Contemporary Design from India: An exhibition of…?

Divia Patel

Curator, Asian Department (South Asia), Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Collections and Context

At the core of the V&A's collections are objects - textiles, ceramics, metalwork and decorative arts — originating from the schools of design in the 1840s and consolidated with acquisitions from the Great Exhibition of 1851. The purpose of these objects, at a time when industrialisation and modernisation were changing Britain, and particularly in the face of the decline in traditional craftsmanship, was to educate a nation by making art and design accessible to all and to inspire designers and manufactures to improve the design of industrial goods. Technical excellence and relevance to current practitioners were important criteria for acquisitions.1

Objects from India were a significant part of this educational purpose, displayed within their own court at the Great Exhibition, they were the 'jewel in the crown' showcasing their excellence of craftsmanship, pattern and ornamentation as well as displaying the power of the British empire through the wealth of its most treasured colony. Amalgamated with the objects from the East India Company Museum in 1880, this resulted in one of the most important collections of South Asian material in the western world.2

The strengths of the collection are in the Mughal courtly arts and in the textile collections of which we have some 10,000 pieces. Paintings, colonial furniture, musical instruments, 19th century decorative arts, sculptures and seals, with a date range from 2000BC to the present day, indicating the variety and breadth of the collection. Today, the material culture of the Rajput courts, the Mughal dynasty and British Empire are displayed in a chronological structure, highlighting their richness in skill, technique and material as well as drawing out the transnational influences that were occurring at the time. Our collections also form the focus of our temporary exhibitions, highlighting variant themes such as "Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms" (March -July 1999), "Encounters: Trade with Asia 1500-1800" (Sep-Dec 2004) and "Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts" (Oct 2009-Jan 2012) and so forth. As curators of such a rich historical collection we aim to convey the context of production and consumption.

Contemporary objects in the South Asian collection consist mainly of paintings and graphic works. In 1982, the Festivals of India held across multiple venues in the UK, exposed contemporary Indian painting as an emerging and important field.3 A consequent programme of acquisitions resulted in a small but important collection of key works by leading artists which continued until the 1990s when the rise in prices pushed them beyond the reach of the museum. At the time the V&A was the only museum collecting in this field, however, the current rise in prominence of Indian contemporary art on the international scene has led to the British Museum, and now, the Tate beginning to collect. The acquisition of contemporary painting from Pakistan began a few years ago in recognition of a new movement that found dynamic contemporary expressions within the traditional techniques of miniature painting; these acquisitions bring a meaningful continuity to our existing collection.

The other significant body of contemporary material is that of popular culture, as seen in calendar art and film posters. They enable an understanding of the broader landscape of Indian visual culture through their ability to convey social and political information about the 20th century. The posters were showcased in the first exhibition of its kind entitled "Cinema India: the Art of Bollywood.4 Bollywood as a cultural symbol of contemporary India may appear clichéd now, but in 2002, it was groundbreaking for a national museum like the V&A to exhibit Indian popular culture, especially when something like contemporary craft production has seemed lacking in quality and creativity in comparison to the historical examples, and has therefore not been actively collected.

Initiating the Exhibition

The museum's desire for an exhibition on contemporary design from India was drawn from "China Design Now" — an exhibition held in 2008 to coincide with the Beijing Olympics. Exploring design over a 15 year period, its narrative took the visitor on a journey through the design culture of three cities, Shenzen, Shanghai and Beijing, exploring graphics, fashion, new media and architecture.5 The exhibition legacy is a collection of contemporary design from China. Recognising a similar need in the Indian context, I began the research process. With the V&A's historic collections and previous exhibitions as my context, I went in search of objects and their stories. To facilitate this process and to offer a broader perspective to my own India focused one, curators with other design specialisms such as fashion, product design and architecture accompanied me. For the long term, this means that these curators are informed enough to incorporate Indian design stories into their own exhibitions, thus beginning a process of more inclusive design exhibitions and hopefully eliminating the culturally defined and ultimately isolating shows that are now ubiquitous in the fine art field.

