Last month, I experienced one of the most exciting days in my academic life when Tanishka Kachru, a senior faculty member at National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, India, invited me to be a part of a history of design workshop. This entailed a five-day module for Foundation Design students – a large group comprising 112 first-year undergraduate students – mentored by Tanishka, who is interested in pre-colonial modernity in India, and myself, an architect and designer, as well as Dr. Shilpa Das, a social scientist and disability activist, and Sangita Shroff, a local senior exhibition designer.
The format included eight lectures combined with studio activities, with each of the mentors presenting a distinct two. So, this was a perfect opportunity for me to share my own work-in-progress with the community, including with the participating students. I was also thrilled with the idea of developing further design history networks in India, especially when no university or college in the region presently offers 'design history' as a course (scholars who have been writing about design are either art historians or trained as designers).
One of the challenges in teaching Design History in this context was establishing its relevance in the minds of the young students. After completing a series of practice- and skills-based modules in their first year of study, these young students often consider themselves as designers of 'new things', so 'History of Design' to them sounds rather archaic. The other challenge was defining the breadth and depth of the lecture topics. As my other colleagues were presenting a range of cases, from Indus Valley civilisation to the colonial period of the subcontinent, along with a brief overview of the western history of modern design, which was necessary for a young audience, I chose to present an ethnographic work on contemporary design culture, discovering historicity within.
Investigating the history and evolution of writing tools.
As the nature of the workshop was dialogic, student groups (around 18 in total) also contributed to the discussion through exploring a range of timescapes and geographies, objects and cultures, and narratives and voices. Some notable subjects included:
Food design, including objects and practices, from five different states in India
The portrayal of women through Disney princesses
A comparative history of make-up and hair styles from five nations of the world over the last century
The evolution of writing tools
A history of planned obsolescence through a graphic novel storyboard
Elements of architecture in Ahmedabad
The social construction of everyday design in contemporary India
Interestingly, these groups did not just focus on creating and analysing content, but also on presentation mediums in the specified framework of the workshop.
Students and workshop conveners at NID Ahmedabad.
Overall, the workshop was a small step towards connecting with the larger scholarship of design history after the landmark DHS Annual Conference 'Towards Global Histories of Design: Postcolonial Perspectives', which took place at NID in 2013, and for which Tanishka was the co-host. My personal association with design history started from this very conference, during which time I was able to engage with scholars like Kjetil Fallan, Gabrielle Orapollo and Jane Pavitt, and Indian design academics like M. P. Ranjan and S. Balaram. It was here when I realised the potential of post-colonial contributions in the field.
We - the small group of academics and practitioners in India - look forward to continuing our engagements with the discipline: to interact with a global design history network for our emerging needs, and to explore Design History as a form of 'knowing'.
Saurabh Tewari Assistant Professor at the Department of Architecture, School of Planning and Architecture Bhopal @thinksaurabh