Friday, May 29, 2009

Katlamara Multiplied : Seeds of Design in Tripura

Katlamara, Mantala, Sankhela and beyond: Seeds of Design sown in Tripura

Design for India: Prof M P Ranjan

NID and CFBI-NID team consisting of C S Susanth, Subroto Sarkar and Ranjit Debbarma with Prof M P Ranjan conducted a workshop in Bangalore for the IL&FS supported team of craftemen from Sankhala cluster between 17 & 30 September 2009. A new range of products were designed and introduced which the designers felt would be attractive for local markets in Agartala, hence the product range included a number of versions of the local favorite called “Alna” – a cloth rack that is ubiquitous in Eastern and Northeastern India, however these are always made from wood. However this time we decided to use a modular knock-down all bamboo chair as the vehicle for production training and through which the Katlamara and Sankhala craftmen could be introduced to quality control concepts from raw material to end product using good practices and a well designed workflow and management system. This training workshop was conducted from 18 May to 28th May 2009 and full size drawings of the chair design were distributed to both workshop participants as well as other entrepreneurs and craftsmen at Agartala, Nalchar and to the students at BCDI. The design strategy included elements of the micro-macro design approaches that we have been advocating over the years through the Centre for Bamboo Initiatives at NID to include detail design, product design, tool design, process design, brand building and the macro economic strategies of farm to market with many embedded links that makes the whole both complex and potentially viable in the face of multiple challenges in the area of design for rural development in India today. The IL&FS team is headed by Sharmishta Mohapatra who is supported by S Metoulebi at Agartala and Kirat Debbarma at Katlamara and Sankhela clusters.

Image01: What was a small farm over a couple of acres near Katlamara has now grown to cover 20 hectares of Kanakais bamboo located at Mantala about 5 km from Katlamara. The promise for growth of the bamboo products market gives the farmer in Manna Roy the courage to expand when all others around him are planting rubber. Only time will tell who will take the cake and eat it too.

“Good Design” – is like a fertile seed that is a product of human imagination and supported by deep convictions of experience from explorations that could be spread over the land to generate huge value for all stakeholders. Only when it is nurtured and cultivated does this seed generate value and produce a farm or a forest which is a manifestation of the seeds potency and this nascent value is quite invisible till it is eventually realised on the ground, a bit like the chicken and egg dilemma. This is why we as designers have to struggle to make our visions and convictions accessible and visible to politicians, administrators and industrialists – all those who need our services – and this will always be the case for good design. I believe this will be the case since these design actions are located at the leading edge of the future that we wish to build and these design intentions and the early actions that require support continue to remain invisible till these have sufficiently matured and manifested themselves in visible signs that are tangible and perceptible to onlookers. Even then many attributes and intentional relationships will remain invisible since these would need to be explained before they can be understood to be an outcome of our intentional thought and a product of the design process itself and not an inevitable happening.

Image02: This time, the ‘design seed’, is the newly designed bamboo arm chair that can be made from four major frames and two tie frames, all pinned together with pre-drilled bamboo dowels. No metal nails or screws here so all materials are from the rural farm and with the use of simple jigs and fixtures these frames can be drilled precisely for post-transport assembly at the point of use by the eventual buyer. This opens up the possibility for low complexity knock-down furniture that can be made locally and then shipped easily to all Indian destinations at a low cost. The designed seed that can transform the local economy and its inhabitants over the long term. Can we support and nurture this strategy?

In 1988 J L Naik and I had discussed this particular view of design as a concept for the proposed Eames Award Trophy and last month Naik gifted me a picture that he had taken of a seed that would be dispersed by wind with the fine fibres attached that can carry it far from the source tree in order to find fertile grounds in order to germinate at an appropriate time and climate. This is nature's strategy which works if sufficient seeds are produced that are viable and we too will need to work with those who appreciate our actions and wait for the climate to turn in order to realise our intentional missions. I am attaching below a picture that I had taken of Naik with his photo gift that I did use in a blog post earlier this month.

Image03: This design story is not about the chair but about the people who make and the bamboo products and they need to learn to do costing, learn the technology, and educate their children as well as make a reasonable living all at the same time. This is what the design schemes need to address in the face of all cards being stacked against the producers for so many years. Can the winds change and bring fresh perspectives to the remote land?

