Is Fashion the Medium, the Method or the Message?

Fashion is best understood when it is compared to a language and language is both the medium by which concepts are created and conveyed, and also the means by which messages are articulated. This means that fashion, like language, has two aspects: the symbolic and the semiotic. The symbolic aspect represents the normative reserve of ‘forms’, already existing, by which a people ‘speak’ and are ‘understood’ in the everyday. The semiotic aspect lies in how people creatively modify or even subvert the symbols to create new signs with regenerated meanings. This creative play of existing forms allows for individualistic expression revolving around changing notions of the self in relation to the world. In terms of fashion, ‘dress’ represents the normative reserve (the language) already in use and clearly recognized and understood by all members of a society and ‘dressing up’ is the stylistic expression of the individual/s. It is in this desire to ‘dress up’ that a need for direction and expertise from fashion designers arises. A fashion designer becomes the interpreter of the zeitgeist that inspirits the people of a particular society and culture. The work of the fashion designer must be to translate the social experience of the people in an aesthetic, deeply satisfying way. This requires the designer to be well-versed in the ‘language’ of style and ultimately be a poet in the expression of her ideas.

Unfortunately, the characteristics normally associated with fashion like “expressive”, “experimental”, “art”, “avant garde”, have been misconstrued as its ‘message’. The young, inexperienced designer misunderstands what her real work ought to be and directs all her efforts in creatively communicating what she thinks is ‘the message’ of fashion. The result is that we often see fashion- especially when designed by student fashion designers- undoubtedly great to look at, but flat and unidimensional, and lacking in an understanding of its semiotic potential; much like beautifully writing the alphabet, but aimlessly grouping it together in words and phrases that lack syntax, relevance and meaning. This is the problem with the symbolic. On its own, it is fixed, enclosed, limited in its meaning and it comes to us from the outside, from society or from hegemonic ideas. The semiotic, on the other hand, gets shaped from the individual’s inner drive and impulses. Without, the normative reserve of symbols, the semiotic would have no medium to convey its signifieds. It’s only when the two work together that ‘the thing spoken of’, becomes meaningful. Converting the symbolic into a sign, driven by inspiration and a deep understanding of the forms and their historical power to communicate, is the skill, talent and genius of a great fashion designer.

Fashion as a symbol is meaningless. It remains a thing of mere vanity and is reduced to a spectacle, with its only and truest claim being that it can entertain people. When it begins to do that, it becomes a ‘medium of entertainment’. But fashion is a compromise, when it is restricted to being just a medium, or just the message. It indicates that the fashion designer hasn’t yet grown to a deeper understanding of what his/ her real work ought to be. Clothes are the medium, ‘fashioning’ is the design and the method, and a whole new attitude, or refined elegance- will inevitably be the message. This method, that crafts an abstraction of social experience into a tangible material form, this ability to fashion…that is the holy grail of the designer. It is for the discovery of ‘the method’ that s/he seeks an education. It is ‘the voice’ and the ‘idiom of expression’ that is his/ her lifelong pursuit.

 

Image Source: InStyle

What if Fashion Became, What Fashion is Not?

In my 20’s, as a young teacher in the subject of Fashion Illustration, I was always struck by how alien the western concept of fashion was vis-à-vis the lives, experiences and identity of Indian students. The beautiful illustrations they made were far-fetched from their own day-to-day lives. Extra tall figures of sinuous female croquis with broad shoulders and cinched in waists, long necks and bold, form-fitted styles that drew copiously from the images in western fashion mags. They didn’t see it as a problem…rather, they saw it as something ‘outside of the conventional’ and therefore exciting. And going by what the fashion magazines conveyed, fashion was nothing if not exciting! Still others saw it as being anything that was ‘non-traditional’. In other words, they saw tradition as being fixed and fashion as being fluid, and therefore perfectly suited as an alibi in their search for an ‘original’, ‘independent’ voice. Fashion, in the minds of many an Indian student, has been a way to break free from their cultural moorings and explore new ways of ‘being’. However, while they seek escape from suffocating and outdated social mores, they often unwittingly trap themselves in terribly limited notions of fashion.

