Oct 24, 2009

A New Mythological

The first feature length film made in India was ‘Raja Harishchandra’ in 1913. It isn’t surprising to any Indian to find out that the film was a ‘mythological’: it told stories of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, of ancient kings and curses. The medium of film provided the means, for the first time, for visual spectacles such as Gods flying in air and actors burning on funeral pyres to emerge unscathed. The mythological film was a prominent part of Indian Cinema till the 80’s, when television took over that genre. Tarsem Singh grew up in India, and while his film ‘The Fall’ bears an unmistakeable Bollywood stamp, I could not shake off the thought that its true progenitor is the bollywood mythological.

The film is a freefall into a world of fantasy. A stuntman in Los Angeles of the 1920’s breaks his legs in a fall, and then, while he is in hospital, discovers that his true love has betrayed him. After a failed suicide attempt, he befriends a little Spanish girl in the hospital. Hoping that he can trick her into getting him pills for a second suicide attempt, he begins to tell her a story. The audience now tumbles into the girl’s imagination, and the story unfolds through her eyes.

Exhibitions for a Living World

“There are many ways of working for the needs of underdeveloped and emergent countries. The simplest, most often employed, and probably shabbiest is for the designer to sit in his New York, London, or Stockholm office and to design things to be made in, say, Tanzania. Souvenir-like objects are then manufactured, using native materials and skills, with the pious hope that they will sell in developed countries.”

I returned to this passage in Victor Papanek’s seminal book today, and with good reason. I recently saw an exhibition that has a name so similar, it set off alarms in my head. “Design for a Living World”, an exhibition by the Nature Conservancy, co-curated by Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, and designed by Pentagram, opened at the Smithsonian-Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum on the 14 May, 2009.

When The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organisation, approached the show’s curators to create an exhibition on “landscape, conservation and sustainability”, the curators hit upon the idea of basing the exhibition on ‘materials’. This in itself is problematic, and undermines the whole exercise.  Just because a material is natural, or certified as sustainable, it does not automatically ensure that any design that uses it will be sustainable in the true sense of the word.

Indian Design Edge: From the Top of the Pyramid

On the 25th of October 2008, Dr. Darlie Koshy retired from the post of Executive Director of the National Institute of Design (NID), a position he held for eight years. Within the Indian Design World, this is about as high a position as one can hold, and he has literally filled that capacity to bursting with a long series of much discussed actions. His coup de grace is definitely his book, ‘Indian Design Edge: Strategic Insights for Success in the Creative Economy’, written from his ‘enviable ringside view’ of the world of design.

Following a good many years after Prof. S. Balaram’s ‘Thinking Design’ (1998), this book positions itself as the next macroscopic view of Indian Design. In Dr. Koshy’s inimitable style, it is filled with case studies, vision strategies, ‘design for-’ sub-headings and heavy doses of design evangelism. If not anything else, the book brings Indian Design out into the sunlight, in riotous jubilation and in considerable detail. It is unsurprising that Chief Secretary Shri Ajay Dua, of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, publicly acknowledged Dr. Koshy as his mentor in all things Design, at the launch of the book in Mumbai.

Beginning with ‘design for development’, and quoting the Ahmedabad Declaration of 1979, the book works its way through design history, comparisons with other Asian design achievements, ‘crafts as foundation of design innovations’ and ‘designs for grass roots innovations’. The chapter ‘change for design’ is in large part devoted to the author’s perspective of his role in shaping NID, ending with a charming classification of ‘progressive’ and ‘retrogressive’ designers: those who saw eye-to-eye with him and those who didn't. The chapters on ‘Strategic Design’, ‘Sectoral Growth by Design’, and ‘Creating GenNext Designers’ are large in their scope, and in the vigour of their arguments. One sector or topic after another is taken up, and the author’s view of the potential of design is forcefully sketched out for the unconverted.

Any glitches in this sumptuous smorgasbord are perhaps purely semantic. Delineating the ‘strategic perspective of the first national design policy’, the author begins the list with ‘Bottom of the pyramid model: design for masses, source of innovation and wealth’. This little loose end might well be the unravelling of the   edifice. It positions the designer/policy maker at the top of a pyramid of money, power and class reaching down, as it were, to those at the bottom. It also presents a view of these ‘masses’ at the bottom of the pyramid as the new frontier for design and business, where business conquistadors can ride on horses called design and discover new treasure viz., ‘innovation’ and ‘wealth’.

A Nose for Criticism

There is something to be said about stereotypes: hooked noses turn up with alarming regularity on the faces of critics of every historical age, gender or genre.

Before you decide that I am exaggerating, please consider these: John Ruskin, the art critic and culture sage of Victorian times, stared down an  aquiline nose that matched perfectly with his long flowing white beard. T. S. Eliot, who was a great literary critic apart from being one of my favourite poets, had a roman nose with a magnificent hook. Architecture and culture critic Lewis Mumford had one too, and so does one of Britain's finest literary theorists and critics, Terry Eagleton.

What began as a simple curiosity has now become a question that keeps me awake some nights: if I continue to write criticism, will I also end up with an extra-prominent proboscis?