Sunday, September 14, 2008

Exhibition Design at NID: A reflection on Design Education for India

Design for India

Image: Three major exhibition design projects from the NID documentation of 1964 to 69, the Nehru Exhibition (Eames - 1965), the Osaka Theme Pavilion (Frei Otto – 1969) and the Gandhi Darshan Exhibition (Dashrat Patel – 1971) all commissioned by the Government of India to promote the national agenda. Download NID Documentation 64-69 as a 25 mb pdf here

Exhibition Design at NID: A reflection on Design Education for India
Multidisciplinarity is sometimes used as a slogan to show that design is complex and that many different skills and knowledge areas would need to be accessed in order to solve a particular messy issue but this is rarely done in practice since this is politically a very difficult task of negotiation and coordination. However when filmmakers and media designers work to deliver complex messages in the medium of both film and exhibit design this is perhaps the only way that it can be done effectively. An exhibition or a museum is a complex but coherent message that is delivered in space and or time – through the use of many devices – and at NID we have had a huge legacy of experiences that we could draw upon from the numerous projects that were conceived and executed over the long period of over forty five years beginning from 1964. I wrote a paper in 1986 about the lessons from the various exhibit design projects done at NID and this was in the context of a conference on design of crafts museums held at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. This paper can be downloaded from here as a word file: Exhibit Design at NID

Starting with some early projects for the Space Applications Centre and some Textile Mills at Ahmedabad in the early 60’s the first major exhibit to be assigned to NID was the Nehru Exhibition. Charles and Ray Eames designed this exhibition with their office team working along with the young NID team at Ahmedabad. The Eames Office teams located themselves at NID for a few months while the research and design of the exhibition involved the young NID students who learned on the job from the world masters. These students were the first batch of Graphic Designers being trained at NID who later became the first faculty group of the Institute. The Nehru Exhibition traveled the world and I too was involved in these projects in New Delhi in 1972 and later in Santiago, Chile in January 1973 and much later in the early 90’s when it was set up once again as the much enlarged and permanent “Discovery of India” exhibit at the Nehru Centre in Bombay. All these projects were done by the faculty of the time and students from several disciplines were involved as project associates, each with a specific design assignment from which they could learn by doing. “Learning by doing” was the slogan of the day and frequent project meetings ensured that all members got to learn about the problems and achievements of all the other teams that were handling the diverse tasks to be completed in time and at the highest quality standard, insisted upon and set by the international consultants as well as the faculty teams at NID.

Such projects in those days brought in the money needed to experiment freely with expensive materials and tools within education and the Institute would be buzzing with activity through the day and the night when deadlines got tough and the learning was taking place in a rich soup of activity and dialogue associated with these projects. These experiences also brought in many specialist experts such as copy editors, photographers, typographers, calligraphers, artists, illustrators, lighting, media and structure experts, all masters in their respective field, and their visits to the campus as well as at work locations in many fabrication shops where the various exhibits were being fashioned gave live exposure and experience to the students, and all of this was based on the design schemes proposed by the teams from NID.

Image: NID's heritage campus as seen from the lawns was the scene of all the activity mentioned in this post. Today two new campusses have been set up at Gandhinagar and at Bangalore.

In the late 70’s exhibition design was offered as a discipline for the SLPEP Programme which was then five and a half years duration with a one and half year foundation programme. Dashrat Patel headed and conducted the discipline with Pradeep Choksi as his faculty assistant during the first few years, but whenever major exhibition projects came into the Institute, students from all disciplines were involved as team members and everyone got the multidisciplinary exposure. The landmark projects handled in this period included the Our India Pavilion in the 1972 IITF Trade Fair with huge multi-screen projection systems executed with technical and multimedia experts from Czechoslovakia, the Textiles of India Pavilion for the Ministry of Textiles and the Nehru Exhibition, all of which opened on the same day in New Delhi in November 1972. The first batch of NID’s SLPEP Undergraduate students were all involved in these three projects and the learning was truly through the doing as was professed in those days as the educational philosophy of the Institute. The exhibition design education programme was suspended for a few years and then offered again through popular demand from students wishing to explore several materials as well as media, message, structure and form. The exhibition design programme flourished under the leadership of Vikas Satwalekar who took personal interest in the activity while he was the Executive Director of NID from 1988 to 2000. Included in these is the Rta Rtu exhibit for the IGNCA in New Delhi and the Discovery of India exhibit in Bombay besides a regular education offering at NID and a rich crop of graduates from the discipline, all with great leadership that was revealed by their work in the field since then.