 

Fashion, in western society, has been both- the machinery and the product of capitalism. In that context, it has been the means by which needs are artificially manufactured, and then in ever-increasing circles of artifice- apparently catered to. In other words, demand was artificially created for the things that industry could supply. Creating demand was a way of sustaining industry, charting growth, generating profits and apparently progressing. The change from a feudal society to an industrial one, created new social strata and fashion catered to the need of non-verbally communicating one’s social status. Thus, fashion came to be so deeply imbued with signs. After all, I know by looking at a garment in a fashion glossy or in a high-end store whether it is apt for me, or whether it is ‘out of my league’. Yet, these are depraving divisions in a society that suffers from poverty and a shameful disparity in wealth distribution. The upper classes in Indian society which show a similarity and kinship in taste and lifestyle to other economically powerful western societies, feel no connection with the vast multitude of economically lower and economically backward sections of society. Fashion, in such a scenario, is a power that caters to only the well-to-do, because it is this segment that can perhaps be seduced to create a demand for the western template of fashion, that our young fashion designers are so eager to supply.

 

India’s history and evolution have been different. Colonized under British rule for about two hundred years, India not only suffered a loss of material wealth, but also a loss of her cultural wealth. Post-independence, India found herself in the middle of a whole new world order, facing new prospects, but with low confidence, given her memories of a battered past. Building an independent sovereign nation required looking at impressive modern societies that had grown in power and influence due to industrialization. With this new exposure, our passive Indian-ness felt like a blemish (one that we must hurriedly conceal). We felt challenged to meet the standards and templates created by western society. Our aspirations, by default, got framed by the western models of achievement and a new work ethic that was directed towards productivity and the generation of profits. While that is a pragmatic way to attract wealth, create wealth and have it up the standards of living for society as a whole, the single-minded focus on wealth alienates us from our own hearts. Simplicity, is seen as a lack of both, imagination and richness, and artifice- as a sign of culture and evolved thought. The condition we find ourselves in therefore, is one in which we are fearful of ‘that which we have distanced ourselves from’. We find it a strain to be open to hearing, seeing and feeling. The result is that empathy- which is our capacity to be receptive and responsive to another- and is a natural human quality, lies undeveloped in us. We are living mechanically, robotically, choosing to deaden our sense of empathy, because what it demands out of us, is unsettling.

Fashion is the design of identity. It’s the crafting of an image or persona through clothes; and what a tragedy it is when that identity is masked or ‘costumed’ as a cover-up for a sense of low self-esteem, rather than being an expression and celebration of who one is. Fashion, with its elitist moorings, tends to exclude a lot of people who do not resonate with western cultural ideals. Like a student of mine, Riya Ranka, once asked: ‘Why must fashion only be a vehicle for masquerading a false sense of richness? Why must it only be a means by which we can pretend to be who we are not?’

 

Saloni Parasrampuria, a third-year Fashion Design student in my program, chose to redirect the gaze of fashion. For her children’s wear project, she didn’t look at those who were already part of the emerging market as existing consumers, she looked at those who always remain excluded. Where designers typically frame their concepts in terms of lifestyle and the psychological needs/ wants of their target consumer, she chose to design for street children, with no homes, marginal incomes and no ‘lifestyle’. Her ethnographic research made clear their needs and ‘life conditions’ (as opposed to lifestyles) and she designed a ‘multipurpose dress’ for five-year old Khushi, a child living on the streets of Mumbai. The dress was reversible, could double up as a sleeping mat and when folded up, as a container for small things. The project was significant on many levels: One, she consciously chose to disregard all questions and concerns about the commercial feasibility of her project. Second, she deliberately broke away from a commonly perceived notion of fashion, and found an unlikely muse, outside of its charmed inner circle. Third, the design process itself led her to arrive at a critical understanding that clothing is not just an expression of style, it’s also, in the context of a yet-developing economy, a mark of basic dignity, self-sufficiency and self-esteem. Fourth, it’s not the thing in itself that produces a sense of well-being in the owner (people can be happy with or without fashioned things), rather, it’s the awareness that someone cares enough to cater to their needs. The video below beautifully captures little Khushi’s joy on receiving ‘the gift’ that Saloni made for her.

