Monday, May 26, 2014

A design revolution from the grassroots to workshops - across India


By Madhusree Chatterjee

A geometric contraption, sleek and flashy, with a large monitor screen kept a hawk’s watch on the cricket buffs who thronged the venues to catch their cricket icons in action in the last Indian Premier League season. The visitor management system (VMS) is a new tracking apparatus that can record the facilities accessed by specific visitors and provide documentation on the whereabouts in a public venue. It is designer in appearance and easy to operate. The manufacturers claim that the machine can help security personnel screen individuals and allow them access to secure areas of operation.
 In the last IPL cricket season, the flamboyant visitor management system was a hit.
 Design is an important aspect of mass consumers’ and individual utility products in India with companies and standalone manufacturers warming up to the need of aesthetics in technology to package their wares for better user-efficiency. The contemporary design manual of India, however, reads a little different from its counterparts in the developed nations. It takes into account affordability, visual aesthetics, economy of scale, eco-compatibility, competitiveness, reduction of production processes, downscaling of overheads and at the same time ensures quality to meet global standards. The design solutions have to relate to diverse segments among the spectrum of consumers to cater to the traditional mindsets of the domestic buyers and the ideas of minimal ethnic chic that international buyers seek from Indian designers.
“We have a national design policy that works on the slogan ‘made in India for the world’. We have to make this a reality. The Indian design is difficult to define, but it has to ensure quality at the bottom and keep in mind artistic traditions of the country,” Pradyumna Vyas, the director of the National School of Design (Ahmedabad), told this writer in the national capital, explaining th essence of the new Indian design paradigm.
 Vyas is at the helm of a national design movement in the country, the “Design Clinic”, which is helping medium and small scale industries (MSMEs) in India to streamline their products with design interventions to make them more user-friendly and competitive in the market. The Design Clinic, which provides solutions to MSMEs was launched in 2010 under the aegis of the National Institute of Design and the Indian ministry of commerce.
 The director of the National Institute of Design said the "objective of the  campaign was to enhance the manufacturing competency” of the micro-medium-and small enterprises through design strategies to improvise on product designs, processes, commercialization of scale, ergonomics, packaging and many other system-related activity through design support. The Design Clinic has since mobilized interface between the designers’ fraternity and entrepreneurs with 311 design awareness seminars and 160 design awareness programmes in the last four years. Statistics cite that over 250 design projects were in various stages of progress across the country.
 The figures furnished by National Institute of Design are impressive —Over 300 MSME clusters have been design sensitized with seminars and the design needs of more than 185 clusters accessed  spot design solutions. A query as to why the government has targeted the MSMEs for a design intervention programme throws light on the need and the potential for design intervention in this  sector.
 “The medium, micro and the small scale sector is a huge area which employs the largest workforce in the country after agriculture. The entrepreneurs in these sectors have to come out with innovative products that can survive competition from the multinational companies with value addition through design and creative packaging,” Vyas said. The exponential growth in the sector since independence and  globalization have been the primary inspiration for the campaign. “I want to let people (sic consumers) know that a small industry can offer quality with design – manufacture products that are economical, user-friendly, upgraded and with a feel good factor,’ the director of NID said.
 The project operates on a three-pronged premise – it tries to build design awareness by taking designers and solutions to the doorstep of the industry, as several medium and small scale factories in the country have no idea about the importance of design in their products, convince entrepreneurs to invest in design to reap higher returns and pools designers from the fraternity - of design students, design faculty and professional designers - to intervene as teams across the country.
 By bringing together designers and those who have competitive initiatives under one umbrella, the “clinic” has been able to create a holistic report about the status of design and industry, Shashank Mehta, activity chairperson of the Design Clinic said. One of the advantages of the design movement has been creation of linkages at multiple levels – between designers, manufacturers, academia, artists, workforce and governments. It has led to the growth  of a new segment of self-taught designers with technical background, who have become innovators, Mehta said.
 The design movement in India is not confined to the industry alone — a parallel movement in the field of utility arts is coming closer to the industry to forge a greater linkage with the nationwide design intervention movement on the strength of a wide range of “highly aesthetic utility designer goods”. Bulk if it is household accessory and lifestyle products – which provide cost-effective alternatives to the fast-moving consumer goods and lifestyle segments.
