Objects of affection
As a new book captures India's design history in 100 objects, we look at seven of them and a collage of what's uniquely India emerges
In the book A History Of The World In 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, captured over two million years of human history in 100 objects. In another delightful book titled At Home: A Short History Of Private Life, American author Bill Bryson takes a tour of his own home, and through domestic objects narrates the history of humankind. Closer home, in a coffee-table book called Sār: The Essence Of Indian Design, authors Swapnaa Tamhane and Rashmi Varma portray an Indian design identity through 200 objects, ranging from icons like the Hindustan Ambassador to a quotidian thing like a hawai chappal (flip-flop).
Earlier this month, author and perfumer Jahnvi Lakĥóta Nandan released her new book, Pukka Indian: 100 Objects That Define India (Roli Books). The book captures the vast landscape of Indian design, tied to the social and political history of the country, and, most remarkably, reveals the continuity of tradition that makes Indian design unique. It includes everyday objects like the chimta-tava (tongs and pan) that have no singular date of origin or authorship, contraptions like the desert cooler that embody a typically Indian ingenuity, and symbols of modernity like Godrej’s CH-4 chair and almirah. It’s a fun, nostalgic re-visiting of our childhood homes and the story of things we’ve grown up with.
Nandan, however, is clear about the intent of the book being more than a feel-good nostalgic trip. “Nostalgia rarely plays a role in my work. Memory does," she says.
“I have lived in 25 different homes and my father has lived in 54 different homes. While writing this book, I questioned people about what are those objects that they would carry with them if they were to move homes."
As Lounge features seven objects from Pukka Indian, Nandan talks to us about the making of the book and adds trivia to the individual histories of objects.
Nandan’s unpacking of this red cloth-covered book that represents the double-entry bookkeeping tradition of India ranges from its history, the materials it is made of, to its evolution over the years. While she traces the origin as the accounting book of “merchants across the subcontinent to record financial transactions", she looks to the future to see how it has evolved. “Bahi-khata books have spawned a whole new industry of cloth-covered diaries and books," she writes in the book.
Nandan identifies three waves of India’s design history. “The first wave of design was during the freedom movement, which gave birth to brands and products that were essentially about national identity. The second period was in the 1950s when new products came up driven by the new material of stainless steel. It led to our own mid-century modern design, our own Bauhaus. Godrej is one of the companies that propagated that. The third wave was the 1990s, when India opened up economically. Design obviously follows economic and political currents," she says.
Nandan writes about informal design and how, over time, traditional things are re-engineered for efficiency. “In the 18th century, people in India cooled spaces during hot summer months with a humid woven grass or textile filter positioned between the hot air outside and the room inside. A manually operated fan placed behind the grass curtain pushed hot air through the moisture-laden filter, cooling down the room considerably. In the 1950s, this led to the ingenious creation of the desert cooler," she writes in the book.
The Indian kitchen is clearly a thriving space for design. For instance, consider sevnazhi, a manual press that is used to make sev or fried savouries. Nandan, who went to the School of Art and Design at Tsukuba University in Japan, learns from contrasting cultures. “When you’re distanced from your country of birth, you start considering the objects you grew up with. Between Japanese and Indian cultures, some objects are common, and many not. For instance, the Japanese have elaborate bathing rituals. In India, the extensive objects are always in the kitchen. Even when the rest of the house is spartan, the kitchen will be full of things," she says.
The book dwells on the significance of “the unisex dancer’s accessory" as “the heart of every beat of the foot; what would have otherwise been just a flat thump on the floor is transformed into a reverberating melody," writes Nandan. While she herself practises Bharatanatyam, the photographer of the book, Shivani Gupta, is a Mohiniattam dancer, and the editor, Radhika Jha, an Odissi dancer. “Indian dance is a constant quest of aesthetics. To me, this was also to explore what it means to express an aesthetic in dance or in photographs or in a book," says Nandan.
Nandan attempts to capture history but also reveals the beauty of form and function. “Shivani (Gupta) photographed some things in natural settings and some were stylized. With the shuttlecock, for instance, we wanted to convey the beauty of the form. Everyone has played with it, but you don’t think about all the feathers that go into its making. So you unravel the object and put it back together," says Nandan.
Nandan contrasts Indian design and its principals with other schools of thought. “In places like Japan and Germany, the tendency to categorize things as good or bad design is strong. In India, that seldom has meaning. If you take incense, the argument is not about good or bad design. Incense is very sophisticated perfumery.The use of incense ranges from pleasing the gods to controlling elephants to drying your hair. It’s beyond good design and bad design. You could break it down as the length of the stick and how the smoke rises from it, the form, etc., but its essence is much deeper than that," she says.