Getting nostalgic over India’s everyday design

“In India, to understand objects in terms of design one has to re-imagine design itself. Design here is not entirely determined by the aesthetic appeal of the object, but by its significance in our everyday lives (often influenced by its users)” is an understanding of the author Jahnvi Lakhota Nandan of Pukka Indian-100 Objects that Define India published by Roli Books.

Cover Pakka India High resolution

Born in Lucknow, she now lives as a perfumer in Paris and confesses “Their composition has given me a privileged viewpoint to design with  senses. ………..Design captures space and moods where the invisible becoming visible, which is the core of my book, with notions of home.”

As an architecture student of School of Art and Design at Tsukuba University, Japan, in the late 1990s, her inquisitive mind was interested in identities and knowledge, both individual and universal, revealed through memories related to a product’s design. For this coffee table book she has brought together objects that represent Indian culture and design in a vernacular sense. Its a celebration of our diversity, versatility, vibrancy and colours through design icons and their histories or context of creation, after referencing design guidelines.

“With Shivani I wanted to keep this magic of the patina of time and authenticity of context rather than a romanticized imagination of objects” she quips about the brief given to the photographer of this book, also her co-dancer of Indian Classical Mohiniattam. She while shooting the phoolmala (flower garland), too realized how the decorations change with occasion, religion and space. As a team they believe “DNA is the basis of life. It is what makes each of us unique. So design is the DNA of the society and unique to every culture distinguishing one group of people from another.”

Jahnvi’s choice of two evolutionary objects from the Pukka Indian list – the Royal Enfield and Ambassador car evoked nostalgia in me. As per the facts quoted in the book Enfield Cycle Company was established in Worcestershire, England in 1893 but was totally indigenized by Madras Motors, shutting down its parent company’s production, in 1970. Sadly this symbol of machismo by the late 1990’s began to fade away like a mirage. To combat this, in 2001, Enfeild launched Electra and re-positioned itself as a leisure bike rather than a military machine (for which it was initially assembled in India).

Hindustan Ambassador

Ambassador too, manufactured by Hindustan Motors, was the first indigenously-produced car to hit the roads in 1957. Its wide grill and round headlights, made it easily the most recognizable car on the road till 2002. We had it, so I clearly remember its bench seats in the front and back with instrumentation panels in the dashboard’s center and a gear stick on the steering wheel.  In 1980’s the Ambassador 1800 ISZ was released with an environment-friendly engine, it demanded that bench seats become bucket seats, so the dashboard changed and seatbelts were added along with other modern upgrades like power steering. But in May 2014, the production of India’s first car stopped after seventy-one years of history, which left many of us heavy hearted; as an era had ended.

Jahnvi apparently felt the same emotional connect for her Vespa Scooter back in Paris. Imagining a petite framed fashionable rebel of the flower power generation driving it around in the late 1960s reminded me of her statement in the book- “the most important measure of a design’s calibre is the society’s response to a product.” So on my insistence she named a few (from the 100 listed) more things that she has lugged everywhere, despite having shifted probably 25+ houses in different countries and cities, in just four decades of her existence on this planet – Jholas, Lungi, Jaipuri Razai, Pashmina Shawl, Kohlapuri Chappals and Phoolmala.

Being a design enthusiast its such fun facts which I think a Pukka Indian would gloat over when peppered with anecdotes of their older generation. And some like me might even offer to help her write a sequel to this book, with some more objects exalting of back to the future!

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