C Magazine


Issue 141

Entangled Visions: The Birth of a Radical Pedagogy of Design in India
by Kalpana Subramanian

“It is in the emergence of the interstices—the overlap and displacement of domains of difference—that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated.”
– Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994)

The history of design education in India can be traced to a dialogue between decolonial nationalism and transcultural forces of modernity that began to unfold in the late 19th century. A curious entanglement between the independent legacies of Germany’s Bauhaus and the freedom movement in India planted the seeds for a new pedagogy of design that emerged in 1961, 13 years post-independence, with the establishment in Ahmedabad of the National Institute of Design (NID) as India’s first design school. Founded on the basis of The India Report (1958), a visionary roadmap for Indian design formulated by American modernist icons Ray and Charles Eames at the behest of the government of India, the instituting of NID reflected the new power differentials of a post-war and post-colonial world order.1 Since 1955, the Eameses had been in dialogue with Pupul Jayakar, an advocate of Indian crafts, as well as other politically influential intelligentsia, including Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, leading to their involvement in this initiative.

  • The Bauhaus in Calcutta; Image: Rabindra Bhavan Archive, Shantiniketan, India

From 1994 to 1999, I pursued my undergraduate studies at NID, participating in what I can only now describe as a radical pedagogical experiment that continues to profoundly shape and inform my artistic practice.2 Now, 60 years since The India Report was written, I reflect on the arc and import of NID’s legacy and consider its relevance to design education today. The process of writing this article reconnected me with members of the NID community whose collective knowledge and experiences have always been an incredible resource. In particular, I would like to thank my teacher Ashoke Chatterjee, who was the executive director of NID from 1975–85 and honorary president of the Craft Council of India for several years, and whose writings and personal reflections significantly contributed to this article.

1919 turned out to be a landmark year for design history, both in India and globally: Walter Gropius famously founded the Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany. Inspired by the vision of William Morris, John Ruskin and other pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1880s, the Bauhaus sought to revive the artistic spirit of the individual in an era of industrialization and mass production. With the aim of materializing a utopian vision of artistic totality, it set out to merge art and craft in service of industry.

That same year, in rural India, Bengali polymath, Nobel Laureate and pioneer of the freedom movement, Rabindranath Tagore renounced his knighthood to protest the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and founded Visva-Bharati University, his centre for “universal-learning” in Shantiniketan, where he started developing art and design practices.3 Set in a rural locale in Eastern India, about a 160 kilometres from Calcutta, Visva-Bharati was Tagore’s experiment with alternative education. Drawing from a variety of eclectic resources, including pan-Asian knowledge traditions and the European avant-garde, Tagore brought to Visva-Bharati multiple influences, seeking to foster cross-cultural thought and mutual understanding. Art and spirituality were central to his holistic approach to education. Subsidiary institutes with intersecting histories and practices, such as Kala Bhavana (for fine art), Sangit Bhavana (for dance, drama and music) and Silpa Sadana(for craft and design aimed at social empowerment of village artisans) emerged as part of this organically growing pedagogical laboratory.

Both Gropius and Tagore saw craft as a bridge between art and industry. Aesthetically, they both valued simplicity and the harmonious integration of “beauty” and “utility.” Their alternative visions rejected conservative attitudes, “one in a Germany coming out of a dreadful World War with aspirations for a humane future, and the other in an India experiencing the colonial impact of that War and imagining the possibility of its own future as a free society.”4

Ironically, by invoking humanist ideals through a call for the handmade, the Bauhaus established a seemingly moral basis for mass production and industrial growth. By 1922, the Bauhaus school had moved away from the handmade aesthetic towards a technological, urban and rationalist aesthetic. According to Fiona MacCarthy, the Bauhaus soon became a stylistic “antithesis” of what it had originally stood for, giving up the “romance” of the handmade for a production-oriented “20th century machine culture.” It soon succumbed, in her view, to the same “bourgeois” aesthetic that it had initially challenged.5

Tagore’s idea of “creative unity” was opposed to the aesthetics of functionality as a form of “cold-blooded utilitarianism.” He wrote: “A relationship of pure utility humiliates man—it ignores the rights and needs of his deeper nature … It must not be permitted to occupy more than its legitimate place and power in society, nor to have the liberty to desecrate the poetry of life, to deaden our sensitiveness to ideals, bragging of its own coarseness as a sign of virility.”6 He was inspired by Japanese aesthetics for its elegant simplicity that celebrated the “rhythm of proportion in lines and movement.” However, Tagore was also critical of a growing tendency in Japan (which Rustom Bharucha suspects was owing to Taisho culture and the rise of Western technological influences) to forsake the human “spirit” for soulless “form” and “aesthetic.” He said in a lecture given in 1916, in Japan: “True modernism is freedom of mind, not slavery of taste. It is independence of thought and action, not tutelage under European schoolmasters.”7 Human ideals and liberation at every level lay at the core of Tagore’s philosophy.

