The Story of Indian Design in 10 Objects

Artists Swapnaa Tamhane and Rashmi Varma took on a lofty challenge when they decided to curate a book highlighting the diversity of India's design, but the resulting visual journey is quite the treat. Here, the authors dive into the past, present, and future of design on the subcontinent.

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When artist Swapnaa Tamhane and fashion designer Rashmi Varma decided to put together Sar: The Essence of Indian Design (Phaidon), they knew it would be a formidable undertaking. They were preparing to tackle an entire subcontinent's 5,000-year-old history; a culture with hugely disparate regions, languages, and religions; and a contemporary society still very much coming into its own. Lucky for us, their beautifully produced passion project, and the 200 objects that fill it, provide an endless source of inspiration—and from a point of view sorely missing in the oversaturated design world.

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But Where to Even Begin?

The authors of Sar realized that asking experts of Indian art, culture, and craft to distill the design elements and techniques of an entire country into a few words was just short of impossible—but nevertheless have worked tirelessly to do just that. "Handcrafted techniques are definitely characteristic of Indian design," says Tamhane, "and the merging of hand and technology create exciting possibilities for the future." 

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Author Swapnaa Tamhane. Photo by Petia Karrin

This juxtaposition of the old and new crops up throughout the book: you read of animal-drawn carts stopped next to the latest imported cars at traffic lights; the artisans, who we learn are valued mediums for divine communication; and here are young contemporary Indian artists, faced with the pressure of balancing the country's rich 5,000-year-old history with the rabid pace of socio-cultural developments in the 60 years since India won independence from Great Britain.

The vast majority of the 200 items in the book, found in markets, museums, friends' houses, and small villages across the subcontinent are incredibly utilitarian. And in fact it was their very usefulness, and survival even in the face of modern technological advances, that inspired Tamhane and Varma to elevate the humble everyday objects. 

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Author Rashmi Varma.

Where Is the Future of Indian Design Headed?

It's bright, yet complicated, the authors say. Designers in the rapidly evolving country are forced to "find a union between beauty and aesthetics, utility, sustainability, and better manufacturing," says Varma, who, as a contemporary fashion designer with an eponymous clothing line in New Delhi, has faced these issues head-on herself. This "new language of design culture" has recently "become its own separate identity—removed from religious boundaries, aware of historical influences," continues Varma.

Anyone We Should Be Keeping an Eye On?

The new breed of young up-and-comers continues to expand. "Some exciting designers to keep an eye out for are Spandana Gopal of Tiipoi, Farzin Adenwalla of Bombay Atelier, Rooshad Shroff, Sian Pascale of Young Citizens, and Gunjan Gupta of Studio Wrap," says Tamhane.

As Indian artists are coming into their own and finding a voice, there has been a renewed interest in the country's vibrant textiles and craftsmanship. The authors note that European fashion houses like Dries van Noten, Balmain, and Hermès have been working in India for decades so as to incorporate the country's beautiful, high-end embroidery into their runway collections—an elevation of India's textile industry on the global stage, that hopefully merits more pride and respect for labels bearing the words "Made in India."

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Here, Tamhane and Varma share 10 quintessential, traditional, and everyday Indian objects from their new book.

Bomma

S. Anjaneyulu, 2010; dyed animal hide, bamboo.

"This is a shadow puppet for traditional storytelling, used to tell tales from two epic works of Indian literature—the Ramayana and Mahabharata. They stand 90 centimeters to 180 centimeters [35 inches to 70 inches] tall, and are made from two to three reinforced deer, goat, or buffalo hides."

Bhiksha Patra

Ayush Kasliwal, Anantaya Decor; rohida wood.

"Bhiksha patra are alms vessels used by the monks of the Jain Svetambara sect. These elegant bowls are hand-lathed by Kharadis—Muslim craftsmen in Rajasthan who trace their ancestral practice to Mughal times. The finely walled nesting bowls, available in sets of three to sixteen, are each made out of one section of rohida wood, a native tree found in the Thar Desert."

