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A note without Gandhi

Rabindranath Tagore? C.V. Raman? M.S. Subbulakshmi? The 70th death anniversary of Gandhi is an opportunity to look at other legends for Indian currency notes

(clockwise, from above) Matthias Dörfelt’s bitcoin as paper currency; the new Norwegian krone; and American design firm Dowling Duncan’s proposed vertical note designs.
(clockwise, from above) Matthias Dörfelt’s bitcoin as paper currency; the new Norwegian krone; and American design firm Dowling Duncan’s proposed vertical note designs.

Los Angeles-based artist Matthias Dörfelt created an algorithm to interpret bitcoin as banknotes recently.There is much happening by way of currency design around the world.

The 70th death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi is an opportune time to consider looking beyond him to include other faces on Indian notes. The US, for instance, has several presidents across its banknotes.

But why not look beyond monarchs and political leaders altogether?

There is sufficient inspiration to be found. In 2007, to mark its transition from kingdom to republic, Nepal replaced its traditional leader’s portrait with that of Mount Everest. And last year, after a nationwide campaign, the UK put author Jane Austen on its £10 note.

Also Read | What if the Mahatma had lived?

Think of personalities who have pushed the nation forward. Tokenism is inevitable in an exercise like this. There must be north-south-west-east representation. There must be a fair number of women. Sciences must be hailed. Sportsmanship must be championed. Arts must be valued.

A few names I identified after serious sifting—and boring everyone I met this week—are Rabindranath Tagore, B.R. Ambedkar, C.V. Raman, Dadasaheb Phalke, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Amrita Sher-Gil and M.F. Husain.

Also Read | What might a Gandhian constitution have looked like?

Shirin Johari, a design innovator and entrepreneur based in Mumbai, prompted me to look beyond people, leading me to the design for the new Norwegian krone, which abstracts the country’s most loved landscapes into contemporary vectors. The result: delightful miniature Mondrians in your purse. It was conceived by an architecture and design firm called Snøhetta, following a competition held by the Central Bank of Norway. “Currency notes are something people see, touch, deal with every day. This is a ripe canvas for design to responsively and positively influence the way people think and behave," she says.

Also Read | Gandhi’s politics is impossible to classify: Ramachandra Guha

The new Rs2,000 Indian note does have the Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan, on one face. The Rs500 note has the Red Fort; the Rs50 one has Hampi. “It’s a good beginning," says Prof. G.V. Sreekumar, head of the industrial design centre at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. One of Prof. Sreekumar’s students, D. Udaya Kumar, won the nationwide competition to design the rupee symbol but a similar competition hasn’t been conducted for Indian currency design. “In terms of colour coding, differential sizing and paper quality, the new notes fare well. But it’s time the government did a rethink on the overall design," he says.

Also Read | The Mahatma and the movies

He believes a few things are critical: A currency note or coin should clearly communicate its denomination, have “a certain Indianness" and seamlessly integrate functional requirements like security features and usability with aesthetic brilliance.

Meanwhile, the tiny Caribbean island of Aruba features a vibrant line of currency notes that combine the country’s unique natural flora with patterns of pre-Columbian pottery. In the South Pacific, the Cook Islands have a mermaid riding on top of a shark! More disruptive than these is an idea from American design firm Dowling Duncan proposing vertical designs.

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The possibilities are endless. In Gandhi’s own ideal of a model state, power would not be concentrated in a few hands. He would never have approved of monopolizing our wallets.

The writer tweets @aninditaghose

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