The Indian village, for Tagore, with its simple mud houses and low scale of consumption, echoed a traditional economy of simplicity in contrast to consumerist city culture. Rural India had also been mobilized by anti-colonial leaders, as both the setting and signifier of the freedom movement. The Swadeshi movement, also known as the “Make in India” campaign, rose significantly under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership, leading to the boycott of British goods and a revival of hand-loom industries. The spinning wheel (charkha) had become the centre of a revolution. Making one’s own cloth was not only a symbolic act, but also a material practice of passive resistance (satyagraha) and self-reliance through economic independence. While Tagore notably disagreed with Gandhi on both the burning of British goods (which he found wasteful) and the deification of the charkha (which he argued was counter-intuitive to freedom), he was in agreement about freedom at the grassroots.

Ashoke Chatterjee terms the handloom revolution that resulted from the Swadeshi movement as “perhaps India’s greatest design story… which today takes great relevance in the global pursuit of sustainable and responsible production and consumption.”8

The regeneration of rural economy through craft revival was integral to the activities at Silpa Sadana and boosted the nationalist call to freedom. It is important to note here that Tagore’s version of nationalism was firmly inclusive and highly critical of xenophobia. For him, nation could never exceed humanity, a position that drew him into conflict with others.

The focus on rural heritage at Visva-Bharati also influenced the work of Indian artists like Nandalal Bose (who developed the artistic pedagogy at Kala Bhavana), Jamini Roy, Sunayani Devi and others who began to consciously embody a folk or village idiom through their work. This rejection of “urban colonial culture” became the new face of modernist Indian art, and part of the Visva-Bharati pedagogical approach.9 It also provided a stark contrast to the concurrent Bauhaus’ urban, technological and industrial mould.

As many scholars have pointed out, to truly appreciate the complexity of this modernist moment in the history of Indian art, the term “modernism” needs to be dislocated from the West. As Sria Chatterjee suggests, “modernism-in-process” might be more a more useful way to conceptualize this moment of transcultural becoming of modernism outside the West. In her view, modernism did not arrive in India from the West as a pre-formed entity, but was in fact being constructed in parallel on its own terms.10

In 1921, Tagore visited Weimar, Germany for the first time; Stella Kramrisch, an expert on Indian art, had connected him to the Bauhaus. In 1922, the Bauhaus came to India in the form of an exhibition in Calcutta curated by Kramrisch, who was by then teaching at Visva-Bharati at Tagore’s invitation. Prominent Bauhaus artists like Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky and Johannes Itten were featured alongside contemporary Indian artists like Nandalal Bose, Shanta Devi, Gaganendranath Tagore and others. This juxtaposition of two experimental pedagogies, championing different versions of modernity, impacted Indian art and design for years to come.11 More recently, in 2013, this largely forgotten historical encounter was revisited in the form of a commemorative exhibition at the Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany, which acknowledged its unique role as a “special laboratory of the transcultural avant-garde.”12

In 1933, the Bauhaus closed due to Nazi pressure, but after the war, its influence in North America grew, spawning a new phase of mid-century modernism and a return once more to humanist ideals. In 1947, India gained independence, and with it emerged a need to articulate its new sovereign identity on a global stage. This led to a spate of international exhibitions, festivals and large-scale displays of nationality. According to Claire Wintle, these spaces in which India was on “display” also served as “microcosmic” settings for transnational encounters where larger diplomatic interests were negotiated. In particular, the cultural hegemony of the United States in the new post-colonial world order made for a significant platform upon which to stage Indian identity. With the US, India sought to strengthen economic relations and seek expertise in implementing initiatives for socio-economic development. In India, the US sought to foster a politically and economically stable Cold War ally.13

In 1955, the exhibition Textiles and Ornamental Arts of India at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by Alexander Girard, led to an encounter between the Eameses, Jayakar and the Sarabhais. It resulted in a forging of interpersonal bonds based on shared affinities towards crafts and distinct but complementarily humanist approaches to modernity. A common vision, that transcended “geopolitical posturing” began to take root, with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, inviting the Eameses with the support of the Ford Foundation to propose a program for training that could position design as a driver of industrial growth for India.14 While he may have expected something along the lines of a “feasibility report,” the Eameses—perhaps to his surprise—offered a veritable manifesto. They proposed a vision for locating design within an Indian ethos, addressing deep-rooted issues of socio-economic injustice, and calling for a framework based on indigenous values to better “standards of living” for every Indian before accelerating industrialization. Cautioning India away from mimicry of the West, they framed the lota, a ubiquitous “simple vessel of everyday use” as a perfect idiom for Indian design.15 A local solution to many different problems, the lota was an ergonomic, cost-effective, eco-friendly, aesthetically pleasing cultural model of innovation that harmoniously integrated form and function. Above all, it represented a continuity of “unconscious” indigenous design traditions.16 The report advocated for an autonomous institute that would be dedicated to further articulating and implementing this vision.

Thus, NID was born in November 1961, under the aegis of the Ministry of Industry, with significant control over its own educational program. The campus was in the vicinity of Le Corbusier’s Sanskar Kendra and Gandhi’s Kochrab Ashram in a city that was a hub for the textile industry and other academic institutions. NID began to shape its own pedagogy, guided by The India Report but primarily by following a philosophy of learning-by-doing that was at the core of both Bauhaus and Tagore’s pedagogical experiments.

