Designing a doorknob was just the beginning for India’s first crop of ‘visualisers’
There are two ways to take a castle. From the front door; or, if they won’t let you in, from the back. The first designers of India devised a third option. The door of the castle they needed to storm could be opened with a new mechanism: a door-knob. So, they decided to make the doorknob. In this way, they quietly went about the business of putting together their profession.
“Till the ’60s, the designing profession did not even exist. We were called visualisers and we all worked in ad agencies,” says Sudarshan Dheer, 80, one of the pioneers of the field in Mumbai.
The National Institute of Design (NID), which was founded in the Ahmedabad of 1961, and the Industrial Design Centre (IDC), which came up in 1969 Bombay, were the crucibles where design as an interface between the government and the people, between the government and the industry and between the industry and the consumer were forged for the first time. It was here that design was first identified as a problem-solving technique to be used in industries, and as a sensible solution to living.
For example, a road is built by engineers but at what point street lights are to be placed is a design decision. Banking is a service but the logo that will best represent it and be understood even by an unlettered person is a design intervention.
If the founding of the two schools in the ’60s can be considered the birth of India’s design history, there were a few people who in its first decade, out of an environment of design nothingism, made rain. It was they who began to think of design in terms of a discipline, and eventual employment. But they weren’t just theorists; they made things you and I still use today.
Shekhar Kamat was trained in the UK. He joined the NID faculty in its early days, made the State Bank of India symbol with the keyhole as concept.
Mahendra Patel returning to NID after his design training in Basel, ventured into type design projects in Indian scripts (for example airport signages) and designed tourist and bus-route maps for Ahmedabad and Goa.
Vikas Satwalekar who had studied at the St Xavier’s and was, along with Mahendra Patel, the first batch of students trained for faculty positions at NID, made the milk-drop logo that symbolises the Operation Flood campaign started by Verghese Kurien for the National Dairy Development Board.
The late Yale-educated Benoy Sarkar crafted the logos of the Delhi Transport Corporation, the Electronics Corporation of India, the Indian Airlines, the Airports Authority of India and the Trade Fair Authority of India. Gopinath Rao, Sarkar’s student who, alongwith Ravi Pooivah, another designer, made the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) in the ’80s, remembers Sarkar working on the IA symbol while Kumar Vyas, another teacher, worked on the colour scheme. Rao talks of Sarkar playing with the letters ‘I’ and ‘A’. “He would put the bars in combination, one with a slope and look at it for hours as if it had a life of its own. Then he would come and ask us, “Hey, what do you think? Does it look like IA?”. And with great hesitation, we would say ‘No!’ and he would go and work on it again.”
RK Joshi, master calligrapher, and a professor at IDC, designed fonts based on Indic scripts. “Never influenced by Europe, he sought his inspiration in Indian philosophy,” says Joshi’s student, professor Sreekumar, who now heads the IDC. “After his day’s work, he would go to the Asiatic Society and study ancient scripts with his red pen, and copy the originals in his notebook.” Joshi’s journey is thus markedly different from the other designers in that he sought out the indigenous traditions to make his design statement at a time when Bauhaus (a German modernist school of design that aimed to unify art, craft and technology) was the prime driver of design thinking in the world. Joshi made the symbol of the Punjab National Bank in the Gurmukhi letter form enclosing a circle, signifying a cash deposit in safekeeping.
All in their mid-twenties, most of these early design stalwarts – except Joshi and Dheer – were of the first batch of NID. Sudhakar Nadkarni, also of the NID, left the institute to found another design school, the IDC. Through the early ’70s to the late ’80s, Nadkarni’s product designs have been the mainstay of all Indian middle-class homes – from Murphy transistor radios, Cromptpon Greaves fans and regulators to refrigerators from Allwyn. These, he arrived at after years of experience of taking apart imported consumer items and building new exteriors for them, he says with a laugh. “That is what most product designers were doing till the ’60s for our first corporates….There was no R&D. After the quick-fix, the product then entered the market,” he adds.
To Nadkarni’s credit also goes the Vistara exhibition (One of the biggest exhibitions on Indian architecture, Vistara covered the history of Indian architecture from the Dravidian period to the Mughals via the British period to India in the ’80s). These travelling exhibitions were a big area for design to weigh in, through the ’60s to the ’80s. All the big boys, from Dasarath Patel to Sarkar to Vikas Satwalekar, would supervise them as they travelled around the country and abroad as an advertisement for India’s Five-Year-Plans-on-wheels as it were.
Learning by doing
But the prestige projects were clearly the ones to do with large-scale government infrastructure. These projects, Mahendra Patel says, were not assigned to individuals but to institutions.
“Since the NID was an autonomous body under the central government, we made lots of projects for the government. We made symbols, print material, exhibitions…we were constantly challenging ourselves…and demonstrating to the clients in the industry what design could do. It was not an individual getting these projects,” says Patel. “The entire faculty worked on it, students were assigned their jobs and sometimes it was their work that got selected but the whole institute had been behind it. A project was the result of continuous reflection and introspection by the teacher and the student.”
For example, for a corporate project, Patel made the logo using the initials of the company but the design was “passed” only when a leaf was added to the composition – made by a colleague. Similarly, in the ’70s, eight graphic design students of Satwalekar’s class – and six faculty members – submitted their design for the Doordarshan logo. The one that the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, chose was that of a student – Devashis Bhattacharyya.
Most design students vouch for the fact that design in India got off to an eclectic yet solid start because of the nature of the curriculum followed at the NID. Students at the IDC, too, gained by having a design programme with an engineering slant.
The lack of ‘structure’ at NID, says Chelna Desai, an award-winning jewellery designer, a student of one of the first batches at the institute, was mainly about the freedom to choose one’s timetable. It was about having a hand in one’s own education.
“In Satwalekar’s class we understood how music, history and philosophy all influenced design because we are the sum of all this,” says Bhattacharyya. “Machines can crank up a bulk of products. But products are used by human beings who relate to them in a particular way in every culture. Vikas made sure we didn’t just exist as a designer but understood the values that make a civilisation.”
By the 80s, government departments were sorted – in terms of branding and logo. Patel and Satwalekar continued with the NID, and Nadkarni with the IDC. Sarkar left the NID and joined cultural czarina of the ’70s and 80s, Pupul Jayakar, at the Handicrafts and Handloom Exports Corporation.
India Inc, too, began to find its feet. Most of them opened their corporate offices in Bombay and the entire business of networking for and the bagging of design jobs took off in a big way in the city.
Designers like Dheer – who the government-owned Hindustan Petroleum had got away in the ’70s by paying Rs 15,000 to design their entire corporate identity as soon as it struck oil in deep sea – had, by the ’80s, started a flourishing consultancy. Dheer now operates out of a studio in the posh Colaba area. He sports a ponytail. He holds workshops on “designing the new-age designer”. And he hasn’t forgotten his first assignment – designing the doorknob for one of the city’s first galleries.
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