Friday, January 30, 2009

Rahul Gandhi visits NID: All informal and chatty

Rahul Gandhi's visit to NID today: An opportunity to reflect on the status of "Design" in India

Prof M P Ranjan

Image 01: Rahul Gandhi with NID students, faculty and staff at the Amphi-theatre behind the NID Charles Eames Plaza.

It is many years since we have had a national politician showing any interest in design and here we had a young and enthusiastic cutlet of a politician dropping in for lunch at the student canteen with the z-level security team running around in circles while he tried to integrate with the young design students and have a cozy conversation. The NID Director, Akhil Succenna and the Chairman Education, Pradyumna Vyas and their large entourage of followers had to literally run to keep up with the swift movements of the young national leader and Member of Parliament from the Youth Congress while he whisked his way through the NID lawns and to the back campus for lunch date with students in an impromptu visit that was as informal as it was stimulating. Rahul Gandhi came visiting an almost forgotten place three generations after his great grandfather Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru the then Prime Minister of India had approved the formation of the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad and this is also exactly Fifty Years after the writing of the insightful Eames India Report of 1958. This gives me an opportunity to reflect on the state of design in India and its status in the country vis a vis Science, Technology and Management, all of which receive substantial support from the Government for a variety of activities and this has been the case over the past five decades while design has remained on the back-burner of Government Policy all through this era of development and change.

We now face climate change and financial meltdown of the global economy and perhaps it is time to look at design for some answers if only a reasonable investment can be made in this activity and some policy intiiatives can also be initiated to nurture the disciplines of design that are needed by as many as 230 sectors of our economy that is still breezing along in blissful ignorance of this crying need. After his four hour long tour of NID canteen, studios, workshops and lawns and finally in the shade of the large Neem tree over the NID amphi-theatre we got to meet him face to face in a very informal and human setting. I was particularly surprised and pleasantly so when he walked up to me and shook my hand asking what I did at NID!! Everything – teaching, research and living… I said.

Image 02: Rahul Gandhi in a group picture with NID community at the NID amphi-theatre.

In the discussions that followed he asked students what they felt about the state of politics in India and what they felt about the politicians in India. They responded with candid statements and some naïve ones that gave Rahul Gandhi an opportunity to show his maturity as a national politician and share his own journey into politics after the death of his father, Rajiv Gandhi who was also a former Prime Minister of India. His grand mother, Indira Gandhi, another great Indian Prime Minister, had visited NID in 1964 when Charles and Ray Eames were working at NID on the classic Nehru Exhibition that went on to tour the world across many countries. This exhibition gave me the opportunity to learn design in the Eames tradition when I worked on it for the 1972 version that was set up at New Delhi and then travel to Chile in January 1973 to help set it up in the museum at Santiago, a life changing experience for me, personally. This is where I met President Salvadore Allende briefly on the 26th of January 1973 when he came to open the exhibit in the presence of the Indian Ambasador and his delegation in Chile. A few years later we got the book “Platform for Change” by Stafford Beer and this informed us of the strategic role that design had played in the shaping of the Chile’s economy in the Allande era which caused his assassination because it threatened the big brother nearby and the rest is history. Design is a political tool and it is also a political activity if one looks at the definition by both Tomas Maldonado in his book “Design, Nature, Revolution” and the other by Harold Nelson and Eric Stolterman titled “The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World”. Both these books strip the myths about design as a mere associate of art used to bring aesthetic value to industrial produce and places the true role of design as a transformational process that can indeed bring intentional change of great value across society and in India this is what is needed in the 230 sectors of our economy today.

Image 03: Rahul Gandhi and NID Director, Akhil Succenna at the amphi-theatre meeting with NID students and faculty today.

I asked Rahul Gandhi what he would do for design when he went back to Delhi and back to the Parliament. He asked back, what do you want me to do? NID students and faculty and its wide spread alumni need to ponder this question and act quickly and empower the NID Director to write a coherent letter to the potential champion of design in New Delhi on the possible agenda for design in India in the days ahead. We do hope that the next 50 years is an entry into the era of Design for India and Design with India….. We can dream and act quickly. What do you think can be done? Do we need a Ministry of Design? India needs design across all its Ministries – Rural Development, Education, Communication, Industry – and many more. Will this happen soon? How do we make it happen? Can the National Design Policy be rolled out of its cocoon and made active in the field sooner than later? I look forward to some answers and some real action, soon. I am however happy that NID gifted him a copy of our new book "Handmade in India" and I do hope that he takes this forward as a starting point for design action across India.

Image 04: Five posters on “visualizing sustainability” that were discussed at Davos at a special session on Sustainability on 29 January 2009.

Perhaps this is what the World Economic Forum (WEF) had in mind when it asked NID and its faculty and student teams to explore the issues that faced the world on the subject of Sustainability and asked them to offer some insights into how these intractable problems – nay wicked problems – could be addressed by the business community in the days ahead. As an outcome of this invitation from the WEF, NID and its teams prepared five posters that attempted to visualize the approaches towards a more sustainable world and these have been discussed at Davos and we await news from the Forum of the outcome of the deliberations there. We hope that the impact is not just immediate but also long term, the world is in dire need of such a long term impact. I hope that we have succeeded in our mission here, only time will tell.

Photographs by Deepak John Mathew of NID

Prof M P Ranjan


  1. Hi Ranjan,
    I'm studying here in Sweden, and have been very impressed at the importance that participatory design has with all sorts of planning & building, services and systems in the Danish government. Maybe we could take a step forward if we used the participatory design approach when we formulate policies in our country. Maybe designers could be involved in urban & rural policies and put forward the cases for sustainable design. Best,

  2. Hello Rnajan Sir,
    Myself Rishikesh, I am currently pursuing my MFA in Industrial Design at RIT, NY. I would like to congratulate you and NID team for taking all the efforts to let the people know about importance of 'Good design' specifically in context of India. I find visit of Rahul Gandhi to NID a promising step towards the mission of 'Design for Development'.
    Wish to a part of vision that you created in front of us.


  3. Hello Mr.ranjan ,i am a textile design student right now pursuing my mfa at risd ... and i also happen to belong to a political family .

    Im trilled to see rahul gandhi taking interest in design as i see great potiential for it in the near future.


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