In the initial years, NID embarked on a series of collaborative institutional projects that brought in international visitors, including Hans Gugelot, Ernst Reichl, George Nakashima, Adrian Frutiger, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Louis Kahn, among others, who consulted, collaborated or imparted design training, laying the foundations of the program.17 Faculty from India regularly travelled internationally to expand their knowledge and acquire further training.

The Sarabhais, who were key contributors to the setting up of NID, brought to its pedagogy some of the inspired visions of Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Frei Otto and other leading designers and architects with whom they had been in dialogue. Gautam Sarabhai advocated for an unconventional academic approach that drew from Bauhaus philosophy of learning-by-doing but adapted it to an Indian context that laid dual emphasis on theory and practice. The institute began to offer graduate and undergraduate design education, accredited by its own autonomous standards and uncompromised by subservience to any larger educational system.

The Jawaja Project (1975) is an exemplary project to have dovetailed from The India Report. Undertaken by NID, as part of an experiment called The Rural University carried out in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Management and other institutions, it tested the power of design to affect socio-economic change in a poverty-stricken and drought-prone region of India, which had been labelled as devoid of resources. By examining social issues, identifying resources, experimenting with various design approaches and finding resources, strategies and solutions, the project enabled a significant turnaround in the socio-economic situation of the region. Traditional leather and weaving crafts turned out to be hidden resources; they were revitalized by a collaborative process of learning involving local artisans and visiting designers, demonstrating how design could be a driver of change. This experience enriched NID’s pedagogy and became a model for the application of design. Study of Indian craft traditions became a core aspect of the academic program; a prolific archive of resources on indigenous crafts continues to be developed by students, staff and faculty.18 This collective and consistent effort to mobilize design in the rural sector has generated sustained relationships with craft communities over time.

Initially, NID was also under pressure to prove its mettle in terms of enabling design for industrial growth. According to Pat Kirkham, the Eameses did not have all the answers for how to reconcile industrialization and humanism through design. NID had been left to “solve the gaps between those craft and design traditions” that had inspired the Eameses and the “demands of the modern world.”19 It took up this mantle by engaging in multiple industry projects, providing consultancy services and designing products and services to build its national credibility.

In 1977–78, the NID won the prestigious ICSID-Philips Award for industrial design in developing countries, drawing global attention to its unique pedagogy. Two years later, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) “confirmed India specifically, and NID under the leadership of Ashoke Chatterjee, as the optimal venue” for an international convention on design.20 Policy makers and design thinkers from 37 countries converged in Ahmedabad to formulate a common vision inspired by NID’s experience. The Ahmedabad Declaration, endorsed by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and ICSID, was instituted to mark a new developmental agenda for design. This charter advocated for design to stay grounded in human and ecological values, perhaps anticipating the global challenges that finally led to the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.21

“…designers in every part of the world must work to evolve a new value system which dissolves the disastrous divisions between the worlds of waste and want, preserves the identity of peoples and attends the priority areas of need for the vast majority of [hu]mankind…”22
Ahmedabad Declaration , UNIDO-ICSID India, 1979

In the 1980s, India bade farewell to its socialist ideals and embraced globalization. Capitalist and neoliberal forces took over by the 1990s and continue to define the socio-economic landscape today. Now 60 years since The India Report, and almost 40 since the Ahmedabad Declaration, it seems fruitful to reflect on the relevance of these documents in light of the changed landscape of design education in India.23 Chatterjee suggests they’re becoming increasingly relevant with each passing day.

While the legacy of Indian design does not belong to any one institution, the NID is still considered a pioneering school in India, “setting the pedagogic standard for most other design schools in the country,” notes Saloni Mathur.24 It has now been declared “an institution of National Importance” by an act of the Indian Parliament, and is authorized to award degrees to make it more compatible with conventional academic standards. What does this turn imply for the future of its unique pedagogy? Economies of scale seem to have the strongest effect on design education in India today. With many more design schools emerging (especially in the private sector), more designers graduating every year, and varied, novel approaches to design education, the focus of design education in India has shifted from design as an agent of social change to design as a driver of a capitalist economy.

While design has carved its place in the agenda for industrial growth, making design a sought-after professional pursuit in India, can it still be accountable to a vision of an equitable society and an ecologically balanced world? How does one reconcile a growing design economy with increasing poverty and deepening socio-economic divides? How can design speak to the lives of millions of impoverished artisans and craftspeople in India whose livelihoods are at stake? With a staggering number of diverse crafts—which form the second largest mode of employment for Indians after agriculture—the significance and potential of craft as a resource cannot be overstated.25

Structural autonomy and a commitment to its radical founding vision allowed for the NID experiment to flourish. However, holding on to those values in the changing socio-economic and political landscape of India today requires great resilience. How can experimental pedagogical practices be nurtured and sustained? Can the NID experience impact a collective vision for design education in India today? Perhaps a reconsideration of this legacy would change the shape of future visions of design institutions in India and abroad.