The first ever London Design Biennale opened this month at Somerset House. Around three dozens nations from six continents were invited to present installations on the theme of Utopia by Design. The India Design Forum spearheaded the Indian installation: Chakraview, curated by Rajshree Pathy. In an interview, Pathy who is chairperson and managing director of Rajshree Sugars and Chemicals Ltd and founder of the India Design Forum, spoke about the exhibit, and the precarious position of design in Indian life. Edited excerpts:
How did you approach the two very complex ideas of “India" and “utopia", and then combine them for this exhibit?
It was very challenging for us actually because the “Indian utopia" exists at multiple levels. We asked a few people around what is their idea of utopia. The answers are so diverse. It could be easily, somebody’s meal. On the other hand, it could be a flat in Gurgaon. It could be a private jet. It could be your son going to a good school. Utopias for India are so diverse and yet we coexist with this tension that comes out of these diverse desires.
Taking on from that premise, I needed to base this installation on something that had a thread of consistency in every Indian’s mind. Therefore, as a curator, I thought it’s best to have references to our mythology, to our learnings. And I tried to keep it as far removed as possible from any political or religious inferences.
Then we looked at references to utopias in our mythologies. There are, in fact, many instances of utopian references. There was one reference to this ideal community called uttarakur. The other idea that came to my mind was the whole chakravyuha. We all go through a chakravyuha—every individual goes through this manoeuvring of life’s passageways, ultimately to emerge into enlightenment or liberation. Therefore, along with the designers, we thought the chakravyuha would be a good manifestation of this installation. We eventually settled on Chakraview as the title. And then we interpret the seven chakras in our utopian view of India.
You chose to stay away from religion or politics in your interpretation of an Indian utopia. This is an interesting approach. Do you think both of those things—religion and politics—stand between many Indians and the utopian life they desire?
I think politics and religion play a role in any nation’s existence. You cannot remove the importance of politics and religion.
One unique aspect of Chakraview is that it is one of the few exhibits here that are orderly and have a certain spatial symmetry. Does this reflect the fact that one common aspect of every Indian’s personal utopia is orderliness and symmetry? Is that the thread that binds all these visions? A harking for order?
Symmetry is very important because it brings a certain order to disorderliness. It requires a certain discipline. I think in all the noise and colour of the exhibit, there is an order.
There is also an element of government policymaking and collaboration in the exhibit. There is a video that connects the history of Indian design to the future of Indian policymaking.
Why not? This is also a country-branding exercise. All such biennales are an opportunity to highlight what a country has to offer to the design world. It took a lot of work to get the government to endorse it. Because governments are used to trade fairs. They are used to exhibitions. They are used to conferences. Not design biennales.
They want to sign MoUs (memorandums of understanding) at the end of something like this presumably?
They didn’t understand biennales. I’m very happy that we’ve broken that constraint. We have put India on that map. It is about tourism, it is about textiles, it is about manufacturing, it is about everything else and this is quintessential India. We are a progressing country, and we have our own utopias. That is a challenge to show off.
But this is all part of a broader plan you have for Indian design, especially as part of the India Design Forum.
The larger agenda is to really create or design infrastructure which is both policy driven and private sector driven that will enable young designers. We have an NID (National Institute of Design) and a few other private design schools. Is that sufficient for a country the size of India? Absolutely not. I want to help designers to actually create businesses and add value to the businesses, allow them to market themselves and be Indian global designers as well. Today all your automotive companies have their design studios out of India. This has to change.
What is holding us back from becoming a global design powerhouse?
The problem is the mindset. We have to stop saying we are a poor country, we are a poor country. We have our multiple utopias because multiple problems exist, but you have to handle them at the same time. You cannot reduce everything to the common denominator of poverty. Once you reduce everything to a single metric then we start thinking: This is not better or that is not well, this is not important that is not important. Everything is important. We have killed the creative legacy of India by reducing everything to good or bad.
Is that because of this tremendous utilitarianism that we have?
Utilitarianism is fine, but design and innovation are part of utilitarianism. How can you design a pen, how can you design anything without thinking about its utility? There is a central philosophy: we must do more with less. We are obsessed with this. Why not do more with more? Instead we design products that do their job in the most basic ways possible. We don’t care how many people will use it, we don’t care about the different people who use a product, we don’t care about ease of use. But we should. Unfortunately design is seen as being a superfluous. Design is art and therefore unessential. But that is totally wrong. Design is all about making functional products.
Is that the problem. That we don’t see the difference between those two things? Design and art?
No, we don’t see the difference. Even journalists don’t understand it. I’m forever asked this question. What is the definition of art and design? And then there are people who think that good design is all about handbags and shoes.
I’m passionate about it. We have lost our creative legacy which is why despite all the big, huge Indian conglomerates that are in IT, we will never produce a Steve Jobs. Because we only do jobwork. We have to learn to create.
How do you stop that? How do you intervene? What intervention do you need?
You need a change in the mindset. You need a government that thinks that creativity is important. That it is innovation and design that transforms cities into liveable harmonious spaces. You have to have more design schools. You have to have design thinking. You have to have design in your vocabulary in government. But we think good design is elitist. Because it is art. And we think art is elitist. While the procurement of art may be elitist, the people who make art are not elitist. Art itself is not elitist. We need to drill this into people starting from the government and downwards.