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

 

 

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The Relationship between Art and Design

 

The Nature of Art

Ever since man discovered his propensity to create and recreate things as he perceives or imagines them, art-making has been around as the father of all human activity. Its primeval status is unprecedented, its importance as an evolutionary agent undisputed and its continuing relevance even in this age of interface technology and robotics, unmatched. Art-making corresponds directly with man’s intrinsic nature of potentiality and creativity, which is nothing but the nature of life itself. In and through art-making man not only discovers his inherent tendencies, but also discovers and hones his faculty of free will- that exalted state which holds promise for the realization of man’s capabilities and enables him to wilfully transcend his current state. Art has an empowering quality and therefore it is, that in the making of art, we make ourselves. Richard Wagner finds nothing less than salvation in the experience of art. “I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven… I believe in the Holy Spirit and the truth of that one indivisible art… I believe that through this Art all men are saved, and therefore each one may die of hunger for her… I believe that the disciples of High Art will be transfigured in a heavenly veil of sun-drenched fragrance and sweet sound and united for eternity with the divine fount of all harmony. May mine be the sentence of Grace… Amen!”

Thus art-making, as implied may be understood as a situation in human activity which is closest to divinity. In the creation of art, what emerges is that not only is that which is being made art, but art is also the artist, art is also the skill. Thus, art has the ability to infuse its character in the doer, the done and the doing.

Art, by its nature leads us to truths in a way that no other human activity or institution can. It pitches its enterprise in discarded mental spaces or those that we are too afraid to dwell in. It urges us to think about, introspect, feel and resolve the morass of our existence and thereby paves the way for our evolution.

Art and Design in modern times

Art in modern times has come to be understood as a separate human activity- separate from say trade or manufacture. Although such a segregation serves in assigning a special status to art, it can also- by that very token- render it irrelevant or meaningless. Art, instead, can very usefully be understood as the pursuit of truth and perfection in all human activity; yes, even trade and manufacture. Any activity can be imbued with artistic qualities when it is done in communion with the doer’s inner calling, governed by intent and led by its pursuit of truth and perfection.

Design, in contrast, inhabits a more defined space. Its primary task is to fulfil a need; the need may be physical, emotional, intellectual or societal. Designs are reckoned responses to identified problems. If art lays before us, things we should be concerned about, design busies itself with working through those concerns. Art stems from philosophy, design from teleology.

The symbiotic relationship between art and design

The making of art can be both an instinctive act and a carefully measured and charted process. “Art,” according to artist SH Raza, “is a profound personal reaction.” If we view art from that standpoint, it may seem that art-making requires spontaneity, an instinctive urge or something as quick and as unpredictable as a reaction. This may be true to the point when an artist feels moved by a particular thought, idea, event or circumstance and finds in it a need or a calling for resolution, for working through its character. This need for working through a subject matter seems important for human beings, for society-at-large, because there is a universal need to understand appropriate ways of feeling, to clarify our thoughts, to articulate ourselves better and to transact with the world upholding those moral values that we hold dear intellectually but find great difficulty in putting into practice. But art-making doesn’t reach its function with simply feeling. The expression and presentation of art require skill, an understanding of the materials which the artist puts to the task of expressing his feelings and an exemplary understanding of his craft. Yes, art-making begins with feeling and finds expression through craft. Great craft in turn, must reach out and connect with the beholder.

So then, is the culmination of art, design? The process of art-making requires a keen understanding of the materials that the artist will use to present his subject matter. And this understanding, in turn, comes with the observation that the material world holds immense possibility and purpose. What those possibilities are and what that purpose is, is subject to the imagination of the human mind. The human mind can imagine and see value and breathe life and purpose in seemingly inert matter. He may craft it carefully with respect to its inherent character so that we may find in it beauty and reaffirm our faith in the sublime.

This ability to see value, usefulness and possibility in the material world is the office of the designer. Thus, the relationship between art and design appears to be a symbiotic one where the making of objects is not purely a mechanical activity; it requires the imagination and sensitivity of an artist. And the artist, in turn, in order to express himself purposefully and with clarity, requires the mindset of a designer.

How can the study of art be useful to the designer?

The study of art can lay before the student-designer an intimate account of the history and evolution of human thought. It can reveal to the student those past existential arrangements, those knots in the collective consciousness, those dilemmas that seemed to have touched the most sensitive of humans; who by their inherent vulnerability and sensitivity felt things more deeply and readily than the rest of the clan. Because they felt, they introduced us to those feelings. In and through their sensitivity, they sensitized and civilized the human race- at least to the extent of inspiring appreciation for their work. What was it they felt? What moved them? How did they express themselves? What methods did they employ? What attitudes governed their purpose? What were the elements of their work? What were their chosen arrangements?

