The India Studies: My background, journey and realization

This is the beginning of formulating a course that can enhance the understanding of India amongst the students. As I have myself gone through the education of design and knowing that this lays out a wonderful ground for it, this is where I would like to begin formulating that study which can later be taken to various disciplines.

This is my general observation that a country like India which is so diverse can be difficult to put under few brackets and hence can cause confusion when attempted to comprehend.

My understanding of India through my school
My school education in Darjeeling (ICSE Board) exposed me to various aspects of India through mostly subjects like History and Geography. However, these were more on the information basis.

My understanding of India as a surrounding and context in NID
When I went through my design education in National Institute of Design, I was exposed to a different way of education altogether. Here, to understand business, one was not asked to refer to the successful business models and draw the diagrams correctly. We were sent to the local panipuri-walas and the bhajia-walas to observe, interact and learn. If something was understood in a small scale it would be understood in a bigger scale.

Moreover, what was being polished was the observation and assimilation and the sense that everything that one needs to learn is around and available if the tools to learn have been sharpened.

The foundation which is the first year of this design study was filled with courses that nourish oneself to learn from the trees, a busy street, a local market, an architectural monument, a busy train station… revisited as an empty train station and even our own batch-mates who were made to sit face to face to observe and make sketches.

An education with this outlook creates “experience”. Gradually when one learns to focus on that, good and bad starts to become lesser significant. A crowded street becomes an “experience”. A quiet temple becomes another “experience”.

My distance with the discipline, Graphic Design
From the 2nd year on-wards, one chooses a specific discipline and I had chosen to study Graphic Design. Though the first year brought me closer to my own-self and my surrounding and in 2nd year too one was to keep sharpening those aspects in the specific discipline, the discipline itself felt a little foreign to me.

Though I loved the fundamentals of Graphic Design which made me take that discipline in the first place, there was a constant fight I experienced all through the 3 years which I could not then diagnose precisely.

The re-bonding with the subject during masters
However, after my completion of graduation in Graphic Design I went to University of Westminster in London for my masters. Here, being outside my own country I began to see my own country in a more distinct manner. My fight with Graphic Design was coming to a harmonious term, when I realized that the fight was actually with “Graphic Design” as an output and not “Graphic Design” as a medium. I struggled to separate the 2 and stopped pushing myself to adapt to the mainstream usage of it and kept looking for the applications and aspects that I could develop in my own way.

Birth of BELOVED INDIA and finding the intent
During this stage, when “business for design” as a course was being taught there, as an output of my own re-finding BELOVED INDIA was born as a business plan and concept.

After I returned to India, I worked in Dorling Kindersley, a publication house. The initial products of BELOVED INDIA were being prepared side by side. Later, when I joined an institute to teach and was guiding a graphic design student in his project, I faced a question from him, “What is the deeper purpose of all these?”

When I heard him say this loud and clear to me I saw my own-self in him. I recalled my own fight I constantly had with Graphic Design. However, so far I was thinking that was my personal story and because I had a more traditional background and a spiritual inclination, I was put at a moral distance with this discipline. But when a student coming from an urban background, grown up in a metropolitan city like Delhi, asked this question to me, for the first time I realized this fight could be of many.

I had discovered James Victore during my masters with his saying, “Design is supposed to do more than selling socks” and “Advertisers think you’re stupid”.

I came across an alumni of NID from Graphic Design discipline, my senior, Sanjay Madnani and saw how his work and philosophy expressed the same question finding its answer in projects that is more than the popular usage of Graphic Design.

I am not sure, however, if people of other disciplines like a product designer goes through this similar crisis. When Charles Eames went across India, he pointed at the “lota”, a product commonly used in the rural India, to represent the essence of design. Various products finding its usage from ancient days to today in India, though evolving in shape, structure and ways, I assume would place a designer in lesser controversy having naturally grown up with it in the surrounding.

But in Graphic Design in this country, you are truly left without much history! The reason I felt like a foreigner in this discipline was gradually becoming clear to me.

Meanwhile, the first outputs born out of BELOVED INDIA was a series of artworks on the Indian deities (see here). The more I worked on these, I realized 3 things:

1. There is a need to connect the PEOPLE OF INDIA to DESIGN. The deities for example were a work of people who had an amazing understanding of visual language. The more I understood, the more I marveled at their sense of perceiving colours, symbols, metaphors and personifications. With that realization, along with the exhibitions for my artworks, I started conducting workshops to connect the deities and Graphic Design (see here).