While fashion undeniably has power, it does so only when it has in its system- a beating heart. The heart must do what the heart does best- it must actively search for that which makes it beat, makes it race a little, makes it smile and makes it cry. After all, it’s in resonance that the heart throbs. We must come to know what matters to us and who matters. For that we must look at our immediate surroundings with a little more love and concern, and deepen our engagement. We must seek purpose. We must ask uncomfortable personal questions of ourselves; recognizing that blind imitation can never be deeply fulfilling. In and through this questioning, we must come to understand our strengths. It’s then that the work we do, becomes meaningful. For now, it’s best not to treat fashion as a fixed defined concept, but as an abstraction that is open to new interpretations. Who knows, in the search for authentic interpretations, we may be freed from our need for borrowed ideas and can confidently reclaim our mortgaged identity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image source: Saloni Parasrampuria

Video: Saloni Parasrapuria

Music: T Series

How Do You Spell ‘fashion’?

When people, at a given place in a given time, show more or less similar trends in the way they think, act and behave, we explain it as being the ‘fashion’ of the time.

When someone dresses to be purposely noticeable in a sea of people, adopting styles that may be a divergence from mainstream culture, we describe him or her as being ‘stylish’ or ‘fashionable’. Fashion for such people is a device for differentiation.

When people of a particular age group, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or ideological affiliations dress alike to reinforce their own stereotype, they create an identity or subculture by means of fashion. Fashion here, becomes a signifier of meaning.

Consumers who rely upon big brands to faultlessly and regularly offer them ‘fashionable choices’ supported by fashion design expertise, manufacturing expertise and a wide distribution network, feel secure in the knowledge that they are ‘on trend’. Fashion for a consumer is about being ‘trendy’.

These examples show that people construct the meanings of fashion differently. They attach different values to dress.  Yet, the predominant impression of fashion is that it is essentially the ‘business of looking good’. Despite its ambiguity, this notion has cemented itself as an idea and then for those who have come to passionately believe in this idea, it has become an ideology. When something becomes an ideology, it includes and speaks to only those who support the ideology, and excludes those who don’t. It makes ‘experts’ out of people- those people who mysteriously seem to know more about what it means to ‘look good’ than any one of us lesser mortals do. This tends to put off a lot of people. Fashion, for as much as it is loved and followed, has an equal number of people who despise it, or are simply disinterested. They see it as vain, wasteful and not worthy of the time and resources one is expected to expend on it, just to fit in. Fashion, for many, lacks substance. It seems elusive; nothing more than the fanciful notions of those who are divorced from the simple sentiments and ground realities of common folk.

They are not entirely wrong.

Fashion for too long, has suffered from a paucity of discourse. For something that is so intrinsic to modern life, it’s surprising that it has been positioned as something extrinsic, spectacular, cryptic and out-of-reach, without a strong, assertive counterpoint. Who in particular, can claim to be the originator of the language of fashion? Who decides what’s in and what’s out and why should anyone care for what they think? The love for fashion is certainly not of one type only. People love their clothes for a variety of reasons ranging from associations of it with memory, or for sentimental reasons; for how it envelops their form or sculpts their silhouette, or for how they rely on a particular style of dress to entrench their persona. There are other ‘very human’ reasons: for the love of wearing ‘borrowed’ clothes, for the fact that a piece is cherished because it was ‘lovingly stolen’ from a sibling, for the reason that it’s easy to care for, or because it was inherited, or because it’s versatile and ‘friendly’ with all the other pieces in your wardrobe, or because it’s been part of your journey from one milestone to the next and survived…with you. Dress can also be political. Think of Gandhi and you know that dress can effectively register protest…democratically.

There are a number of ways people relate with clothes and demonstrate care for their appearance, or empower themselves through the language of fashion; and all of these are valid forms of fashion expression. Fashion need not always be spelt in the uppercase, with only one order of actions that define its meaning. Fashion can also be written and spelt in the lower case, drawing an order or sequence from a wide range of experiences relating to clothes. Disrupting this power of uppercase fashion should be at the core of fashion education. The act of disrupting allows for a more critical understanding of fashion and by extension, a more creative, authentic interpretation of it. Students should be nurtured, equipped and encouraged to question popular notions of fashion and redefine it. Inclusiveness of any sort- social, economic or cultural is merely superficial, if it does not begin by respelling that which has marked itself as the final word.