Leave alone the answers, just the questioning that the study of art can inspire, itself is of immense value to the student-designer.  It equips the student-designer with a probing mind- a mind that questions in a bid to sieve out the most intimate, essential aspects of a work. And such a questioning is an apt and necessary beginning in the unfoldment of a creative mind.

Conclusion

Perhaps art and design are not separate. Perhaps they are one and the same thing. Perhaps all creation begins with the stirrings of art and is manifest as design. Perhaps the human mind can only understand art through design and conversely, our sense of appreciation can only be developed through art.

 

References: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art: Richard Eldridge; Cambridge University Press

Image Source: bostonmagazine.com

 

 

Fashion- The Hippie-turned-Hooker

Fashion is a perennially changing hypothesis. What is it? What does it do? How does it work? Why does it matter? What is good? Ethical? Aesthetic? Many answers have been given and we’ve come to see that fashion isn’t easy to define. It encompasses the physical, existential and moral dimensions of our being. Yet, fashion is regarded as a vain trifle; somehow less important or even insignificant in the larger scheme of things. A bricolage of many things, fashion is neither purely art, nor purely craft. In the context of mainstream, tradition-bound culture, it’s a hippie- purposely atypical, unconventional and subversive! But its romanticism becomes the stuff of youthful aspirations. It becomes the collective memory of a middle-aged generation that describes its nostalgia in terms of the clothes they wore, the attitudes that defined their existence and the bitter-sweet experiences they lived through in the costumes of their youth. If fashion is the aptness- the perfect point at which Time, Space, Feeling and Response collide- then why is it regarded as whimsical, purposeless and vain?

Let’s attempt to understand this incongruity between what fashion is and how it is viewed, discussed and treated in society. Fashion, over the years, has come to wear a glamorous face (perhaps because of its earliest patrons being the upper classes on the one hand and the artists, the poets, the dreamers, the musicians and even the charlatans, on the other). We won’t recognize it, or even acknowledge it, if it doesn’t emerge before us looking glossy and all glammed up. If it does so, it will have to have another name! Glamour over time, has been demystified. It’s lost some of its sheen; come to be seen as shallow, superficial and not a worthy pursuit for a happy, meaningful life. So, while all other aspects of culture chose to evolve by diverging from glamour, fashion continued this unholy alliance. The way fashion was presented, communicated, marketed and sold- remained unchanged; fashion was- and to a large extent still is- packaged and presented in literal and metaphorical glitz and glimmer. Once a power-packed phenomenon rooted in social and cultural experimentation, it soon became the myth, marketing professionals alluded to- to capture new markets. Fashion, so that it be pursued by the now distanced and disinterested mainstream, had to be seen as being seductive, glamorous, somehow out of reach, somehow forbidden… in some sense equivalent to the lure of the mistress, when you’ve ‘chosen’ to be in a committed relationship with your wife. The status of fashion pretty much got equated with this typically patriarchal view of women. And if I may dare to say so, met with no different a fate- it was made spectacular, desirable, seductive, presented at first, to the most high-end customers and then emulated across all tiers of ‘lifestyle’ products. Fashion was no longer an intelligent expression of who we were in the time and place we were at, but became one amongst many attributes of ‘what we wore’. And what we wore, was changeable, replaceable and as such unworthy of all the time and attention we expended on it. And so, fashion while being an industry that constitutes some of the most artistic, intelligent, intuitive and meticulous craftspeople, never gets its due from a society that sees fashion as nothing more than the varnish that coats purpose, function, utility and performance.

 

Image source: awareness act.com

 

 

Fashion is Maya.

The Truth alone existed before the names, forms and qualities of the world came into existence. Therefore, the Truth must be the cause of the world. But the Truth is changeless. It cannot become anything other than itself…But we see that the world exists, yet it is ever-changing, inert and sorrow-ridden. Then from such a changeless cause, how can this changing world emerge? 

To explain this, Vedanta postulates the concept of maya…- that which is not, yet appears to be is called maya. …A snake is seen on a rope. The rope cannot create the snake, yet we experience the snake.

Maya has two powers:

  1. The veiling power (avarna shakti): This is the nature of ignorance that veils the Truth. This by itself cannot create the world.
  2. The projecting power (vikshepa shakti): This is the creative power that projects the entire world of names and forms. It manifests inherent impressions. It cannot do so without the veiling power. As in the example, the ignorance of the rope should precede the snake vision.

-Tattvabodha, Sri Adi Shankaracharya (commentary by Swami Tejomayananda).

Is Fashion the dress we wear? Is it the material? Or the colours? Or is it in our combination of clothes? The answer to these questions will only add to your confusion- fashion may be discerned in all of these, but is none of these.

