effects upon designers as the Indian economy opened up in the early 1990s: ‘Back then the whole infrastructure was very young and we hadn’t got a strong sense of identity or self-belief. There was always this feeling that the West had somehow got it right. Over the past seven or eight years the concept of India has changed: now it is ok to be Indian, and so as designers we start to look within our own boundaries.’ Yet on the evidence of this brief visit it seems unlikely that such enthusiasm will ever break into the mall or buck the trend towards globalised monoculture.

Thrilling as it may seem to Mumbai’s new generation of shoppers, the mall reveals an insidious form of imperialism, a psychological rather than physical ruling: the ‘colonisation of the unconscious’ as Wim Wenders famously observed. And so within this context do contemporary Indian designers – like the court painters working for the Raj – find their taste challenged or their confidence undermined? Has there been any form of reactionary movement, any re-awakening of swadeshi within design education?

The education dilemma
For India’s design educators the notion of a true Indian aesthetic or design approach can be problematic. Kumkum Nadig heads the communication design course at Srishti School of Art and Design in the boomtown of Bangalore. This comparatively small independent school set up in 1996 with funding from the Ujwal Trust is actively engaged with social and development issues, particularly in rural communities where students are encouraged to work alongside local craftsmen. Nadig, a Cranbrook graduate of the early 1980s, worked in the us and the Netherlands before returning to set up her own practice in Bangalore. Although now, as a tutor she is actively engaged with issues of identity, Nadig concedes, ‘I have been taught in English throughout my schooling. In terms of art and design education it is impossible for me to think about design as an Indian. Everything we have, all our art and design history has been borrowed from the West.’

An institution that ‘borrowed’ more heavily than most is the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. NID was set up following recommendations made by Charles and Ray Eames in the late 1950s in a report commissioned by Nehru’s Government and with the intention ‘to create an alert and impatient national conscience concerned with the quality and ultimate values of the environment’. The report, which seems equally relevant today, recognised that India was experiencing a change of kind rather than of degree, a change that was a result of increasing communication and ‘not some influence of the West upon the East’. With the aim of training a generation of educators, nid’s founding faculty were farmed out to carefully selected Western institutions such as Ulm or Basel, and given time to soak in ‘universal’ design values before returning to India to teach.

The optimism of the time is reflected in the cool concrete and glass of the NID campus buildings, which, set within quiet gardens offer welcome relief from the mayhem outside the gates. Yet as with the shopping mall in Mumbai, there is little to suggest that this is India – just a different take on the global theme of everywhere and nowhere. Back in the studio, photography tutor Deepak John Matthew explains how India has always been a blended nation, a product of exchange between differing cultures competing for her wealth with the result that ‘it is now impossible to identify an Indian aesthetic or a Western aesthetic. It is all mixed up.’

The students waiting outside his office for a crit seem to support his argument: clad in jeans and sneakers, all clued up on Western design publishing, they will have ample opportunity to contribute to the economic boom. Competition for places may be fierce but as graduates of India’s premier institution they will have little difficulty getting a job. But once outside the nid campus the streets of this Gujarati city carry a different charge. Customised rickshaws burn though corridors of tarpaulin and temporary wooden sheds. Improvised spaces contain a wealth of trades: furniture-makers; basket-weavers; welders; stonemasons and signwriters.

Despite the obvious need to provide a skilled workforce that can compete in the global arena there seems to be a cruel irony in operation. Within a country endowed with a rich and natural creativity the Western notion of the ‘trained designer’ has now followed the imported notion of the ‘trained artist’. As within the Victorian art schools it becomes an exclusive process as it elevates those with the financial means to access education above those who cannot and bestows ‘professional’ status upon completion. It may be an acceptable norm in the West but somehow seems alien to a culture where, as one academic reminded me, everyone can be a designer.

Former NID tutor Mahendra Patel received ‘special typography training’ at Basel and under Adrian Frutiger in Paris before returning to teach at the National Institute in 1968. He retired in 2003 but continues to teach the design of letterforms in a number of Indian colleges, actively encouraging his students to explore vernacularism. Many choose to work from languages or scripts from their home state or region, each of which reveal subtle variations in the handling of the reed pen. Patel admits that working with such issues within a vast and complex culture can be demanding. In his professional practice he undertook a signage commission for the pilgrimage centre of Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh that required he accommodate five different languages; no doubt his time in Basel came in useful.

In a recent essay for the journal Design Issues Mahendra Patel concludes: ‘I am stranded between being Indian at heart, but handicapped by the widely varied languages and scripts, and yet trying to be with the people of India.’ Although Patel’s workshops occupy tough terrain they clearly offer an opportunity for the kind of cultivation Gandhi had in mind and the ingredients for designers to create essential difference. Yet for all the integrity found within these typo-hybrids their future use remains uncertain.

In autumn 2005 the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry invited comments upon a draft National Design Policy that recognised design as ‘a new engine of economic and industrial growth’. Among the proposals were the establishment of an Indian Design Council, the crowning of NID as a ‘Centre of Global Excellence’ and a host of other ventures to strengthen the design and manufacture of cars, jewellery, leather, textiles and toys.

Communication design didn’t warrant a mention but there was strong encouragement for Indian firms and institutions to develop strategic alliances with design firms and institutions worldwide to gain ‘knowhow’ for the ‘effective branding of products’. And so it seems that Western brand specialists will follow Western education specialists, welcomed into a culture eager to assimilate new forms and ideas. Their success should not be measured purely on economic gain, but also in the degree to which they engender a genuine and sustainable confidence within India’s own community of designers. They would also benefit from reading the Eames report. When Charles and Ray called for ‘an impatient national conscience concerned with the quality and ultimate values of the environment’, they didn’t have that Mumbai shopping mall in mind.

Further reading
1) Singanapalli Balaram, Thinking Design, NID, 1998

2) Tim Edensor, National Identity,

Popular Culture and Everyday Life,

Berg, 2002

3) V. S. Naipaul, ‘Synthesis and Mimicry’ (chapter 6 in India a Wounded Civilisation), André Deutsch, 1977

4) Helena Norberg-Hodge, ‘Break up the Monoculture’, The Nation, 15 July 1996

5) Mahendra Patel, ‘Search for a Vernacular Identity’, Design Issues vol.21 no.4, MIT, Autumn 2005

6) Sirish Rao, V. Geetha, Gita Wolf, The Ideal Boy, Dewi Lewis 2001

7) The Eames Report can be found on the NID website:

8) The Draft Design Policy can be found at:

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

First published in Eye no. 60 vol. 15 2006

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.