What if one were to walk into a museum and view objects not as things but as memories? What if telling a story through multiple media could show you beauty in the everyday? What if an exhibition is not about objects but ideas? This is what designer Divya Thakur attempts in “Design: The India Story”. The exhibition which simultaneously shows in two galleries in Mumbai is an engagement with product design that goes back nearly 150 years.
At the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), “Objects Through Time” encourages people to engage with five categories — Technology and Appliances, Utensils, Security, Seating and Surface Design. “Through storytelling, we’ve attempted to show everyday design,” says Thakur, adding, “For instance, for the longest time, we imagined that elevated seating came with the British. But our research showed how pedestals and asans were always around, even if it was a privilege of the royalty. Through coins and sculptures, we have shown spontaneous forms of seating.” Classic designs are edged by contemporary designers including Sandeep Sangaru’s bamboo chair, Sahil Bagga and Sarthak Sengupta’s Katran chair, Nikita Bhate’s Planters Chair, and Rooshad Shroff’s stainless steel chair.
“The primary purpose of any design is to fulfil a function. If it doesn’t do that, then the object is an indulgence and belongs to the realm of art. That distinction needs to be clear,” says Thakur. This belief belongs to the ancient Indian notion of sustainability, one of the eight “pillars of thought” in India’s history of design. Concepts such as these are presented in “Ideas Through Time”, the show at the Gallery Max Mueller Bhavan (MMB).
“Traditionally, before we made an object, we always considered whether it was really necessary. Even decoration is superfluous if it doesn’t serve a purpose; it needs to give rise to certain emotions or thoughts in the person looking at it,” says Thakur. She believes that designers, in India and abroad, must allow these values to guide their work.
But “Objects Through Time” does not provide the viewer with a cogent explanation of how these values are at work in the items on display. Between familiar objects such as transistor radios, hand-held embroidered fans and heavy iron trunks, the exhibition does little to encourage people to think about why these objects were designed in specific ways.
However, certain exhibits do offer intriguing insights, especially those that were not made in India; many have been modified, adapted or repurposed in our homes. For instance, the tiffin box, a British invention, came with two long spoons attached to its sides — hardly a utensil any Indian would have used at the time. The ceramic bharanis that now store memories and pickles were used during British India to transport sulphuric acid to industries. It was later appropriated to suit domestic use. “When you look at handcrafted objects, one may say it’s Indo-Portuguese or Dutch, but then you begin to see Gujarati influences. How did that happen, and how did we adapt? These are questions we present at the exhibition. We travel from regional to contemporary to global influences,” says Thakur. The show also juxtaposes mass-produced objects against grassroot innovations. In the section on lighting, for instance, modern marble light bulbs are set next to an innovative stove that gives off a steady light while cooking.
Founder of the Mumbai-based studio and concept store Design Temple, Thakur believes the economy of mass production will continue to dominate in the future. There’s a need for well-designed products, she says. But what’s missing is people’s active response to what they use. “The day we start evaluating our objects more carefully, markets will become better at creating products that function well and simplify our lives,” she says.
The concept of time or the kalchakra explains itself at MMB. “Every object goes through a cycle of inception and ultimate dissolution in Indian philosophy, in contrast to Western philosophy, which views time as linear. In each new cycle, the object reinvents itself and discards everything redundant. So when we speak of disruption as a new buzzword in marketing, it’s something India knew all along,” says Thakur.