Science And Technology

Indian by design

Issue 03, 2019

Indian by design

Prabhu Rajagopal |author

Issue 03, 2019

Several studies have shown how customisability is a strong requirement for the Indian consumer, and even international players have realised the need for a design approach that incorporates ‘All Things Indian’

As one of the world’s most ancient civilizations, India has a long history of cultural accomplishments and excellence in arts as well as the sciences. The exquisite sculptures, paintings and artifacts housed amongst ancient temple complexes are marvels of human imagination, planning and practical execution.

Indian literature too talks of advances made in ancient times in fields such as mathematics, linguistics, musical theory and astronomy. For example, the contributions of Panini, the great Indian linguist, who wrote a treatise on Sanskrit grammar in the 6th to 5th century BC, on language have strongly influenced modern linguistics across the world, as acknowledged by Johan Frederik Staal or Frits Staal, one of the modern legends of Asian languages and culture, and American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, among others.

There are several other examples of ancient Indian achievements like advances in science and engineering as recorded, for example, in Samarangana Sutradhara, an encyclopedic work on classical Indian architecture written by Paramara king, Bhoja dated 1000 AD. This includes a chapter on Mechanical Automata, which refers to mechanisms that can mimic human motor action, which were a precursor to modern robots. However, the invention of the steam engine and the subsequent Industrial Revolution in Europe seems to have overwhelmed traditional Indian engineering and crafts, and European goods and design have since reigned over the markets. As noted widely now, Indian contribution to the world’s GDP dropped from as much as 24 per cent in the 18th century, down to as low as 3 per cent in 1947. It is only in the last few decades, that a re-invigorated Indian economy has slowly begun to rediscover her zest for engineering, arts and crafts, as well as new endeavors across various other fields. Today, buses, tractors, motorcycles and even cars made by Indian majors find major markets in emerging countries across the world, especially in Africa and East Asia. ‘Made in India’ artillery tanks, rifles and even railway coaches are set to debut across the world, establishing the acceptance of the Indian design theory.

Swadeshi, or the Indian Weltanschauung

The Indian weltanschauung (worldview) since ancient times converges into the ideals of a unitary consciousness or fundamental state underlying all phenomena. And even today, the Indian design philosophy doesn’t believe in technology that is closed, imported or transplanted from elsewhere. We crave for freedom of ideas, search our own answers to global challenges, and swadeshi (made in India) continues to thrive and even drive even many next generation innovations in India.Thus, “Make in India” can be described as an expression of this quest of India to find self-reliance in an era of globalisation.

Swadeshi drives us to source materials locally, look for indigenous technologies, and also importantly, solve problems of critical national importance. For example, the Indian Space Research Organisation is among the few in the world whose major focus is actually using space research for the improvement of the livelihood of people through prediction of weather and also for telecommunications and disaster management.

Theory of Minimalism

Indian design theory favours extreme minimalism and utilitarian or what is colloquially known as “jugaad”, aptly defined by the Oxford dictionary as “flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way”. Which, in simple terms, means that at minimised costs, the benefits of a product are maximised. Jugaad is often praised as the ultimate Indian survival instinct, reflecting the Indian design theory of minimalism, our expression of Frugalism, even Brutalism – maximising function (benefit rationalised to cost). This minimalism manifests itself in everything – from Khaitan fans and Tata Nano car toto more recent examples such as the S450 electric bike and the Beluga underwater ROV (remotely operated vehicle) made by IIT-Madras Startups Ather and Planys respectively. Minimalism is seen is Indian space and nuclear programmes as well. Many Western commentators were awed how Mangalyaan, the Indian mission to Mars, cost less than the budget of a typical Hollywood blockbuster movie, and yet was successful in its very first attempted launch.

Indian aesthetics

The Indian theory of aesthetics has one radical departure from Western aesthetics: the Indian theory holds that “beauty lies in the state of mind” and there are nava rasas or nine recognised emotional states. The Indian approach views all objects as lying within the ambit of a unitary consciousness (or by negation, nothingness) – and hence the objects must ‘sync’ with our state of mind, and creations must seamlessly flow from within-out. This is the reason behind the exuberant use of colour in India — perhaps modern Indian products have disconnected from this aspect, but where tradition still has a sway, such as textile, crafts and temple art – we find the brilliant use of colour that can match every state of mind and thus appeal to every person.

The Beluga underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) by IIT Madras startup Planys

The new era

The ideals of swadeshi, jugaad and rasa, have laid the seeds of an Indian design revolution that is set to storm the world. The philosophical settings of Gandhianism and swadeshi also have wider implications in a zeal for minimising wastage and promoting recycling, while also supporting environmentally friendly materials, technologies and processes. The Indian customer has often been found to value ease of use and durability in products, while also yielding maximum returns for a given investment.

Prabhu Rajagopal

Dr Prabhu Rajgopal is a professor at the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation of the Mechanical Engineering Department at IIT Madras. He is an expert on remote structural inspections. A recipient of the National Design Award (2016)
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