|'All my life, I've worked for people with a surplus. Today, for the first time, I am working for people who have nothing'|
January 14, 1981. The central lawn at the National Institute of Design (N I D) at Ahmedabad. It’s Makr-Sankranti. Students dot the green expanse. Colourful kites toss in the air. There’s spring in the air, a shedding of winter layers.
A man of 53 steps out of the ultra-modern brick-and-glass building. Medium height. Medium build. A shock of greying hair. He swings his camera bag to the grass. He joins a group of students, helps their red-and-white kite to soar. It cuts down another kite. His eyes light up behind his thick lenses. A gold tooth glints as he chuckles. A cheer goes up. He mingles with a second group of youngsters, then a fourth, and a sixth. More kites fall to the ground. More jubilation.
That’s Dashrath Patel. Man of energy.
February 12, 1981. Lalit Kala Akademi, Madras. Preparations are in full-swing for the Kumbha exhibition of pottery from all over India. A special section is to display Harappan originals from the local Government Museum. The security guards shuffle uneasily in a corner.
The bespectacled figure in a crumpled kurta carefully places an antique jar on a pedestal. He steps back a few paces to study the effect. Satisfied, he shifts the wooden bases around before deciding where to place the next Harappan piece. “I’m going to place a 2,000-year-old pot there,” he murmurs to someone standing by. The excitement and awe in his voice are barely contained.
That’s Dashrath Patel. Man of ideas.
March 1, 1981. The Skills design and media centre at Besant Nagar, Madras. He perches on a stool, intent on the model he’s working on. He holds a cardboard projector in his hands. Rudimentary, yet functional. Total cost ~ Rs. 10. It is part of his project in ‘liberating the media.’
‘It is my answer to people who have nothing,” he says, with deeply-felt emotion.
That’s Dashrath Patel. Man of the people.
Who is he? Does the man on the street in India know him? Is he a stakeholder in our daily lives?
Dashrath Patel is Gujarati by birth and accent, cosmopolitan by choice. A designer. A painter. A photographer. A multi-media person. A member of the prestigious Magnum circle of photographers. A contributor to Life magazine, with over 1,00,000 transparencies to his credit. He was honoured with the Padma Shri on January 26, 1981.
A diploma in painting from the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Madras. A post-graduate diploma in ceramics in Czechoslovakia. The first chairman of the faculty of Exhibition Design at N I D, which he joined in 1961, shortly after it was founded. He has impressive achievements to his credit: The Shringar pageant of Indian costumes, presented by Air India… the Agri-Expo ‘77 exhibition for the Indian Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation… the Asia ’72 exhibition in New Delhi for the Central Government to mark 25 years of Indian independence… The Nescafe container/ glass…
We sought out Dashrath Patel for some basic answers about design, a little understood concept in the Indian context today. The conversation darts in directions we had not foreseen, illuminating our world with ideas and sensitivities we had held at arm’s length all our lives. Over the hours, we gradually touch base with the person behind the persona. Here he is:
What is design?
Design is not decoration. Nor is it styling. In design, the form should derive from function. How many designs are based on our own needs? When something is really functional, it is ideal. You don’t have to make it elegant. Take the human body. When you trim off the excess, it becomes elegant anyway.
(Laughs) The object of designing is for people to use the result. It is not like the fine arts, where you can say, ‘I’ve painted this. If you don’t like it, go to hell.’ You cannot do that. Design is not an art. It is like pure science or engineering. If I design a shoe for you that pinches, you will not wear it. You won’t say, ‘I will wear it because I like the designer.’ There is nothing to be romantic about. With art, you only think that you’ve wasted your time or your money. It doesn’t directly hurt you. But if I design a bad product for you, it really hurts you. That’s the basic difference.
How do you look at the role of the designer in society?
There is a very important question in my mind. Whom are we designing for? The minority or the majority? We have to consciously make identifications.