The raw material of fashion- apart from fabrics, trimmings, notions and the available resource of clothing and accessories we wear everyday- is also our social life and the interactions that constitute it. The intelligence that is brought to fashioning the raw material is the sourcing, treatment, forming and styling of it to tell a distinctive ‘fashion story.’ The thematic arrangement of colours, fabrics and styles is a ‘fashion story.’

The inspiration that underpins this thematic story is called a ‘mood’. The mood is a sketchy impression of the ‘images’ it must evoke and/or the attitudes it must inspire. This sense of images and attitudes in turn, is an abstraction drawn from everyday human interactions plus the aspirations and desires that breed through the flux of life. Fashion, in essence, is an attempt to make perceptible that which is only ‘felt’ or ‘desired’. The inspirations are what breathe life into the ‘new forms’ or ‘new looks’ the fashion designer draws out.

The ‘bodies’ (in the sense that these are the outermost layers that we don) that the fashion designer brings to life are short-lived; they have only apparent reality. They appear to exist, have meaning, communicate and exude power- that is till our experience of the world remains unchanged. The moment we have moved past an experience and it has become memory, we begin to seek ‘new body images’ for ourselves. We seek persistence of our being. It’s important for us not only to be seen, but also to be remembered. The fear of invisibility, or for that matter, being forgotten, is closely allied to a very primal fear- the fear of being denied existence.

On a deeper level, we are always trying to ‘survive’, to ‘persist’ and to ‘cheat’ or ‘escape’ those situations that threaten to end our existence. Our love for fashion, and our willingness to be tormented by it, is a reflection of this need ‘to continue to be’.

Not knowing who we truly are, we live our lives speculating who we may be and day-in and day-out- wittingly or unwittingly- we chisel out a form for ourselves. This dilemma of knowing that we exist, but of not knowing who we are- gives rise to our world of relationships and self-created experiences. In such a world, fashion becomes a ‘phenomenal power’. It creates, sustains and when the time has come- it destroys the images we have come to inhabit. Fashion persists because it denies itself a permanent, unchanging existence. It doesn’t allow itself to die; it only reinvents itself. Fashion is a reflection of the world; the world is maya- a mere projection!

Fashion is Maya.

 

Image Source: Getty Images/ Nelson Barnard. Prabal Gurung. NYFW Feb 2017.

An Overview of The Fashion Design Program

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Design is a form of creative thinking; thinking about problems and how to best solve them, thinking about opportunities and how to shape them and thinking about style and idiom, and how to afford a people a meaningful form of expression.
While the definition makes clear the office of design and what its functional aspects are, it gives fashion designers only a vague sense of ‘what may be considered a problem’, ‘what may be considered an opportunity’ and ‘what may be considered meaningful’. And it is this vague sense of the most essential concepts that poses as a challenge for fashion design education which has traditionally been restricted to creating beautifully styled apparel.
The Fashion Design program at ISDI works collaboratively with one of the world’s highest ranked design schools- The New School at Parsons. This collaboration has exposed us to the global arena of fashion design and the emerging industries allied to it. Because of this, we now find ourselves confronted by many existential questions. These are: What are we supposed to do to respond to the new, expanded scope of fashion design? How do we gain a clear understanding of the asymmetries in culture when the currents of globalization are rushing to equalize all differentiators? What exactly is meant by a shared culture and what are the similarities and differences it engenders? Are the expectations, hopes and aspirations of a people in a shared culture the same? Also, does the same approach work for all? Who will define the problems of Fashion Design in a globalized, highly interconnected world? How do we ensure that we are leveraging opportunities to create fashion that is truly meaningful to the individual and has the power to impact the world in and through positive social advancement?
It’s clearly perceptible to us that although we’re backed by clear and noble intentions, what we face are complex and confusing undercurrents of history, politics, sociology and power- all seeping through boundaries and running through the veins of a globalized world. It’s unclear who we are. It’s unclear who we wish to be. It’s unclear what we want. The past, present and future have all collapsed into the NOW. This reminds me of a couplet from a Jagjit Singh ghazal that looks back to a simpler time: “Woh bhi kya din the, jab har wahem haqeeqat hota tha, ab haqeeqat nazar aaye toh use kya samjhoon?”
With technology, the frontiers of what constitutes reality have been pushed. We now have three forms of reality- tangible, virtual and augmented. Social media with its exponential power, is an unprecedented sociological phenomenon that’s changing the way we perceive, think and feel. The desire for commodities has been replaced by the desire for new experiences. Value-consciousness, is slowly, but surely replacing price-consciousness. In such a changed world, a design education can no longer be about fostering the stereotypical notions of newness. It’s impertinent for a present-day designer to simply go about making ‘different’ things- it does little apart from amuse a world that is already inundated with amusements. The designer of today needs the gumption to ask tough questions and have the rigour to pursue the quest for more meaningful and appropriate responses.
One thing is clear that the systems of industrialization that are designed to produce in excess, to profit from economies of scale, are no longer suitable to meet the demands for more customization and less waste. In a strange paradox, globalization, while showing us the big picture, is at the same time, making us acutely conscious of ourselves and the communities we work with and the people we impact. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the power of micro changes that begin in the smallest measure, at the grassroots level.
The objectives of design have changed. We no longer want new things, we want ‘better’ things. We no longer just want new styles, we want better clothes and accessories. The desire for ‘smartness’ or ‘apt-ness’ has replaced the desire for ‘newness’. In this new world, we’re trying our best to put in place an order, an intelligence by which we’re able to identify the challenges facing us. At the same time, our students must simultaneously develop the skills to effectively meet those challenges. We understand that the new world requires adroitness, alertness and the forbearance to work with uncertainty and ambiguity. And this is looking at only half of what is needed!
‘Facing the world’ and ‘building the world’ are the two fundamental abilities the designers of today need. The genius of fashion designers has always been in their ability to perceive the spirit of the times they have lived in and to then be the alembic through which the zeitgeist can be made perceptible to all. The Fashion Design program is designed to make students observant, perceptive, creative, technically sound and reflective in their work. The pursuit of AUTHENTICITY is our vision and mission. In a world that is spinning out of control, we need designers who must be more than just spin doctors; they must be astute agents of change. They must meet the world with a thinking heart and a feeling mind.

