Winter 2007

Indian exchanges

Letters from Kumkum Nadig and Prof. Anil Sinha

Steve Rigley’s Agenda piece, ‘Imperialism by another name’ (Eye no. 60 vol. 15), provoked debate when it was reprinted in Kyoorius Design Magazine 2, alongside two responses from Indian academics, reprinted here with the kind permission of Kyoorius.

From Kumkum Nadig
My education, training and subsequent practice as a designer have been influenced by both Western and Indian idioms. Western – due to the total acceptance and dominance of the English language as a medium of instruction and translation; an unquestioned pedagogy drawn from design studies and influences in the West and my early professional years spent working as a graphic designer in a large multinational in Europe. Indian – due to my upbringing and awareness of my personal identity, but even more so due to my ability to contextualise my Western training to the Indian environment as a designer and as an educator. Both Western and Indian world views influence the understandings that I try to impart as an educator: both get transmitted perhaps not as polar opposites, but often as differing perspectives, influencing each other and creating a new hybrid of ideas.

Shrishti School of Art, Design and Technology

From Prof. Anil Sinha
It is very interesting to comment on this topic, which is very close to my heart and then mind. Now, that’s the Indian attitude: we all think from the heart. I have some views that both support and contradict the piece, and I have tried to present both with a neutral outlook.

India is such a vast and diverse country that it is inappropriate for anybody to consider himself authoritative enough to comment on it. Thus, I would merely like to express what I felt after going through the article rather than to react to it. To do this, I would like to first go back to our ancient times and express a view based on my understanding of the human mind and Indian culture. Design is not a new concept in India: it has been with us ever since our culture existed. It has in no way been something that is separate from us or belongs to a niche community. It is deeply rooted in us in simple and complex forms both directly or indirectly. Our simplest earthen pots, vessels, clothes and houses show that design has been an indispensable part of our culture. At the same time, design is a part of our most high-tech products, such as automobiles, software, property, etc.

Now according to Indian philosophy, knowledge is considered very sacred and we do not believe in marketing it or claiming rewards for it. Our ancient system has been such that, knowledge was imparted in the gurukul system and students had to follow a strict and simple routine and renounce other pleasures. Unlike today, where the emphasis is on high-tech infrastructure, entertainment, competition, awards and marketing. For us the focus has been to impart learning while everything else including material gain takes a back seat. Look how we launched our first satellite Aryabhatta without many developed tools of learning. However, these days trends are changing and the system is evolving in the sense that the focus remains the same, but the other interests and angles are also being added to it.

A further observation is that Indians give more emphasis to content than to appearance. Basically they have been simple people and so the concept of professionalism and marketing has been slightly overlooked. Also, our way of teaching is such that we lay more emphasis on conceptual learning than on the applied side, meaning we find it difficult to orient our knowledge and learning in the right commercial sense. Another reason why professionalism and marketing have never been our focus could be a bit of restriction on expression in our culture. Anything that is beautiful and precious has always been kept away from the others to view. For example, our temples were built at inaccessible places or our women had restricted exposure. There is a variety that exists in our culture and it is up to us to use it to our benefit. Another factor or a consequence of this is that we did not document our learning, techniques and ideas. Although we are aware of our rich and evolved heritage, we are unable to track it or even tap it for that matter, as there has been hardly any documentation. Today some of the best books on our culture have been written and compiled by foreign authors. We must learn to acknowledge and document our work.

One interesting insight into Indian minds suggests that one of the reasons why we are not professional is because we are emotional. Even our education is very closely associated with our lifestyle, culture and our way of thinking. We not only teach alphabets and numbers to a child, but also how to behave, how to think positively, how to be respectful, how to be creative and how to lead a simple and happy life.

Indians accept and conform to things without much resistance, but when it comes to leaving or discarding things, they are quite resistant. A simple example: we will not throw out our old TV sets or even a simple iron box, but keep it even if it is not functional, thinking that someday it can be useful or reused. It is good to be proud of our rich heritage and culture, but we must also not forget to look ahead.

That said, one strand of our pedagogy is that we encourage thinking and self-learning. We believe that there is a difference between being educated and wise so we make sure that our students are not only educated but wise, too. We accept that there is a craze for Western designs and culture in India, but we will continue to be Indians at heart. Also worldwide the craze for Indian culture is growing. The increasing interest in Indian designs in terms of fabric, food or Bollywood is a sign that Indian designers can still have a sound sleep but yes, should keep their alarm clocks close to their ears.

The way Indian culture has survived, so will Indian confidence. Let’s keep Indian style intact, and yes, learn from Western professionalism. And we at NID are striving for exactly that: we expose our students to both the Indian and Western designs, and at the same time, gear their professional skills to make them what we truly call design professionals.

National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad

First published in Eye no. 66 vol. 17 2007


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