Research visits were focused on understanding what was meant by the term "design" at a time of great change for India — a time of global repositioning, a time defined by liberalisation, globalisation, economic empowerment and economic disparity. The need to understand and convey what was being produced and consumed at this given point in time ruled out the commissioning approach and the potential for creating a false impression. Engagement with Indian design professionals sent us in a variety of directions. What emerged was a flash-point of creativity at multiple levels of society and across disciplines. The objects and stories we found are underpinned by fundamental questions that revolve around definitions of design, modernity, tradition and identity. While these may appear dated in the fast moving world of contemporary western design, concerns about such definitions were repeatedly expressed by the design professionals we encountered. Unwritten histories of modern Indian design are linked to this desire for definitions. With the notable exception of articles in the journal Design Issues, the absence of design literature, particularly the documentation of material culture from 1900 onward, in any field, is a critical vacuum when researching an exhibition about contemporary design.

Object lessons

Illustrated below are objects and stories that convey concerns of definition, relevance and impact.

Everyday Objects

Un-authored objects with no designer names and common designs by common people that developed over time are as relevant to histories of contemporary design as the "designer object". These include vernacular street signs, the charpoy, the stainless steel plate rack, tiffin box, lota, the sari and so on. These illustrate the difficulty of defining design in a country that is not fully industrialised.

As Victor Margolin states: design in the West — documented as a linear progression, defined as a product of an industrial and consequently modern economy, and focused on elevating the status of the individual designer — denies that "design" existed before the 1950s or that it can exist in pre-modern societies. India's industrial revolution came almost a century later than in the West and it did not industrialise fully, leaving the co-existence of agrarian and modern societies.6 It is important to note that there is no word for "design" in the various Indian languages. Professor Kumar Vyas has offered an alternative in the word "kala" which sees art, crafts, sciences, skill and technique as a unified concept. This lack of distinction between arts and crafts was practised by the earliest of societies in India, where traditional production was defined by an evolutionary process which was unstructured, organic, anonymous and refined over generations. It is with colonial rule that western definitions created an artificial separation of art and craft and where industrialisation ushered in the learnt design process — methodical, with a defined timeline and self-consciously employed by an individual.7 Thus, a wider definition of design would enable the incorporation of practices that have developed out of non-industrialisation.8 However, this also implies that an alternative definition of modernity is required, one that allows for the complexities of co-existing developments. Modernity should not be seen as a monolith, there are many modernities, older, newer and incomplete modernities and there are many traditions.9

The resonance of the everyday with designers had led to concept pieces like Gunjan Gupta's bicycle throne, which references the street vendors in India. There is no denying the vibrancy and dynamism of the vernacular, and while many designers are inspired by it and value its relevance, others see it as a clichéd version of India.

Craft and Designers

One of the strongest stories is that of craft and its interaction with design. The multiple ways in which designers work with the wealth of Indian craftsmen, variety of skills, techniques and materials spread across India is familiar to most of you. From the numerous NGOs who use the skills of designers to empower rural/craft communities (e.g. Kala Raksha) to the big-name fashion designers such as Abraham and Thakore and Péro, who have helped to revive lost skills, promote awareness and generally provide a source of income generation. Many of these designers are trained at the National Institute of Design (NID), from which they receive a grounding in working with craft communities, they learn the importance of documenting traditional processes and they are encouraged to develop ways of empowering crafts people to become self sufficient.

For many designers, the use of craft techniques is a means of embedding authenticity, uniqueness and cultural identity into their work. A sense of "Indian-ness" is a significant part of their work, and whether overtly stated or subtly implied, it is located in India's various traditions — in the humble villages of Mahatma Gandhi, the splendid palaces of the Maharajahs, or the popular culture of the streets. While these "ideas" of India have been constructed over time — building a romantic, static and rigid notion of tradition — the creativity of designers enables them to "re-invent" and move these "traditions" forward in their work, enjoying the associations to "tradition" that craft offers but firmly placing them in a contemporary context. Jyotindra Jains states that the 'notion of tradition cannot be independent if it's contemporary manifestation' and suggests that the Sanskrit word parampara provides a more appropriate and flexible understanding. Often equated with tradition, it translates as 'one following the other or proceeding from one to the other'.10 This progressive movement acknowledges a dynamism and responsiveness to a constantly changing environment.