 

 

Image Source: Azzuro Due/ The City That Never Stops by Bill Cunningham

Design is Wisdom

In an interview, sometime near the end of his career, YSL had famously confessed that his one regret was that he had not invented blue jeans. His reason: “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal and simplicity. All that I hope for in my clothes.” His regret contains an important lesson for designers: that the true power of design- its reach, impact and appeal lies beyond the individual intelligence and capacity of the designer. It can only belong to the collective wisdom of a people, living in and through a particular point in time and in accordance with shared values. It’s important that designers come to critically understand that they can only propose ideas, but it’s the social, cultural, historical and economic forces that will eventually mold the idea in order to own it. It’s when an idea is owned by the people, that it becomes fashion.

Fashion is not what fashion designers create, fashion is what the people make. Intrinsic to the design process of fashion therefore, are movements (political, social and cultural), the ideas that they generate, their creative interpretation by fashion designers, the myths around them that are popularized by the media and the marketing strategies that package them as an ‘essential, must-have luxury’. Design is not easy. To add to its complicated make-up, is our own misconception of what design is.

Most of us think that design is restricted to the generation of ‘new’ ideas. What we must come to see, is that design is not just the process by which ideas are ‘made’, but it’s the process by which ideas are ‘made instrumental’. In other words, ideas by themselves are not enough. Ideas are hypothetical. They are assumptions, imaginations and speculations that need to be seen in the light of ‘knowledge’ or ‘what we already know’. And yet, that in itself is not a sufficient curation of an idea. Knowledge must be challenged by experience. The young must be challenged by the old, the eclectic by the common place and the conceptual by the pragmatic.

Design is not a process by which things are made extraordinary, it is on the contrary, the ways in which things are made ordinary and everyday. The design of fashion therefore, must look beyond the pretensions of artistic expression. It must, ever so often, let go of the desire for the ‘spectacular’ and the ‘original’ and instead look at ‘the made’ and ‘the worn’. In them, lies a treasure trove of attributes that have stood the test of time. Coming to see these attributes is the first step in making them ‘instrumental ideas’ and furthering them. These ideas can be effectively re-interpreted to remind people of a time gone by, or to challenge the state of the art or to prompt an attitude of bravado in uncertain times.

Fashion, after all is a language. And like any other language, it is enriched by use and the wealth of meanings that a people bring to it. The design process of fashion must factor in this understanding. As designers, we are interpreters of feeling and expression. And although the glamour of new forms is enticing, if there exists a chasm between the prevailing feeling and the proposed form- the outcome is a failed design. Design is so much more than a search for differentiators, it is- on close scrutiny- a search for wisdom.

 

Image Source: mydailynews; the outsiders.

 

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Ssshhh…Don’t Interrupt When Change Speaks!

The biggest failing of our education system is that it makes the young numb to the tickle of change. It promotes the idea of education as a job guarantee, and as a ticket to a cushy life. It however fails to build the character that is required of an adult to face her world and to also shape it; to lead and not just follow.

Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.”

-William Pollard

How deeply true is the above thought. Understanding that change is inevitable, is an evolution in human consciousness. Initiating change, therefore puts us in a better position to manage the change, as opposed to fighting it or simply enduring it.

Designers too, will be expected to be more than just spin doctors who put old wine in new bottles, they will be expected to lead change. Designers therefore should be able to:

  1. Observe
  2. Find opportunity
  3. Collect pertinent data
  4. Analyse data
  5. Draw insights
  6. Hunt for inspirations
  7. Propose possibilities
  8. Develop samples
  9. Fabricate the prototype
  10. Test it
  11. Make modifications
  12. Refine it to a finished form

Please note all the actions that constitute ‘designing’ are in blue. They’re active, and not passive in virtue. Nowhere in this observation of the design thinking process, is there a recommendation for ‘asking for permission’, ‘doing as one is told’, ‘imitating’ or ‘finding an idea that works.’ The mindset that is driven towards change is very different from the mind that is set on the ideas of success and guarantees. As designers of the education of the future, it is this mindset- geared to lead change-  that our programs must help cultivate.

“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”

                                                                                                            -Steven Spielberg

To observe is fundamental to the design process. It’s also moral, when it is a solitary act; when you see things with nothing but your own awareness. To enable the student to independently observe should be the most essential goal of a foundation program in design. Observing allows us to find opportunities. An opportunity as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is: A good chance, a favouarble occasion. A chance or opening offered by circumstances. Good fortune. I’d like to add, that an opportunity is also the chance to discover potentiality and make possible (the potential).

