Objects that make us Indian

Two exhibitions that underline why the design discourse needs to deepen and strengthen

Top (from left): Divya Thakur, Rooshad Shroff, Nikita Bhate and Pascal Hein, Ayush Kasliwal, and Sahil and Sarthak Bagga.
Top (from left): Divya Thakur, Rooshad Shroff, Nikita Bhate and Pascal Hein, Ayush Kasliwal, and Sahil and Sarthak Bagga.

A pair of forthcoming exhibitions in Mumbai aims to distill what it means to be Indian, by urging us to reinterpret everyday objects that populate our domestic lives. Design: The India Story consists of two exhibitions—Objects Through Time and Ideas Through Time, both curated by Divya Thakur, founder and creative director of Design Temple, a Mumbai-based multidisciplinary design studio.

Objects Through Time assembles objects that capture evolution in our lifestyles over the last century. Ideas Through Time examines the relevance of eight concepts from traditional Indian philosophy to contemporary design. Paired together, the two put out an intellectual framework around product design, design entrepreneurship, and cultural and national identity.

“We felt there was a need to bring out what has transpired in the country in certain aspects of design and our primary attraction to design was in the domestic sector, to understand how it has evolved and to identify emerging concepts. There is very little documentation of our experience,” explains Thakur of the motivations behind Objects Through Time.

Ideas Through Time was a more “experimental, accidental exploration”, she explains, adding, “the exhibition was not intentional at all. I did not set out to find something. Some concepts jumped out at me and I thought, this is so interesting because it’s from our ancient past and it is so valid even today,” she describes.

The exhibitions also express Thakur’s reputation as a researcher and curator. Alongside her established design practice, she has mounted several shows on aspects of Indian design over the last 12 years, in Milan and at London’s prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum. “After leaving school, the gallery and the museum are probably the only centres for continued education, which is why we tend to keep going as often as we can,” she says.

Home is who we are

Objects Through Time tells 20 stories of more than 100 objects, all of which are classified into five main categories: kitchenware, technology and appliances, security, seating, and surface design.

Fashion, textiles and graphics—the globally recognized hallmarks of contemporary Indian design—are conspicuously absent. The choice of categories was deliberately quotidian, reinforces Thakur, to draw attention to domestic living. “Fashion already has enough of a representation, it’s got a strong footprint. This is really about everyday design, about design in the service of everyday life, about what’s out there and how we can improve,” she clarifies.

As a result, mass-manufactured utility items such as Godrej locks and Prestige cookware are juxtaposed against traditional craft objects and contemporary furniture by emerging Indian designers—just as they might be placed in an Indian home. Yet, why would the average museum-goer get excited about seeing a stainless steel glass or a mixer-grinder, even though they might be “emblematic” of daily life, as Thakur says.

To understand how we live, who we are and to grasp the huge potential, she says, adding, “In every section you will find aspects that make us Indian. These objects define us.” For example, the prevalence of movable furniture such as stools, both in urban and rural homes, speaks of our cultural and social “spontaneity”. The presence of swings underlines the “joyousness” of living in a subtropical climate. The variety in surface materials in Indian homes illustrates “our need to personalize”, explains Thakur. By exploring how we engage with these objects, we can absorb insights into how to shape our home environment going forward.

Museums preserve objects, and objects say a lot about a moment in time and place. (As an example, the British Museum in London, a few years, co-hosted a very successful radio show called A History of the World in 100 Objects, which traced humanity’s progress through a considered selection of 100 objects).

Thakur’s intent is not just ethnographic or academic. She would like to spur entrepreneurship, by highlighting the potential of everyday domestic consumption. “The admirable aspect of the Indian relationship with design so far has been an ability to adapt and invent. I think allowing for that, and going forward, I do think that there is room for greater innovation and there is a lot of opportunity, a lot,” she emphasizes.

The inclusion of works from designers such as Nikita Bhate, Ayush Kasliwal, Sahil and Sarthak Bagga, and Rooshad Shroff, is thus an encouraging expression of contemporary design thinking. Equally, it would be gratifying to see more design-led businesses, of sizable scale. Well-designed home products, just like cars or mobile phones, need a blend of industrial craftsmanship, where design and engineering can come together. For example, countries such as Italy and Germany are dotted with dozens of mid-sized furniture and lighting firms, led by the successful marriage of design, engineering and manufacturing.

For design inspiration, Thakur suggests the Ideas Through Time exhibition, which connects eight tenets of ancient Indian philosophy to current approaches to design and innovation. “Ideas such as universal appropriateness or disruption have been in our timeline for centuries. As a practitioner, the ideas of these concepts are very appealing because I think that they are very useful in understanding design and innovation,” she says, adding that our ancient approach to design “used to be very mindful. It’s very considered, evaluated, thoughtful. It’s not careless at all”.

Design is ubiquitous. Everything surrounding us—every man-made product, service, environment—is designed. But the design community, unlike the art world, has had relatively limited space for discourse in India. All the more reason to make Objects Through Time and Ideas Through Time a must-see. If you’re interested in shaping the physical world around us, put on a new set of glasses and head on over to south Mumbai. Design entrepreneurs wanted.

Objects Through Time will be on display at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya from 8 December 2016 to 8 January 2017. Ideas Through Time will be on display at the Gallery Max Mueller Bhavan from 8 December 2016 to 22 January 2017.

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