A powerful and instructive example of designers working with craft traditions, within limitations, aiming for social improvement and open-sourcing of designs is that of NID's engagement with bamboo. A project started over 30 years ago under the leadership of Professor M.P. Ranjan, it aimed to alleviate the severe under-utilisation of skills and the need for better income generation in the north east region of India. The craft communities produced a small selection of items for local use; their remoteness restricted their knowledge of urban markets and ability to produce suitably commercial products and they were often at the mercy of middlemen, pushed into producing bad quality tourist souvenirs for very little income. Informed by texts such as Victor Papanek's "Design for the real world", and E.F Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful" as well as the Jawaja project — an important success story of community empowerment - Ranjan was provoked into creating design solutions.11

Design intervention through workshops held in the region aimed at upskilling the artisans, providing them with designs that have an urban/contemporary relevance and the potential to generate income. Furniture developed during the workshops included the cube stool, the knock-down chair and most recently the Glimmerfly lamp — all of which were left with the artisans to use, adapt, sell and take forward in any direction they wished. Typical of the project ethos, the Glimmerfly was designed by Andrea Noronha to use minimal tools with locally available material and equipment, and be labour-intensive in process to create employment. The lamp is made to be easily open to adaptation by the artisans and it has been seen in restaurants outside of the region, suggesting a certain degree of success for this sort of open-sourcing.12 Over time, workshops have included attempts at partnering with government organisations, providing training in entrepreneurship and finance management. There has however been limited success with this, and the legacy of the project lies instead with the design graduates who continue to work with bamboo.

Sandeep Sangaru and Rebecca Reubens are two of the most successful in this field. Rebecca has created a workable social entrepreneurship model for the Kotwalia community based in Gujarat, this encompasses a four year, four stage training programme resulting in a student being able to read and implement design drawings. Sandeep Sangaru employs crafts people from the north east region and trained them in the workshops of his studio in Bangalore. His locally rooted, aesthetically global products have been showcased at international festivals such as the Beijing International Design Triennial and his most recent success is the furnishing of a hotel in China.13

Bamboo Truss me bench by Sandeep Sangaru


"Jugaad" is a term which has recently received much attention in innovation and design circles. It means resourcefulness, frugality and improvisation in the face of limitations. Anil Gupta and his Honeybee network have been documenting the work of "barefoot innovators", to provide local solutions to local problems that usually involve the re-purposing of existing products. Mitticool is an example of the extension of traditional knowledge. Mansukhbhai Prajapati, a potter, was inspired (after the Gujarat Earthquake of 2001) to develop a low cost fridge for the common man, one that needs no electricity. Utilising the natural cooling properties of clay, as seen in traditional matkas or water pots, it stores water at the top which helps to cool the side and preserve food and milk inside.14 This object resonates with stories of resourcefulness, scarcity driving invention, craft vs. technology, and design for the common man. This local knowledge and creativity is rightly celebrated and there are wider lessons to be learnt from this.

Mitticool Fridge by Mansukhbhai Prajapati

The ethos of Jugaad can be found in one of India's iconic stories - that of the Tata Nano. Termed as "Indovation", it is one of several examples where companies seek to create low-cost profit-oriented products to suit the Indian mass market. This includes water filters, ECG machines, solar power systems and the Aakash computer tablet.15 The Nano, or the "people's car" was launched in March 2009 as the most affordable car in the world. It was designed with the aim of providing an alternative form of transport for low-income, semi-urban groups. The design methodology was to explore all aspects of the car, simplifying them, and reducing costs at every stage. For many, it generated a sense of pride as it marked India's ascendancy as a global innovator. It received much international attention for its potential for impacting the industry to the extent that 'designers must now benchmark its methodology of rigorous simplification'.16 Most importantly, and despite its faults and low sales, it expressed where Indians want to be with innovation and design. In many ways it stands as symbol of the challenges facing India, its aspiration and its reality.


