India's Design Story: Can a new exhibition tell this vast tale though objects alone?

The invite was intriguing: A bold red square declaring a new exhibition at the PR Gallery of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (the erstwhile Prince of Wales Museum), titled ‘India's Design Story’. Curated by Divya Thakur, contemporary design maven and founder of Design Temple, it promised to tell through objects from our living spaces, the story of how design evolved in India. A second part of the exhibition, staged at the Goethe Institut (a hop, skip and jump away at Kala Ghoda) would showcase ‘ideas through time’ — the philosophies and principles that had shaped design in India, and presumably by extension, the objects on display in part one as well.

Transistors. From 'India's Design Story'

Transistors. From 'India's Design Story'

To tell the design story of India seems like an ambitious undertaking, but it's one Thakur is suited to tell. And it's a story that does need to be told, cohesively and compellingly. What is the Indian aesthetic, is there such a thing in the present day that can be termed as Indian design? What makes design in India unique? What makes design in India commonplace? These are questions that the casual observer or layperson would be hard pressed to find answers to from a single source.

Thakur tries to make a narrative so vast in scope, fairly intimate and accessible.

Intimate in the sense that the gallery in which part one — the objects — have been exhibited, isn't a vast one. The space is constrained, so the objects are placed in fair proximity to each other, and the viewer. Second, these objects are drawn from day-to-day life — appliances, fixtures, furniture.

The first exhibit, occupying pride of place at the starting point of the show is a charkha. Lettering on the wall (it is written in first person, from the POV of the object) celebrates the charkha as a symbol of nation-building.

Next is a small display of fans — the ‘pankha’. Beginning with the humble bamboo and cane handheld version to more ornate versions in cloth and sporting embroidery all the way to old-fashioned table fans and then sleeker ceiling fans, the exhibits give way to light fixtures. A short succinct chart traces the evolution of these objects — from the Argand Lamp to the now ubiquitous LED bulb. As a side note, there's also an anecdote about Kishenchand Kaycee, who set up Radio Lamp Works Limited in 1938, to manufacture electric lamps in India with Italian support. It continued production through World War II and was renamed Bajaj Electricals in 1960.

Wall designs

Wall designs

On the other side of this room, a small cooler stands; a little crooked and lost. Next to it is an old-fashioned, bulky Godrej fridge. Posters and yesteryear advertisements for the refrigerator show how these were sold by playing on the health and wellness concerns of Indian households. Old radio sets and telephones are positioned too in this section.

Other objects in this section of the exhibition include kitchen utensils and the 'mixie'. There is also an entire table dedicated to dinnerware. Padlocks and chests have a section of their own, a small space is dedicated to screens and wall texturing, and then a rather large end of the gallery is given over to chairs. There are wooden chairs and woven chairs and modas and canvas recliners, ugly metal office chairs and more.

Mundane or imbued with meaning?

That is the question that one is left with on viewing the objects. It's easy at first to get swept up in a wave of nostalgia, or in the novelty element. But take a step away from these objects and it does not seem like they are narrating India's design story — maybe only a chapter of it.

From 'India's Design Story'

From 'India's Design Story'

The objects that have been chosen then start to seem like a random collection, somewhat kitsch.

Part two of the exhibition — Ideas Through Time — features cloth stretched across bamboo frames at the Goethe Institut, on which are written down and explained, principles like 'kala', 'vidya', 'prakrutik'. Sound design for this segment is by Yogi Ponappa while the calligraphy is courtesy Rajat Bhele.

The two parts of 'India's Design Story' do work separately, but perhaps unifying them at the same location may have helped present a more holistic picture.

Is it even possible then, to tell the story of India's design evolution purely through objects? What about landscape or architecture or textile and civil infrastructure? A multi-pronged/collaborative narrative might work better. A few pots and pans or obsolete appliances, no matter how picturesque, cannot give the complete picture.


Published Date: Dec 11, 2016 09:08 am | Updated Date: Dec 11, 2016 09:08 am

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