Mirror 6

Spandana Gopal, 2015; mirror alloy, cork, copper, shisham wood. Photo by Tiipoi Limited
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"Aranmula kannadi, the craft of mirror making, was established in the village of Aranmula, Kerala. Spandana Gopal, founder of Tiipoi, has worked with a family that has been casting mirrors for eight generations, to create the world's largest kannadi with unfinished edges mounted on copper."

Sumeet Mixer

S.P. Mathur, 2000s; stainless steel, plastic.

"What Indian cooks needed was a robust motor to handle the preparation of ingredients used in Indian dishes. In 1963, the sleek, simple Sumeet Mixer-Grinder, or Mixie, was launched and became the middle-class housewife's dream machine—not only for dry masala mixes, but for the heavy, gloopy batters for idli or dosas."

Atlas Roadster Bicycle

Atlas Cycles, 2000s; steel, rubber.
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"The Atlas Roadster, a city bicycle, has been in production since 1951 and was first introduced by the late Rai Bahadur Shri Janki Das Kapur, who established the Atlas Cycles factory in Sonipat, Haryana, in 1951. The bicycles—both new and old ones made rickety through use—are found everywhere, including parts of Africa and South America. The Roadster model, based on the British roadster, sports a distinctive cut-out in the steel chainring that reads 'Atlas.'"

Borosil Vision Glasses

Borosil Glass Works, 2015; borosilicate glass.

"The simple, clean lines and contemporary design of the Vision Glass dates back to 1962, when Borosil was established in India in cooperation with Corning Glass Works, USA, who went on to hand over full shares to Borosil in 1988. The glasses are lightweight, crystal-clear and non-porous."

Sari

Sanjay Garg, Raw Mango, 2014; mulberry silk, metallic thread.
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"If there is one garment that is synonymous with India, it would be the sari, probably the most sensuous draped garment still worn today. The sari, the origins of which can be traced back to ancient India, is a rectangular stretch of cloth made either of cotton or silk, or in various synthetics. ranging from 5–9 yards in length to 2–4 feet in breadth, with 5 1/2 yards being the most common. The beauty of the garment is also in its range of functionality and occasion—from elegant brides in resplendent silks to hard-working construction women in polyester saris, to politicians in meticulously starched handloom cottons saris, to transgendered individuals wearing saris…."

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Lota

19th Century; brass.

"The lota—meaning 'vessel'—has an open, flower-like spout that allows one to hold the vessel in the narrow part of the neck and tip it for a perfect direct pour. This ancient vessel, which references nature in its simple, gourd-like shape is multipurpose: it's used for drinking, washing, and ritual, being one of the eight articles required for prayer by Hindus."

Bhel Puri Stand

2014; cane, plastic.


"The concept of a mobile snack station is inherent in the design of the classic bhel puri stand, with its lightweight base in the shape of a drum. Constructed from cane and tied together with recycled plastic, there is also a shoulder strap included so that the hawker can move his equipment from place to place. Bhel puri is a spicy, savory snack made with onions, potatoes, chutneys, fried, crispy, flat biscuits, and puffed rice."

Sindoor Box

2015; mango wood, lacquer.

"Sculptural forms based on Hindu temples and spires believed to transmit cosmic energies into physical spaces and objects, are often translated onto smaller objects such as this hand-lathed wooden sindoor box from Bihar. Sindoor, which is a reddish-orange vermillion or kumkum powder, is applied by Hindu women on one's middle part at the forehead to signify that they are indeed married and are a fertile life force. The first time sindoor is applied is at the wedding ceremony by her husband and from then on she should apply it daily until widowhood."

Sar: The Essence of Indian Design by Swapnaa Tamhane and Rashmi Varma (Phaidon) is out now, $80, phaidon.com.

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