That’s why I told some potters at Kumbha, ‘Don’t make the mistake of thinking that, as a craftsman, I’ll do artwork. That way, you’ll limit yourself from the many to the few. Instead of a whole village buying your pots for cooking, you’ll only have Dashrath Patel buying your art.’
After 20 years at N I D, we know that as designers, we have to go to the people. Otherwise, we are only involved in the activity of innovation. Take an instance. If somebody told me, ‘This is a tape-recorder. We want the latest model. Could you design it?’ I can just tinker a little, make a few cosmetic changes, and say it is a new model. Right? But if we want to design something for the people of the country, we have to first identify our values. We cannot design without values. (Passionately) We cannot…
Yet, architects talk in terms of two or three bedrooms in a house. And the man who buys the house seeks only four bedrooms and a garden. But they never talk about the quality of life to be led in the house. Standards of living differ with people. It cannot be stated in terms of bedrooms and bathrooms.
Has the dying out of traditions and the booming urban culture warped the fibre of personal life?
A designer cannot design a way of life. He can only try to understand it. The whole industrial system has brought about faceless products. The cities have brought about a lack of identity. That is why the quality of life is deteriorating.
If the potter in a village gives you a matka or pot, the point is that you have bought the matka from him, not whether the water in it is very cold or not. If a farmer gives me wheat in the barter system, at least I’ll know whether he has given me rotten wheat or good wheat. The personal equation is very important. But today, that phase is over. Human relationships are absent. When I design something, I don’t know who is going to buy it. So, I don’t worry much about the product.
What about the attitude of Indian industry to design?
Design has never been given its due anywhere in the world because industrialists, who produce the design products, are just brokers. They take a product to sell it. Industry has not understood that design has to focus on development. A lot of study is needed.
(Thoughtfully) But today, it is the market of the seller, not the buyer. We have to buy most things unquestioningly. Most industries operate from a profit-making base, not a competitive one. So, the quality of design matters little to them. When the question arises about basic changes, for instance dies or motors, they say, ‘Why should we change when the product is selling anyway? It costs money. If the cost can be recovered in the competitive market, we are willing to do it; otherwise not.’
I once had a letter at the N I D, asking me to design a car. I was thrilled at being given such an opportunity. But actually they just wanted me to change a front grill. They were more interested in mere styling, or the pretence of design, than in real changes…
What, then, is the contribution of a designer to a product?
A cassette player may be working a hundred per cent satisfactorily by engineering standards. But a designer can combine an understanding of the production effort and requirements from the machine with ergonomics or biotechnology to restate the product and make it more economical and acceptable to people. (Pushing back his hair) But we have never studied ergonomics, the human engineering of the Indian people. Even a lever should fit the hand like a glove.
Is the Indian education system responsible for the plight of design here?
Education should be our first priority today, not design. Our education system is rotten. (Angrily) It can never produce an inspired man. It is not meant for taking leadership. We never make decisions, we never make choices. But we have to put some thought into solving our problems. We have to make people think and be aware. We have to act as catalysts.
In Europe, design as a profession is old and established. Design is a very young profession here, hardly 20 years old. N I D has awarded diplomas to just 60 or 70 students so far. Most of the designing in this country is done by graduates from the schools of art. We don’t have enough trained designers. As a result, 90 per cent of the products here are imitations from catalogues. (Emotionally) But you cannot produce a Mercedes-Benz by looking at a Mercedes catalogue…
We have to search for the values of our country. Education has to be based on our experience. I think we’ve come to the stage when we have copied enough. We have to go back to our roots.
It is painful to know that if I don’t get a job in Ahmedabad, I can get one in Delhi or any of the other metropolitan cities. Or even in New York or Chicago. But with our education system, we won’t fit into any village in India, though we’ll be able to do something in any European village. Our education is so alien to our society.
To begin with, let’s talk about it. Let’s have a discussion. (Pauses to think) Design consciousness should begin with education. Instead of painting classes in school, product design can be introduced.
What about your personal experiences as a designer….?
