In contrast to the heat and noise of the city of Ahmedabad which surrounds it, National Institute of Design’s (NID) campus filled with green and nature, is serene. The porous architecture of the main building filled with courtyards of different scales and kinds accentuates this atmosphere. Within one of it’s the pebbled courts, in a glass room is where NID hosts it permanent exhibition called ‘Design Enabled India’. After having had a glimpse of the ‘cool’ products designed by some professionals and students (most of them exorbitantly priced for their designer or brand value) from the Institute at Nidus, the NID store, the expectation from the permanent exhibition was to see some exclusive designs from the archives.
There are some traditional Indians artefacts like the pitara-a chest, an interesting terracotta lamp, kutchi mirror work on some wall panels which were spread across in the space, surrounding the exhibition. Situated between the stone walkway, a thoroughfare for students to their dormitories and the bubbling noise of water from the many level filteration plant in an adjacent courtyard, the exhibition space, Design Panaroma, is right opposite one of the main conference area. Through the glass we can hazily see some interesting objects on display. The entrance panel promises the exhibition to provide a glimpse of its professional design education programmes and design services spread across its three campuses. Along with it, also on display are NID’s prestigious Design Classic Collection-an archival collection. We walk along the brick ramp across the court and enter the space of the exhibition. One quarter of the exhibition space houses the Design Classic’s collection, and the other three fourths houses panels displaying the various courses NID offers. A huge orange panel describes the agenda of NID, to create a design enabled India. The proportion of the text and the impact it wants to deliver seems to say something like design is power, which will empower India. Along the glass wall, there were some flex panels narrating the story of how NID was born. Another panel maps NID’s international relations-with most connections to design schools in Europe.
The Design Classic Collection was a travelling exhibition, showcasing designs from Alvar Alto, Mies van Der Rohe to the Bahaus designers. Claiming, that since the history of NID is linked with that of this collection since past 50 years, they decided to share the space of what NID is about with it. A panel discussing the history of the collection mark the beginning- saying it was founded to encourage the study of design and inspire designers with examples of highest standard. These were designs for the everyday life in Europe. And it seemed to emphasise on the challenges the designers face, with respect to new materials, new technologies, design processes and of course aesthetics. The objects on display, sliced from history, and arranged in no specific chronology, of course showed this age of new experiments. Some of the designs were very artistic and truly classic. Though a small display, it was pretty captivating.
The other part of the exhibition was the panel display of the different courses and the services NID offered across its three campuses. Browsing through the course outlines and briefs, the influx of technology in design is evident. There are course like product design, lifestyle accessory design, new media design, toy and game design, strategic design management, which NID offers which sets it on equal balance with design schools of the West. Mounted orange panels with interesting line graphics adorning the bottom, it was surprising and disappointing not to see student/course output incorporated in a presentation about a course. Incorporating student archival material could have been a possible way to make the experience more interesting for a viewer. For many it seemed to be a 3-D brochure of NID’s programmes- which can always be surfed on the internet. It is a little uncertain about who is this exhibition meant for. It does not seem for the students who overlook the space in midst of their everyday along the corridors. Neither does it seemed for potential students- who will never get an opportunity to get past the strict security at the main entrance. So is this almost exclusive display meant for delegates and visitors to NID? Like a monarchy extending its umbrella or making new additions to its empire, the exhibition seems to present NID as a place which can offer any design solutions to the nation- to create the design enabled India they envision.
A little visit to Independent India’s history, tells us why institutions like NID were found during the nation building process. A flex on the entrance glass also attempts to do the same, by describing the ‘forces’ which ‘led to’ NID. They were the establishment of schools established on the lines of Macaulay’s plan of education, influence of the Bahaus and most pivotal-Charles and Ray Eames visit to India. It was the Eames Report of 1958 which helped envision NID. Another flex at the entrance glass is black and white photograph of Charles and Ray Eames. “Of all the designs I have seen, the lota is the most beautiful” was one of the lines written by Charles Eames in the report, which is one can now see put on the orange entrance panel alongside a drawing of lota. Interestingly the drawing of the lota is the only Indian/vernacular object within the space of the exhibition. The other objects like the pithara, lamp, the other traditional Indian objects are outside the exhibition space, kept like found artefacts or like sculptures to fill negative spaces. Some visitors have also pointed out that they are at a lower level than the plinth of the exhibition space, and within which the display objects are further slightly raised from the floor level.
What is the place of these traditional objects in design school inspired by the ‘Modern’? Are learnings from these traditions meant to be mere inspiration for ‘better’ designs? Many of our day-to-day traditional objects are skilful and intelligent. May be these are critical meanings trying to be read into the semiotics of the displayed objects. Many disciplines/discourses are trying to rekindle relationships with regional archives of tradition and craft, not just to preserve nostalgia but as a living knowledge system. In this context, this seems like an important critique to consider. And moreover it is the institution’s position on the same, especially when Classic designs from the west are archived and idealised.