In Tripura this time we are trying to excite many producer groups in and around Katlamara where we started our major efforts several years ago with an outpouring of design offerings and this time Susanth and I are holding back our creative juices to make just one product in a systematic manner from raw material to end product using a well thought up process design through all the stages of production with the use of good practices that are articulated and captured in the form of jigs and fixtures which is the stress that we are making this time at the two centres of training in Tripura – Katlamara being one and the other a new centre of Sankhala, about 5 km from Katlamara. Both these groups are being placed in competition with each other, one at Katlamara with a wage compensation training scheme under the IL&FS programme and the other at Sankhela with piece rate offer only. The piece rate group at Sankhala seems to be more motivated, let us see how it develops as the year rolls forward from here.

Image04: Both groups cooperate to book a shared Jeep Taxi that transports ten craftsmen and fifteen new chairs from Katlamara and Sankhala to the rubberwood factory in Nagicherra to make use of their good quality spray painting facility. Lack of power and a compressor at both locations can be offset with a small investment in a micro-generator and a small compressor, all affordable if Government policy is swayed in that direction.

Like the metaphorical design seed that I have been talking about in the previous paragraphs I have been distributing full size drawings of the bamboo chair that I had designed specifically for production in rural settings using solid bamboo culms and poles of small diameter to many other potential producers – Sanjay Das from Nalchar, the other one is Bhola Nath Bhowmik of Agartala, son of the late Rathi Ranjan Bhowmik (who passed away recently) – Others who have shown interest are the Tripura Rubber Wood Development Corporation at Nagicherra near Agartala that is showing interest in development initiatives in bamboo cultivation and furniture production due to the interest of one of their senior techno-managers, Madhumita Nath whom we met at their factory. These chairs were showncased at NID at a number of exhibitions as well as in New Delhi at the Northeast Trade Fair and later in Germany at exhibitions in Berlin and Stuttgart through exhibitions organised by IFA. These experiences have given us the conviction that the market will accept these design offerings and we therefore have decided to transfer the designs to the field for use by our local craftsmen at Katlamara and Sankhela.

Image05: The closing exhibit was organized at the BCDI in Agartala much to the joy of the BCDI students and next day three collections were put up on show – The Bangalore Collection from the previous workshop, the Sankhala and Katlamara batch production of knock-down chairs and the new set of bamboo items from the rubberwood factory. The knock-down chairs were taken to the local courier bookong centres to get estimates for air shipment rates to Kolkatta, New Delhi, Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Will this supply chain get rooted and help a local forest grow? Only time will tell.

We hope to see all of them adopting the strategies that we are advocating at Katlamara. This one chair is the seed of a much larger strategy of getting good production systems in place that can be applied to all the designs that we have in our rapidly growing archive of design offerings. I am attaching a series of pictures that are selected thumbnails of the last few days, one picture from each day, take a look, and I will be using these to tell the story more fully on this blog later this month. The two groups have produced ten chairs each using the production jigs that were introduced to them and the results are very encouraging indeed. Today, exactly ten days after we introduced the new designs to the two groups we brought the chairs to the BCDI campus at Agartala for an informal exhibition of the products of both our workshops with the IL&FS team. The products that were developed at Bangalore during the workshop at IPIRTI and NID Bangalore as well as these new batch produced chairs were placed on display at the BCDI which is another link in our micro-macro design strategy being the educational component of the larger plan for the bamboo sector as a whole. The students of BCDI were excited and they represent the future of the craft in the days ahead. Local officials from the Tripura Government came by and the trainees too had a chance to interact with all the visitors in a stage of high expectation and finally the film crew from the NMBA interviewed me at the BCDI exhibit venue and I hope our message reaches the cloistered heights of the National Mission’s headquarters in New Delhi.

Download "Katlamara Chalo" poster 2MB pdf
Download IL&FS Bangalore_NID IPIRTI Workshop Report 5.1 MB pdf.
Download "Katlamara Chalo Book as pdf 46.5 MB size"
Design for India: Prof M P Ranjan


  1. Dear Prof. Ranjan,

    congratulations on your and your team work, your efforts are seeds from which bamboo forests will grow on peoples minds.

  2. A commendable effort. Hope it will help the artisans to get better prices for their products.

    Kashinath Pai

  3. Need a good Design school in north-eastern of India. By the way Katlamara Chalo poster is good and very informative.

  4. Hi, Great article as well as great work. Truly you are doing the work worth doing. Wish you all the best.


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