The Place of Tradition in Design Sensibility
by Sashikala Ananth

Many years ago when I was invited to deliver my first talk on the architecture of the Indian traditions, I went with great enthusiasm and spoke about the wonders of the texts and of the monuments. I went into raptures about the building techniques and explained the myths and misconceptions regarding the sculptor and the architect of the tradition. But today, about 15 years down the line, when I am faced with the task of having to speak about our 'great legacy' to yet another generation of Indians who have either lost touch or who have given up the task of keeping the continuity going, I am aware of a strange feeling of weariness and an enormous futility. To counter this feeling, I am placing the universe of the traditional thought into a slightly different framework which may provoke the 'sleeping Indian consciousness' to examine its own dilemma and perhaps move to a different cross road of design and aesthetics.

Design and the designer

Today the premier institutions are churning out designers who have been trained in the western traditions of aesthetics and art appreciation, and who are most skillfully responsive to the tastes and desires of the elite in every metropolis in the country. They speak a common language, they have a vibrant network of ideas and conclusions. Such designers are being courted, presented and praised in magazines and newspapers. The young Indian designer has 'arrived', and the 'European' and 'American' aesthetics have become part of our cityscapes. At this point, someone like me comes along and speaks of an almost obliterated sensibility. 'Is this relevant? Do we need to go back into history right now?' ask the young listeners. Some go so far as to say 'This is obsolete and wasteful of our valuable time'. I am insistent, and I am demanding a response from all of you.

Design is essentially a product of commonly held beliefs and aesthetics. If we are trained in a particular design aesthetic which has its roots in a different culture, and is fed by the dreams and urges of a different people then it is only natural that we become 'imitators' and 'copiers'. In the process of manufacturing products that derive their essence from another culture, we end up fragmenting the human collective and the physical products. There is deep pathology in the inner reality and the outer manifestation. We legitimise the 'unknowing' and the 'confused' design style with what we call 'superior taste'. We create an artificial market for our wares, and then suddenly someone says (like in the emperor's new clothes), 'but this design style is meaningless. I want more. My fathers' father understood this better'. Immediately there is a hue and cry. The power and hegemony is being threatened, so the design clique closes ranks and pretends that it understands the whole universe of reality and is in fact addressing the needs of the majority. But I think the time has come to tear off this mask, put aside the phoniness and the pretension and deal with the reality. The Indian designer has lost touch with his / her design paradigm and the cultural pulse. It is imperative that we find it again and struggle together to formulate a design metaphor (or metaphors as the case may be) which has been drawn out of the very spirit of the tradition. It is only with this act can we as designers come of age and be born as real inheritors of our land.

Belief and Accountability

Traditionally, the designer (craftsperson, sculptor, architect) not only understood the many belief systems of the culture, but he / she also had a strong belief of his / her own. This belief had its own assumptions of reality, understanding of life and death, gave equal importance to materialism and spirituality, and above all, held the human quest for sublimation and transformation as central to all action in this earthly life. Therefore, the act of creating a home, fashioning an image, crafting a pot, making a painting, were invested with deeper meaning and sense of purpose. Today we need to bring back this critical connection between artist, consumer and larger purpose of living. Otherwise the senseless exploitation of the environment and the lack of commitment to quality and excellence in action, would destroy the social system. It is only when the artist and the consumer are both tuned into the sacred nature of the human quest, when activity can become caring, knowledge can become wisdom and product can become transformed into a piece of art.

Architectural Wisdom

It is essential that we make a beginning at a national level to put together the wisdom and skill of all building activity, be it design or building technique.

1. Crafts persons with their skill and their interconnection with lifestyles and culture, have much that can be learnt by the young architects. A 6 month apprenticeship with any craftsman would be a valuable learning experience.

2. A directory of local craftsman, their skills and their knowledge would be a valuable guide for students and practicing architects.

3. Tribal housing practices and shelter building techniques of communities should be studied in the schools. The knowledge of building technique must be understood against the backdrop of social lifestyles, belief systems, material availability and geographical / climatic conditions. Unless students are able to comprehend this in a contemporary manner, the impact of form and shape on the user would never be owned up by the designer.

4. The present day psychic splits and spiritual atrophy must be countered, and a more relevant and ethos friendly design style must be evolved.

More than offering information, I see the need for asking the right questions. Can we create an atmosphere in our classrooms and in our architectural work environments which delves deeply into the mind / spirit of the ordinary Indian on the road, and in the villages. Can we design spaces for these people to feel comfortable and to be deeply inspired? This is a very important cross road for designers as a community, who have felt great pride in 'not belonging' to the ordinary Indian social class and feel superior and more westernised. The challenge is to belong, and to be creative within this social class of the consumers, and to be 'proud shapers of the built environment' which blends, harmonises and inspires rather than shocks, disturbs and dominates.

There is much that needs to be learnt, much that has to be discarded. To start this process, we need to first quieten the mind and empty the consciousness. The parampara learning system demanded this emptying before beginning the actual learning process.

The accompanying illustrations are from the shilipi's handbook which are of great relevance to the designers. The sacred building, and the sacred image are composed of rhythmic modules which are orderly and aesthetic, the part and the whole are always in balance.