Fine Print | Taking Rajasthan to Venice

How historic luxury handicraft marries street style ‘jugaad’ to create a 21st century vision for Indian design


The Bori Cycle Throne.
The Bori Cycle Throne.

The design exhibition at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia 2016 is themed Time-Space-Existence. This is the first time design has been included in an architecture biennale. While I will join designers known for their multifaceted work like Karim Rashid and Satyendra Pakhale at the Palazzo Michiel upon the invitation of the European Cultural Centre, my presentation expresses my philosophy in the context of the “Make in India” campaign.

Time, space and existence are the fundamental themes of mankind; all human discoveries and achievements, in science, art or any other discipline, lead to a greater awareness about our existence within time and space. In Indian philosophy, these three notions merge into an indivisible and infinite consciousness.

Anu (atom) and parmanu (split atom) are the names of a pair of sculptural tables I will present at Venice, made in collaboration with the Thathera craftsmen of Rajasthan. It makes a case for “Make in India” even as it resonates with the theme of the Venice exhibition. Thatheras are a community of endangered Indian metal craftsmen hailing from the Mughal courts since the 1800s. They are known for hand-beaten brass vessels, religious finials and adornments, and are on Unesco’s list of dying crafts.

The visual vocabulary of my work is borrowed from Mughal architecture where the dome and the arch create a symphonic communion. Metaphorically for me, Venice represents a moment in time that is endangered much like the dying arts of India, and along with it will disappear a slice of history and beauty that is unparalleled in the world.

An aspect of my work is already at the 21st century. Design after Design exhibition at the Triennale di Milano in Milan presented by Alamak!, an Asian design initiative by well-known Japanese curator and talent spotter Yoichi Nakamuta.

Time, or rather the concept of timelessness, is at the heart of my practice. My journey began with a gold/silver chair in collaboration with traditional artisans that wrap furniture in pure silver sheets. Research into its origins led me to the discovery of thrones as the only forms of elevated furniture in ancient India used as symbols of power over a society that primarily “existed” on the floor. Elevated furniture as we understand it came with colonial rule, giving birth to beautiful hybrid products soon forgotten by an independent India obsessed with a Western identity.

My next seat was the Bori Cycle Throne, a piece of conceptual design made in collaboration with bicycle mechanics that captures the iconic image of bicycle vendors framed in halos of their own wares. These pieces pinpoint the notions of time, space and existence, and the essence of India that, for me, lies in the paradox of its manufacturing capabilities.

It is within the polarity of these two artworks that I discovered my philosophy that distils the idiom of high-end luxury with the essence of jugaad, India’s unique way of recycling harmony and order out of the jilted squalor and refuse of contemporary life.

My studio called Wrap was founded in 2006 (after my first chair and in memory of my favourite conceptual artist Christo Vladimirov). Since then I have worked on conceptual and innovative space and product design for institutional and private clients in India and abroad. Eponymous artworks that have been showcased at fairs like Design Miami, Basel and Design Days Dubai and with European galleries, tirelessly push the envelope of Indian luxury handicraft.

India is rapidly modernizing and at risk of cannibalizing its traditions unless it stays deeply committed to preserving its specific ethos of creation, consumption and heritage. The “Make in India” initiative by the government aims at turning the country into a global centre for design and manufacturing without losing its distinctive civilizational markers. While the on-ground reality of Indian production poses several challenges, the issue of sociocultural sustainability finds itself at the centre of a global debate now. The world is waking up to the importance of cultural production and India is also waking up to its own potential, paving the way for a new design order in the world.

Contemporary Indian design artist Gunjan Gupta is the founder and creative director of Studio Wrap.

Fine Print runs viewpoints on luxury and design from different writers.

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