Opportunity, it must be noted, is entirely, in the eyes of the beholder. The ability to see opportunity requires a deeper vision, one that has come into being as a consequence of being on a quest…having a deep desire to understand what might be the way forward. Without this vision, one fails to see opportunity and can only see problems.

Problems are opportunities in disguise. Our inability to recognize and see opportunities where problems stand, alters the course of our destiny. A problem by virtue, requires a solution. It’s something we must either tackle, address or bypass. It feels bothersome and as a result, it stubbornly fixes and limits the discourse of design. We busy ourselves in designing ‘solutions’ for problems that are at best only imagined, or at worst, simply breeders of other, more complex problems.

An opportunity on the other hand is perceived as a chance to act thoughtfully. It enriches design discourse. It brings in fresh criticality to old concepts. It necessitates the search for insights. It leads us to meaningful and purposeful learning.

“Every project is an opportunity to learn, to figure out problems and challenges, to invent and re-invent.”

                                                                                                            -David Rockwell

To paraphrase this, every project in our programs must be designed to be an opportunity

  1. To learn
  2. To figure out problems and challenges.
  3. To invent and re-invent.

At present, the design of our classes, seems to view failure as an aberration, as a problem. Not only is it not seen as a golden opportunity to learn, to observe the problems and challenges first-hand, it’s seen as THE problem, that must be by-passed. Somehow, we confuse the failures of the outcomes of speculation and trial to the personal failures of the student. The result- the student would rather not think, would rather not try and would rather not risk a self-initiated attempt. Not only is risk-taking not rewarded, it’s not encouraged.

The ways in which we unwittingly do this are:

  1. We are trying to discern evidence of a student’s learning in either her success or failure in fulfilling assigned tasks.
  2. We are assigning tasks to test (and thereby assess) her understanding, preparation and efficiency.
  3. Teaching and learning are construed as performances, where teacher and student must each perform a set of distinct tasks with proof that those tasks have been completed, so that the incidence of learning may be conjectured.

However, had teaching to be viewed or understood as being devoted to learning, we may actually transform each from being a performance, to becoming a consistency- a way of being and not an act done (and then forgotten).

What if we:

  1. Designed our classes to yield opportunities for learning?
  2. Consciously set out to evaluate the difference between, when our classes are presented as opportunities to learn things of value as opposed to being a time and space where they must learn, a pre-determined set of values?
  3. Assigned tasks not to test students’ abilities, but to provide opportunities for them to summon their own understanding and give them a chance to model their knowledge?
  4. Simply boiled down all critical differences between ‘the wrong way’,’ a different way’ and ‘not the best way’ to the essence of it being nothing more than a ‘changed way’? Would that allow us as educators to open up our own minds to the possibilities of innovation?

After all, an education for change, for innovation, cannot run in the same vein as one designed for continuity, stability and maintaining the status quo. Yet, the action to bring about this change must not be a hasty one. We must dwell on the questions that emerge from this contemplation:

  1. How do we educate students who have been taught to follow, to now be geared to lead?
  2. Do they need an indoctrination of methods or do they need an engagement with practices?
  3. Must an education for change and innovation, perpetuate the ways and practices that belong to the very world/ systems we want to bring change to? Or, must we reject outright, the old ways and replace them with new ideas that impress us with their courage to challenge?
  4. Must our education make a clean break from the pedagogies of the past and risk that our students will not come across as being ‘knowledgeable’, ‘sophisticated’ or ‘equipped’ to continue the lineage of the industries they will come to work within?
  5. How do we come to arrive at the centre of a glorious past, an ailing present and an uncertain future and be equipped to function creatively, intuitively and reflectively and come to be seen as valuable contributors to the fields within which we work?

Let this conclude as a question that hovers in your mind, as a constant reminder that these are not problems, but opportunities to grow…to be who we’ve never allowed ourselves to be.