Re-cycling too has received much recent interest. This is a small story that focuses on the king of western designer objects — the chair. The Katran range of chairs, designed by the Sahil and Sarthak Design Company are constructed from recycled fabric rope wound around an elegant high-backed metal framework. The rope is made from the off-cuts of brightly coloured georgette saris and other materials discarded as waste by export houses and factories. Used by local people as a cheaper alternative to jute or coir, the sari-rope can be found woven across the common charpoy and its use in furniture is therefore not a new technique. Other designers have made simpler versions which have been sold through international retailers such as Zara Home and Apostrophe.17 As their website states, Sahil and Sarthak doesn't claim to be saving the world, but they do feel that they are making a small impact and their products express a desire to push traditional skills and techniques into a contemporary context.


Most of the designers I spoke to were of the younger generation, those who entered the creative work place in the last 10-15 years, during the post-1990s economic liberalisation era. This was experienced and projected as a period of dynamism, which ushered in an increased sense of confidence, aspiration and pride in being Indian. National consciousness has its origins in the Independence movement. Prior to this, there was no unified sense of India, identities were formed along regional, linguistic and religious boundaries. Jawaharlal Nehru under the concept of 'unity in diversity' constructed the idea of unified India to aid the fight against colonial rule.18 There have been moments of resurgence in recent years with the rise of religious fundamentalism, however it is with post-liberalisation and globalisation that the debates around national belonging and identity re-emerge.

Designers have responded to liberalisation and globalisation in a multitude of creative ways. Their responsiveness is reflective of their cosmopolitanism; their increased awareness of the world, their intercultural contact and interconnectedness. In such an environment, identity is flexible and fluid with designers expressing their own layered, multiple and shifting traditions alongside an exploration of global influences. It shows that they do not passively accept cultural flows; they interact with them, contribute to them and create from them. Local cultures absorb and adapt to global cultural forms not get subsumed by them; global forms get contextualised into local environments. In this two-way process, the global and local interpenetrate to create a syncretic mix.19

Satyendra Pakhale and Doshi Levien are two design studios that celebrate hybridisation as a positive symbol of globalisation. Hybridity across multiple cultures, between craft and technology, connecting the manufactured with the handmade is fundamental to their work. Pakhale's BM horse chair and stool explores the technique of dhokra, a lost wax process using bell-metal normally used in creating small vessels and tourist trinkets in central India. His attempts to scale up the process to make furniture failed in India which led him to shift production to Europe. The final version required digitisation, 3-D scanning and casting in an Italian foundry.20 Doshi-Levien's charpoy marries Indian craftsmanship with Italian mass manufacturing. In their charpoy series, the bed spreads are embroidered in India with the names of all those who worked on it embroidered on the side. The base is manufactured in Italy. Their exposure on the international design scene has elevated craft from India to a level at which it is rarely appreciated.

Most fashion designers based in India would define their work as a perfect example of the global being localised, that the influence of the West is mixed with local elements, particularly in the use and adaptation of traditional textiles techniques.21 A further extension of this is where the local has been globalised. In this futuristic-looking restaurant interior in Delhi, designed by the Busride Design Studio, the application of CNC technology is implied. However, in the absence of such technology the entire space is hand-carved from MDF - craft skills have been used to mimic technology. What could, from a western perspective, be seen as an interesting "reversal" of method is a creative adaptation drawn from necessity — a resourcefulness that come from dealing with limitations (in this case, technology) and is an Indian trait worth recognising.22

Shroom restaurant and bar, New Delhi by The Busride Design Studio

These objects represent the categories of design-related materials being produced in India. However, during this research process, I have also encountered examples of systems design such as the use of mobile phone technology to empower farmers in rural India. There are multidisciplinary companies such as Quicksand and Centre for Knowledge Studies working on designing systems for vaccination distribution, water distribution and so forth. Sugata Mitra's "hole in the wall" computer experiments in rural India have led to the designing of a learning system called SOLEs (Self-organised Learning Environments) which takes education to areas where teachers will not go.23 These examples, powerful in their impact, transcend issues of identity and definitions. Engaging with them in the museum context described above, within traditional modes of object based collecting, curating and exhibiting will be challenging.