The major projects handled in the early days included the Agri-Expo in 1977 under Ashoke Chatterjee’s leadership, the Manipur Pavilion and the DST Pavilion in 1981, Energy Exhibition in 1983, and the Commonwealth Institute Exhibit in London during the Festival of India in the UK. The other period of major projects included My Land My People for the Festival of India in the Soviet Union under the leadership of Vinay Jha between 1985 and 1988 when he was the Executive Director of NID. Two major museum design projects were already under way when Dr Darlie Koshy took over as the Executive Director of NID in 2000, the major museum project for the Reserve Bank of India and the Khalsa Heritage Museum for the Government of Punjab. While the first museum was completed and delivered in Bombay as a very high quality offering the second ran into political trouble of many kinds. However, the Khalsa project ran into all kinds of delays and the project has now been handed over to a team of NID graduates who are now completing the project since both Vikas and Suranjana Satwalekar moved out of NID after his retirement as a member of the NID faculty. However NID shifted its focus from “hands-on” production of exhibits to outsourced production and student involvement in these projects dwindled to a very small and infrequent involvement due to policy changes in education and professional practice at NID. The “Hand-on Minds-on” slogan that I had coined – for our bamboo based elective using three species, kanakais (affinis), strictus and giganteous, each from Tripura, Madhtya Pradesh and Karnataka respectively – in November 2003, which was later borrowed and adopted wholesale by the institute across many of its publications and external communications. However, in the real actions that followed the slogans, the hands-on seems to have lost out to an intellectual research focus, which saw the workshops at NID shrink in size, and activity and the student population soar in numbers across all the specialized disciplines at NID. Exhibition design once again stuttered from lack of conviction in the multidisciplinarity being at the core of design education and many narrow specialisations were launched in the claim that these would bring greater depth of research to the specific fields. Only time will tell if this will happen and I have my doubts, which I have expressed at many occasions.

We need to review the design history of our exhibition design education and practice and draw the lessons from these experiences since they were not just professional projects being carried out in a pure design office but they were truly rich training grounds for young design students who were exposed to live experiences across a multidisciplinary environment in a climate of high motivation, optimism and a high quality commitment. This kind of learning is unique to NID since professional projects were brought into the classroom and these tested the mettle of both faculty and students alike. It is not surprising that so many of our graduates occupy leadership positions in their careers across many sectors of the Indian economy and we should use these reflections to see how design education can and should be strengthened in a live manner in the days ahead. Unfortunately, as with so many other design schools around the world NID too suffers from a lack of process documentation of its work and experiences. This may be a good moment for us to rally our faculty and students as well as those who have recently retired from service to try and use the web based platform to document and garner all these experiences in a way that will give us insights that would help shape the future of design education when India is finally recognizing the need for this kind of training and the national policy is geared to set up several schools all over India. What models should they follow? Surely not the route followed by the schools of architecture and technology but perhaps that which has been adopted by the schools of medicine where practice is at the heart of education, “Hand-on Minds-on” all the way. Yesterday two students met me in my office to ask me questions about the history of the NID’s exhibition design programme and in my response to their questions many insights and experiences flashed through my mind, which has led to this paper.

Next week NID is organizing a very interesting meeting under the leadership of Gira Sarabhai who from her museum design and management experience coming from the setting up and running of the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad has asked NID to explore the need and structure for a proposed new programme on the conservation and management of the textile and museum heritage of India. Aditi Ranjan, Head of Department of Textile and Apparel Design at NID is coordinating the meet on the 18th and 19th September 2008 with international and national experts meeting together with design educators and this I am sure is a great opportunity to reflect on the NID experience in museum and exhibition design. I will unfortunately miss this event since I will be on my way to Bangalore for my two-week course in DCC for the NID Bangalore students as well as our bamboo project for the IL&FS and the Tripura Bamboo mission for whom we are conducting at the IPIRTI campus located across the street from the NID campus. However I do hope that the meeting will sift through the vast NID experience and integrate this into a rich palette of inputs and insights for the future of design education in India.

Design for India

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