 

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Designers: The Mad Knights

Design, as a creative discipline is like no other. It has a history, but no rules. Its concept is amorphous and ever-changing. It stands on the shifting sands of time. In the past, design meant and was generally understood to be the appearance of a thing and how it looked. Then, it became about how a thing works and now, it’s about how it engages with, and impacts society. Also, design may no longer be discerned only in the expression of an idea in terms of its formal qualities, but also in the intelligence and sub-conscious process that manifests such expression. Design therefore, is in ‘how something is done’, in ‘what is done’, in ‘how it works’ and in ‘how it impacts our lives’. It is the method, the medium and the message.

Design education cannot be cast in the same mold as other disciplines. Its objectives are different. Learning through imagination and play, making conscious the sub-conscious and making purposeful and directional, the intelligence- constitute the aims of its pedagogy. Investigating concepts as opposed to learning about them, experimenting with ideas and making productive, the failures, iterating and improving, reflecting upon the successes and failures of all attempts- are essential aspects of design education.

Creative work is unique. It does not respond to like with like. On the contrary, it begins to think of other possibilities. It works within constraints and yet transcends them. This ability is unique to humans- the ability to speculate, imagine and create beyond what is. In the process, the inert is made dynamic and responsive to the intelligence of the human mind. Creative production, unlike the set and established routines of non-creative production, requires imagination to propel knowledge and the ability to navigate through the dark unknown.

So, how does one learn in the face of the unknown? Design education pitches its mission on this question. Since designers are required to not only be aware of how things ‘are’, but also how they can employ their minds to imagine how things ‘can be’, design education has an epistemological dimension and an ontological one. In other words, in addition to ‘learning by knowing’, student designers must ‘learn by being.’ The ability to function in a climate of ambiguity, to imagine possibilities, to experiment and learn from failures and to have the tenacity to stay the course till the realization of an idea- are the attributes of a designer. These attributes can be cultivated only through the process of doing, encountering, reflecting and circumventing the obstacles. Learning here, is therefore by doing and being. It is by making the leap of imagination that designers come to know what they must know. Much like the mad, self-appointed knight, Don Quixote, who with a head full of romantic ideals, set out to make good the world and rid it of its evil; and who in the end found his reason (but lost his reason to live); designers too, begin with idealistic fervor and learn along the way, about the limitations of imagination intersecting with reality. Their ideas are cut down to size. They gain first-hand insights, which is so much more valuable than receiving second-hand information. They meet much failure, before they meet success. Design, it must be remembered, is an evolutionary process- one that goes from the known to the unknown. Aware that we occupy a space of potentiality, designers through their work navigate uncharted territory and set precedents.

Design education is about culture, not rules. There are no rights, there are no wrongs. There’s no assurance. Nothing is guaranteed. You may not get to the star in the sky, you wanted to arrive at, but by God, you’ll enjoy the journey. And who knows, discover a whole new galaxy along the way.

 

India: Not An Idea, But An Ethos

“Apne hi paani mein pighalna, barf ka mukkadar hai.”

To melt in its own water, is the eventual destiny of an ice cube.

-A dialogue from the 2004 Hindi film, “Swades”

India became a republic 67 years ago. This means as a nation, we are 67 years young. But the history of India as a civilization and culture is around 5000 years old. Our culture is older than our national history and therefore, pervades it. Tolerance for different faiths is an intrinsic part of the Indian ethos and that is evident in the fact that we are a patchwork of different religions and ethnic groups. The culture of harmonious co-existence, with an emphasis on living a life guided by high spiritual ideals- was the DNA that enabled India to emerge as a modern, secular and democratic nation. Our cultural heritage is rich and diverse. We have a variety of foods, costumes, arts, music, dance, architecture and rituals of worship; and all of these constitute the intellectual and aesthetic infrastructure of the people. Or, in simple words, their programming.

 

Modern life, however, is characterized by new ideals. The new emphasis on sophistication, technical education and the abstract ideal of GDP- towards which all human enterprise and endeavor must be directed, clouded the more culturally pervasive ideal of yoga and moksha (transcendence of limitation by uniting oneself with ‘pure unconditioned consciousness’ and liberation through self-realization). These two ideals call for two very different mindsets. While one reasons with us to systematically and gradually renounce worldly life, the other exhorts us to participate more assertively, pro-actively and deliberately towards the ideal of nation-building, with a focus on external, visible development and progress. Modern India desires this ideal of external development, where the state’s institutions are working with the single-minded goal of an ever-increasing measure of growth and progress.