Finally, a particularly dynamic story is that of the 2011 Census. Rupesh Vyas, Head of Information technology at NID, recounted on a visit to London, his work on the process of improving data collection through design. That government bodies recognised the need for design in this process was an important first step. Since 1872, the collection of census data has involved person-to-person interviews. In 2011 this meant that 2.5 million people were involved in the data collection alone. Redesigning the system involved observation of every stage, consideration of the environmental conditions in which data was collected, training of the data collectors, and the creation of a template that would support 16 different languages. Attention was given to fonts, colour, printing and data hierarchy. For the first time intelligent character-reading technology was being used, each form had a unique bar code, each state had a different colour and each form had a pre-printed region — all of which had to be accommodated in the redesigned forms. This brief account does not do justice to the complexity of the task, but its success means that the results of the census were released 6 months later instead of six years.24 From this we are able gather more accurate information about the world's largest democracy; its population and literacy rates, the distribution of mobile phones, household amenities and so forth resulting in a powerful picture of India at this crucial moment in time.25


Having armed ourselves with information, objects, stories we conducted a roundtable discussion, with specialists from India, academics and practitioners in architecture, urban development, fashion and crafts to encourage debate on the direction of the exhibition. This exhibition, being the first of its kind, within the V&A and its great historical collections, will have an impact in India at multiple levels and needs therefore to be carefully considered. As a focus of discussion for us I thought it would be interesting to highlight a few key points:

  • India is a society in process; design is still defining itself, it might therefore be wrong to fetishize the beautiful object. Rather than being a representative exhibition, should it be speculative? Where can design intervention take India 50 years from now?
  • An ambition for the exhibition should be to convey the potential for India to suggest an alternative model of modernity through which it can offer different approaches to design problems. What can India show the rest of the world?
For more information on V&A collections development see this link
For more information on the Indian collections in the V&A see: Partha Mitter, The Imperial collections: Indian Art in Malcolm Baker & Brenda Richardson (eds), A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London V&A, 1997, pp222.-9
For general overview and list of exhibition held during that period see: Festivals of India in the London in Museum, Unesco doc, Vol XXXIV. No.4, 1982, pp.203-230.
Divia Patel and Rachel Dwyer, Cinema India: The Art of the Hindi Cinema, London, 2002
See Zhang Hongxing, Lauren Parker, Beth McKillop (ed), China Design Now, V&A Publications, London, 2008
Victor Margolin, A History of Design and the History of the World in the Journal of Design History, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp 235-243.
H Kumar Vyas, Design: The Indian Context, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, 2000, pp34-38.
Victor Margolin, A History of Design and the History of the World in the Journal of Design History, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp 235-243.
See Wil Arts, Through a Glass Darkly, Brill, 2000, pp.1-11, and Dillip Goanker, Alternative Maternities, Duke, 2001
For tradition as located in village India, see Jyotindra Jain, Indian 'Folk Art': Tradition, Revival and Transformation, 2000: Reflections on the Arts in India', MARG, p.66
All of M.P. Ranjans papers and lectures can be found on his blog.
For more detailed account see Divia Patel, AD Perspective, Architectural Digest India, July-August, 2012, p.76
Ibid, pp.78-80
LK Sharma & Shobit Arya, The India Idea, Wisdom Tress India, 2011, PP.95-7
This link and Navi Rajdou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja, Juggard Innovation, San Francisco, 2012
For more detailed account see Divia Patel, AD Perspective, Architectural Digest India, July-August, 2012
Sunil Kilnani, The Idea of India, Penguin, 2003
Paul Hopper, Understanding Cultural Globalisation, Polity Press, 2007
For more detailed account see Divia Patel, AD Perspective, Architectural Digest India, July-August, 2012, p.74
See Federico Rocca, Contemporary Indian Fashion, Damiani, 2009 for a series of interviews indicating the global/local influence on their work.
Interview with Ayas Busrai of Bus Ride Studio in Mumbai, December 2011.
Interview conducted in London, June 2012, see also this link and this link

Katran Chair by Sahil and Sarthak
Organised by WKCDA
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