Towards A More Comprehensive Fashion Design Education

The problem for Indian fashion, is that our notions of fashion are confined within our sense of the western world and that it is from the western world that we derive our images of modernity. Indeed, fashion as a concept, is European in origins, but as a phenomenon, fashion is global. It’s tantamount to saying that the law of gravity is English, because it was formulated by Sir Isaac Newton! Fashion is dictated by the impulse for stylistic expression and this impulse is human; it exists in all societies. High sensitivity to the zeitgeist, the keenness to anticipate change and the distinctive craftsmanship to then code it into dress- are all the definitive traits of a fashion designer.

To perceive fashion as a mere symbol of taste, social class, globalization or modernity, is to reduce it to a mere ornament, a motif and to be impervious to its presence and power in our daily lives. It is in dress that we enact our roles every day. It’s through dress we identify people, and assess and tailor our responses to them. It’s our dress that reveals the many aspects of our social identities- our gender, our age, our profession, our social class, our way of life. Our dress is also our cultural document. It tells us about the constraints, values, tolerances, forbearance and fantasies of a people.

A good fashion design education must engage the students with these concepts. It must have them study the structures on which all modern societies stand and have them examine the way in which fashion fosters a non-verbal communication between members of a society.

We must acknowledge that we think of fashion only in a loose sense and believe that its only function is to make us ‘fashionable’. It is this muddy mix of fashion with fashionable-ness, that has made the world of fashion so slimy- thick in substance, but completely insubstantial! We see nothing new in fashion because we think nothing new of fashion. That’s the problem with symbols; they become the tokens that allow us to get by and simulate movement and progression. This works just fine in Indian society that loves to pretend that it’s changing, but deep down, would rather not!

Fashion is a power and will exist as such, regardless of how or when we decide to define it. Fashion assigns meanings to clothes, it crafts appearances and gives a people ‘looks’ that are in sync with the times they are living in. Drawing from the writings of Roland Barthes, fashion is understood as both- ‘dress’ (the prevalent look in a society) and ‘dressing up’ (the individual act/ style), but dressing up has weaker meaning than dress. The codes by which a people signify values about themselves vis-à-vis the times they’re living in becomes apparent in ‘dress’. ‘Dressing up’ on the other hand, is of significance only to the individual and is a weak form of fashion.

When the discourse on fashion doesn’t evolve beyond ‘newness’ for the sake of newness, or for creating ‘different-looking’ garments, what we get is hideous, irrelevant and wasteful fashion that is tone deaf to today! The fashion designers of tomorrow need a better education today. They need the skills to watch, absorb, listen and understand the subtext underpinning our every day. They need to understand material and its cultural and sentimental allusions. They need an understanding of ‘style’, not ‘styling’. They need to be socially astute and have savoir faire. They need imagination, creativity and the brevity of poets. Their work must be the outcome of sincere exploration and engagement and not the vain creation of what they think ‘looks like fashion’.

Fashion has no one face. It has no one nationality. It has no one gender. It has no one shape, form or texture. It’s a language- rich and diverse. It lies in the perception that our clothes speak. It lies in the realization that even as our clothes conceal our bodies, they reveal our selves. Fashion’s function is to afford a people the ‘voice’, the ‘language’ and the ‘idiom’ to express their values as they ascend the value ladder in the course of their lives.