I design because I like fun. (Explaining the Asia ’72 exhibition) During this project, I did the visualization, the photography and the architecture. We also captured 25 years of free India in a 3 ½ hour film, telescoped into seven minutes, which cost Rs. 1 crore. Inspired by Kalidas’ Meghdoot, some of the shooting was done from a helicopter.
To me, India is sounds, not music. Technically, it was tough. At one point, I was shooting 360 degrees around, wearing nine Nikons on my head, like a hat. Totally computerised, the film involved 190 carrousel projectors to achieve a circarama effect at high speed.
But the AGRIEXPO project in 1977 was even more exciting. All the material we collected could have been turned into a museum of man as he is in an agrarian society. If we preserve everything, we preserve life ~ the way people cook, the way people store food, the way people grow things, the way people plough. The farmers gave me the most magnificent things from their day-to-day use ~ including 100 and 200-year-old ploughs. It’s a pity it’s all been put away in storage.
There’s a bullock cart at the N I D. It’s been in the possession of a family for a minimum of 250 documented years. Do you know what is unique about it? All bullock carts have axles that control the wheels, but this one has no axle at all. When the cart goes through the village, according to the track, the wheel goes out and comes back.
What a fantastic understanding of engineering! But I fear there will be a time when all knowledge will become antiquity. Say, if I can’t read Tamil…
What’s your approach to the ‘Ahmedabad: 2000’ project that you’ve undertaken for the Planning Commission?
I’d recommend that the city should not grow any further. Bombay has lost all its trees. Madras is not far behind. During my student life in Madras, I have seen Mount Road. There were banyan trees on both sides of it. They auctioned them for Re. 1 a tree. Does change have to be in this direction?
Change is not necessary for the sake of change. I don’t change my friends every third day. Nor do I easily change my camera or my house or my kitchen. Let me tell you, we change only what does not directly affect us.
What made you opt for a life in design?
When I was a child, I liked to pluck raw berries and mangoes with my small girlfriends. I could have been a textile merchant if I had known how to calculate because my father had a big business. But the highest I got in mathematics is 5 per cent! (Grinning) So, I had two other choices before me ~ to play or to draw.
If my work is going to remain after me, it will be my paintings and my drawings. I should not say so, but I have a bigger reputation as a painter than as a designer. From Madras, I went to France to study painting. I have a year of exhibitions there to my credit. I joined the N I D, the country’s first design school, because I had no better place to go. It always fascinated me to shift from one medium to another, and to meet people.
When I went to France, I met writers, painters, musicians. When I came an industrial designer, I met scientists, mathematicians, engineers.
I had a lot of dreams then. But now I feel I’ve been cheated. Under the pretence of involvement in social change (at the N I D), I feel we have missed the bus. But I learnt great things at the institute. They gave me magnificent opportunities. Whatever turns out ~ good or bad ~ I am a party to it. I’m not outside it.
What are you working on at Skills today?
All my life, I’ve worked for people who have a surplus. Today, for the first time, I am working for people who have nothing. And therefore, I feel I’m going to be saved by this experience in liberating the media. For instance, if you have a message to convey and need a projector, I will tell you how to make one yourself. So, that you can get rid of me.
When I talk about the cardboard projector, I’m talking about the man who has no means. On that level, it is an achievement. To a person who has seen a carrousel, it means very little. But for villagers who don’t have electricity, anything projected 3 ft. by 2 ft. is a great gain.
I’m not talking of quality. For a man who has never seen a projected image, where does the question of quality arise? I am trying to meet people on a personal level, village people who need a projector but can’t afford one. They can make the cardboard projector themselves.
I can thus liberate my knowledge. Maybe I can give it to people who need it to repair a window or organise a house or to communicate a message.
As a multi-media creative person, do you feel sad that a designer is always called in last on any project?
Are we interested in the letter or the envelope? Usually, the envelope is done first, and the letter or message is crumpled.
(First published in Indian Express, Chennai/Madras, in 1981)