Nov 28, 2008

India - How national is NID

Sadanand Menon / New Delhi November 28, 2008, 0:05 IST

As a nation, we have been rather poor in institutional histories. While most societies believe that honest and complete ‘origin stories’ of important institutions often hold the key for their ability to stake a claim to contemporary relevance, we in India seem to take recourse to the opposite practise of obfuscating and mystifying even our immediate past to a point of speculative gossip.

There are no authorised or authoritative biographies of say India’s first ‘Art School’ in Madras, almost 160-years old, or of cultural institutions that emerged a little later like Tagore’s Shantiniketan in Bengal or Rukmini Devi Arundale’s Kalakshetra in Madras or Vallathol’s Kalamandalam in Kerala. Even closer, there are no cogent narratives of the Sangeet Natak or Lalit Kala or the Sahitya Akademis, all of which have crossed their golden jubilees. The story of the National School of Drama too remains to be written in some detail.

The most curious, though, is the case of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. While it was founded in 1961, almost every official document on the institute prepared by the institute itself mysteriously chooses to periodise it only from 1972. It is as if the former decade of design practice and education simply did not exist.

The new book ‘Indian Design Edge’ (Lotus/Roli, 2008), by Darlie Koshy, till recently the NID Director, after a long time, acknowledges 1961as the founding year of the institute. However, he too drops it there like a hot potato and quickly leaps the 18 years to the UNIDO/ICSID (International Council of Societies of Industrial Design) initiative called the ‘Ahmedabad Declaration’ of 1979, which foregrounds the idea of ‘design for development’. How and why the NID came to be chosen as the site for this meeting, its previous record and work, is entirely bypassed.

This is unusual. The past week that I have been conducting a workshop at NID, I’m surprised to find that the name of Gautam or Gira Sarabhai, at whose initiative the institute was set up in Ahmedabad and who played significant roles in shaping the education programme there over the next decade, simply does not figure anywhere. It’s almost as if they did not exist. So too Dashrath Patel who set up the institute and went on to train at least three batches of faculty for the NID. He also built the profile of the institute with his prolific design practice and executing every major national and international exhibition that the NID had pavilions at, like the trade fairs at New York, Osaka and Montreal, the Nehru and Gandhi exhibitions, the Agri-Expo and so on. While the NID did take credit for some of these events, they conveniently forgot to give credit for the pioneers who were responsible for that.

An institution unable to be honest with its own biography has little chances of producing honest work too. The NID does not have anything like an open archive. What they do have is a dump room behind the library where prototypes created by a generation of designers who worked or visited here, are stacked, covered with cobwebs and dust. These include the original Eames Chair, the Barcelona Chair and so on to the vast range of products designed by Dashrath. No one has access to this and batches of students have been studying and working here without any reference to the history of the institution.

The blankness is evident on campus. It provokes one to ask the question, ‘How National is this National Institute of Design’? What do they know about their nation? What have they contributed to the nation? How many designs or products by this institute have made any impact or difference to life of common people? Is there any capability here to usher in a ‘design revolution’?

The answer can only be an unequivocal no. In 2007, for the first time, the draft of a National Design Policy was tabled in Parliament. This was only the second time, after the Charles Eames report on the ‘Lota’ in 1958, that the country was addressing issues in modern design. The Eames Report led to the founding of the NID. The National Design Policy, however, comes at a time when it might actually be more prudent to shut down the NID, considering its lacunae on several fronts and its disconnect with the larger needs of the Indian economy. The institute has turned into a school for styling and is distanced from real ‘design’ needs. It has forgotten to approach design as if people mattered.

It is not easy to correct this without adequate self-reflexivity. But self-reflexivity is crucially linked to self-knowledge and honest historicising. For this, it is imperative that the NID at least get its own history in order.

A dishonest history can only generate dishonest and counterfeit design.

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