The mandira, used to make butter and buttermilk, is not just a wooden stick with blades. It takes on mythological connotations with the churn of the ocean, of Mount Meru and the gods and demons. The bahi-khata, the red cloth-covered notebook for bookkeeping, speaks of the business of recording trade in the subcontinent. The sari blouse is a statement about an egalitarian choice, which turned its back to class discrimination and wore propriety on its sleeve. Jahnvi Lakhota Nandan’s book Pukka Indian: 100 objects that define India (Roli Books; Rs 1,800), which released last week, is a design primer on the many aspects of an Indian home, seen through a cultural, religious, social and political lens.
Design distinguishes people and societies from one another, the objects that feature in the book tell of the role they play in our daily lives. From agarbattis to dhotis, pressure cookers to phool malas, and mangalsutras to inland letters, “their design is a mirror of our attitudes and habits,” says Nandan, “this book took six years, the list of objects alone took a year.” She works as a perfumer in Paris, and the book is her quest of making the invisible visible. Her doctorate in architecture design from the University of Tsukuba, Japan, made her obsess over form. The approach in the
book is of a product designer, using the tools of iconic association to highlight everyday products.
With photographs by Goa-based Shivani Gupta, which capture the context of each product as much as its form and design, the 223-page book devotes two pages each to an object and its cultural storyline. Objects are explained through art, films, literature, myths and rituals. In the chimta-tava, we read of Premchand’s Idgah story, where the new pair of tongs are the only possession of a mother and son, which also tells of its ubiquitous feature in every home. The chaidaan is explained through the story of the 2009 film Ek Cutting Chai, a love story of a maid and the chaiwala, spread across steaming cups of chai.
Some of the objects are presented in the light of India’s political history as well, from the Amrutanjan Balm, where its maker Panthulu was part of Gandhi’s Salt March, to Babuline Gripe Water, which was India’s infant colic competitor to London’s Woodward. These swadeshi tales may not be present in the modern imagination, but they lend a sense of nationhood through their origins. The book records the past and present of each of the 100 objects, connecting the dots sometimes through the diaspora as well.
Both Nandan and Gupta acknowledge the sense of nostalgia that the book presents, though for Nandan it was the material, shape and form of the object that privileged mention. “We have both learnt classical dance and for us even an outstretched arm is an emotion. For me the emotion in these objects is in their use, the applying of kajal, the sharing of paan, or the art of releasing the sweet smelling rosewater through a gulabpash,” says Nandan.
“I was entering into personal spaces of people for my photographs,” says Gupta, “When I went to my dhobi for a photo of the istri, I realised that he knows so much about my family, of clothes that belong to me and my father. For many people, things like the masala dabba or the bartan are personal,” she says.
Gupta’s photographs for the book are taken from homes across India, including markets of Goa and Delhi, and palaces and villages of Rajasthan.
“There are objects that we couldn’t include, which have native origins, such as buttons that were ornamental in the days of the Mughals, and khaki, which became uniform for Indian troops in British India,” says Nandan. She has congregated objects in the book, taking hints from Indian gestures of churning, combing and calculating, she says. From the Kalnirnay calendar, to the chakla-belan, from the datum to the neti pot, and from the note mala to the planter’s chair, each reflect Indian habits that are a part of our everyday. Ultimately, through the book, one finds how the symbolic and the material intersect and influence our lives.