The rituals that looked like empty shells were beginning to find meanings in me. I realized if we could reveal the intention that these were made with, we would naturally “educate the clients” as we often say. The more it will be experienced as a design, the more the purpose will be outlined and the more it will have chances to grow towards wisdom into modernity.

2. There is a need to connect STUDENTS OF DESIGN to INDIA. When the designers themselves grow without much understanding of India within the discipline, that fight continues leading to the fight of ideal within the country. In an institute like NID, which puts so much emphasis on understanding the surrounding, whose very root was set to empower India through the understanding of India as documented in the India Report by Charles Eames, one still feels that missing links and history. When I visited other newer institutes, this missing factor was even larger to the extent that it distorted the very purpose of “design”.

Many students who never visited a village takes up as their project a rural problem of India. Being a design student in India when one is exposed to terms like “problem-solving” again and again, one can get tempted in such projects. During the project too one either visits the village once to see how it looks or never visits. When the villagers can be seen in the internet itself and they definitely have a problem, there is no need.

I would not blame the student entirely for this. His or her intention was good. Whatever background the student comes from it should be the responsibility of the design institute once they have admitted that student to expose them.

If a project is being worked on in India without the understanding of India, it could lead to frustration that India is not design-friendly yet and one needs to go to the countries where such problems are lesser so that “design” could smoothly happen. (Just note the irony in that statement.)

3. There is a need to connect THE WORLD to INDIA (as much as our effort to connect India to the World)
In an eco-film festival I attended recently, they showed several movies on environment. There were 2 documentaries which made me come back to a point. One was Years of living dangerously by David Letterman. The movie starts in a scorning attitude towards India and its problems and as that is being explored there is a parallel investigation of the energy usage in the U.S. The mood of the movie changes when it goes deeper to understand the causes.
India shows its willingness to invest and grow as a sustainable nation only money being its problem. Whereas America faces the problem in implementing it due to the conspiracy of the energy companies despite of having the money to invest.

The second one was a BBC documentary, Earth 2: Cities. The documentary explores the behaviour and lifestyle changes in animals due to urbanization. They show how some animals have learnt to co-exist and some have not and are perishing day by day. At the end of the documentary the people behind the cameras share their experiences. The group in India shooting the langoor-human co-existance reveals that they had the best experience of this animal-human bonding in India.

Both these documentaries almost unintentionally coming to India to find an experience they least expected beyond the mess and poverty and problems was an awakening.

Though we who live in this mess of India, are facing the heaps of problems everyday, of poverty, population, pollution, cleanliness, crime, corruption and so on, there is still a strange spirituality guiding underneath. From time to time it makes one wake up with realizations of the presence of it. The strange thing is even in the mess of all the problems entangled with each other its presence is very much felt by many travelers who come to India seeking the same.

The world as a whole having worshiped materialism for long is now facing a hollowness. People due to stress looking for therapies and psychologists are turning back again to look at their own-selves. Somewhere a circle seems to be nearing a completion and a realization of the simple truths of better being is being tapped again and again.

And when one realizes these as the more important goals of life, India has so much to offer to that person with its years of work and philosophy and practise which despite of its own maddening problems it has safeguarded and preserved to offer till date.

The shift from breath to depth
The artworks on deities were supposed to be the output of one project from BELOVED INDIA. I intended to take up and initiate many more projects, tapping many other aspects of India like a design firm but India-oriented. However, now when I think of it I can laugh at myself. Probably that is something one forgets while dealing with a subject related to India and specially of a spiritual aspect. The more one travels the deeper it takes. I completed the series knowing that is all I could do on this subject. Before nearing the end of my exhibition, where I had marked the end of this series, it opened up to another layer showing me more to walk through and I decided to keep following the rabbit hole chasing the rabbit to see where it takes…

And if walking the breath is the aim, India will again be understood superficially like in most India-related projects. And if one follows the depth, it can keep leading on to the core of this Universe where all the mysteries resolve towards the solution of all the projects.

And while I keep sharpening my own tool to keep going deeper paying homage to this great country, it will be my endeavour to keep making ways for others to taste that soul of India in order to understand it well.

Apart from my exhibitions, presentations and workshops, therefore, I intend to formulize a course called “the India Studies” which could be presented in the design institutes. This can be broken down in parts in foundation and 2nd year.

I have prepared a course outline to explain.

See here,
The India Studies: Course Outline

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