 

This dichotomy presented itself as a crisis to the Indian heart and mind, living in post-independence India. On the one hand, all traditional rituals, arts and crafts were designed to align creative work with the ideals of yoga and moksha; while on the other, modern ideals demanded an alignment with the ideals of visible progress, higher standards of living, economic feasibility and profitability. The former, required us to consciously and devotedly live our lives on the principle of faith and thereby gain an internal mastery over the vagaries of worldly tribulations; while the latter required us to dedicate all work to building institutional structures to control, manage and contain the risks posed by an unpredictable world. The new world required objectivity and so, science replaced faith and was seen as leaning towards the truth; and in opposition to faith, that was seen as being baseless belief. Controlled semantics, became a distinctive feature of modern life that was characterized by mass education, broadcasting, censorship and the controlled dissemination of information. These were two distinct and seemingly incongruent ways of life- one being about intrinsic evolution and the other, about extrinsic evolution.

 

Traditionally, human creativity was characterized by artful expression and therefore, was closely aligned to the ideals of beauty and truth. However, in modern India, which was standing on the premise of scientific achievement, technological advancement and ambitious economic goals- creativity became associated with industry, inventiveness and innovation. Artful creativity, supported by royal and upper-class patronage, for centuries, had been the system that had nurtured- slowly and steadily- the development of sophisticated craft techniques; whereas technological advancements, that afforded an economy the means of mechanized production, slowly relegated craft to being nothing more than the means of catering to sentiment and producing kitsch in a slick world with new semantics for sophistication. The modern nation saw the slow and painstaking craftsmanship of the karigar, as being unsuitable for the ever-increasing demands of the ‘markets’, that were being conceptualized, created and developed at a feverish pace. No longer were we only catering to need, we were catering to want or human desire. Modern life so far, has been driven by ideas of competition, brand building, market share and The Next New Thing and modern India, clearly doesn’t want to be left behind. India is capitalizing its cultural brand and has a large market share in global handicraft exports. This sector is an important one for the Indian economy. It’s one of the largest employment generators. There are 7 million regional artisans and more than 67,000 exporters/ export houses that are promoting regional art and craft in domestic and global markets. India is trying to integrate its cultural heritage to nation-building strategies.

 

Modern life therefore, is akin to being on a perpetual adrenalin rush! The value system that had created the cultural heritage we are so proud of, no longer exists. We are creating a lot more things and more rapidly than ever. But then we’re also creating rapid obsolescence. The future will have no heritage to be proud of. The difficult questions that face us- a young nation with an ancient past- are:

  1. How do we preserve not just the craft, but also the values that pervade it?
  2. What does innovation, seen in the light of a rich tradition mean? Does it mean the superficial innovation of the form, the technique or the more difficult task of re-interpreting the cultural values that imbue the work, with modern sensibilities?
  3. Modern industries geared towards adoption of new technologies, creation of new markets and the generation of more profit, have re-conceptualized entities. Patrons became customers, who later became consumers, and who have now become users. This has had inadvertent ramifications for the status of the artisan- at first a karigar, then a factory worker, and now-an operator. By what strategies will we support and restore the status of the craftsman?

In the absence of a critical understanding and appreciation of our craft traditions, we may end up destroying the very same cultural capital we are profiting from. Student-designers must be made aware of:

  1. Our rich textile traditions
  2. The ideals, cultural values and social structures that have sustained our crafts.
  3. Their significance and place in our day-to-day lives and the role they play in the crafting of our identity.
  4. How new cultural traits may be mindlessly adulterating and disrespectfully appropriating cultural heritage.

 

They must gain a knowledge of:

  1. The artisans and their way of life.
  2. How modern systems may have irreversibly damaged their way of life and stripped them of their special social status.
  3. The ways in which these crafts may be protected, nurtured and developed for participation in contemporary markets.
  4. The strategies by which new, empowering semantics may be developed, communicated and disseminated into mainstream consciousness.
  5. New applications of traditional techniques.

Finally, they must experiment with the arsenal of skills available to them and consciously and purposefully develop new forms of craft. Thus, the designer must not just be the creator of new forms, but must also shoulder the responsibilities of becoming the author of new stories, the creative director who will shape new ideas and the convener of modernity’s new creative artists and craftsmen.

 

References: Indian Handicrafts and Exports; ibef.org