 The Sunil Sethi Design Alliance (SSDA) connects local material to craftspeople with designer training programmes and market nodes for networks to sell crafts based designer products in the domestic and international markets. The alliance uses local material like metal, stone, wood, terracotta and natural fabrics on a mass production scale by requisitioning the services of trained designers, who mobilize craftspeople at the grassroots with awareness and innovations.
 “Crafts is well accepted in the global market. The products made in India using Indian crafts traditions are sold at some of the best of stores worldwide. However, the creative brief and the vision comes from the world market – and the formal foreign clients who commission manufacturing in India,” Sunil Sethi of SSDA told this writer in an interview. Sethi, who heads the Fashion Design of India, said the “creative brief of Indian design must change from west-oriented notions of creative expression to a more indigenised designs”.\ The change will only happen when India is secure and confident about brand India. In fact, tremendous efforts are being made by the government and different bodies at the grassroots to create opportunities for people craftspeople and artisans, Sethi pointed out.
“It is the industry link which is missing, wherein Indian designers, who are not working under the creative vision of international brands and stories, get recognized for their creativity,” Sethi said.The design veteran pointed to three broad trends in the lifestyle design segments — a desire to experiment with new techniques and material, collaborations and crossing over of different genres.
 “The world is ready to embrace brand India – but Indian designers need to be more serious about it. In the last five years, the primary change that is visible today is that crafts will be accepted at every level- be it in the luxury segment or on the high street. Use of natural material is in global demand. Sustainable fabrics and textiles using techniques like block printing and vegetable dyes that are part of our tradition – today have a global market,” Sethi said.  It is the sensibility in design that needs to be adapted in a global language, he argued.
Beside textiles, “stones and table ware from India in contemporary products using traditional Indian material are rising in appeal as well, Sethi explained. India is a country known for its colours; but “it is important to show restraint in the colour palette and showcase the nuances of the textures in Indian handicrafts instead in the international market.”
 The most significant trend in the design naufacture industry is that it is no longer necessary to target economies of scale and “produce in large numbers”. Boutique stories and brands positions are gaining toehold globally and the “niche trade” networks are working for India where most of the  crafts-based manufacturing is cottage industry, requiring flexibility, Sethi said. “We can now focus on quality”.
 Innovation and diversity of material are integral to design innovations both at the industrial and lifestyle accessory segments. Designers like Abraham & Thakore, Anupama Kundoo, Thukral & Tagra and Gunjan Gupta say the “today’s fashion is becoming more post-conceptual in nature” – marking a homecoming for designers who are falling back on roots material, crafts base and minimalist motifs and cuts in basic colours to make brand India more assertive — and create an identity both at the overseas and domestic platforms.  Beside the private initiatives, the government of India has been promoting ethnic crafts-based design with the creation of ethnic crafts haats (markets) clusters across the country  - where local artisans are allowed to hawk their wares directly to buyers without the mediation of touts or networks of middlemen in the metrpolitan centres. "The government has to be more proactive in promoting India-made designer products in the global markets," crafts activist Jaya Jaitly said.   
 In a design showcase, “Made in India – Samskara” few months ago under the global “Be Open” project, a global design promotion campaign, five leading Indian designers revived a traditional range of material and crafts like “gadda”, “bori”, traditional glass blowing, terracotta, metal,  stone craft, meenakari, and temple ware in contemporary lifestyle products.
 “It is the way we use the material that gives the products new sensibilities,” Rakesh Thakore of Abraham & Thakore, said. Thakore’s strength lies in his hand-woven fabrics which he uses for designer scarves, sari and clothings. Thakore’s creations, like many designers in India, reflect the spirit of  minimalim and adaptabality to the western styles sustained by an  Indian aesthetic core.
 International design promoter Yelena Baturina, who conceived the “Be Open” design promotion campaign globally, says her mission is to find best proponents of the hand-made designs today and find a place for their works in the future. “I strongly believe that the future of design making is grounded in the past – therefore keeping the heritage alive is vital,” Baturina told this writer in an interview. India figures on the top on the list of priority nations.
 There are many things said about the artistic energy of India – its extraordinary living mythology, the presence of the past, its spirituality and simultaneously its “contemporaniety”,” the promoter said. All this makes India, “a more remarkable place to launch a global investigation into bringing the past into the present and future.
 Another integral component of the behind the design movement in India is to alleviate fears that globalization, free trade and mass market production are threats to artisans - by turning “the free trade economy into an opportunity for craftspeople at the grassroots”. "We are committed to making it a reality," Padyumna Vyas, the director of the National School of Design said.

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