‘what is wrong with design education in India’

(A recent exchange between Jinan and me on ‘design’ – naveen )


Dear friends

I am sharing some thoughts on what is wrong with design education in India. Do respond when you find time.

This question of ‘what is wrong with design education in India ’ has been my last 25 years of re search (research). That is from 1985, from the third month of my stay at NID I have embarked on a journey that has led me to several aspects of learning, aesthetic sense, cognition, biology of knowing and aesthetic sense, children, indigenous wisdom knowledge etc. What bothered me at NID was that the design sensibility that was being imbibed was very western and industrial (this was a later revelation)  that it was producing designers with western aesthetic sensibilities and were also being conditioned for a standardized design process (which is probably ok in Industry). A kind of a mass production of sorts. The same process is being applied whether the designer is working in the craft sector or with children!

The outer manifestations of any culture- architecture, craft, food, music, dance and ritual are imbued with the aesthetic sense of the people who belong to that culture. When year after year students are subjected to a western design process and learn design through western history and western sense of aesthetics, is it any wonder that generation after generation gets estranged from their own history, culture, individual sense of beauty and their very being. This is true of all educational institutions in this country. All aspects of our being are subjected to this false conditioning. At the level of information all we learn is about the west. At emotional level we feel inferior to the west and become imitators and our aesthetic sense is also transformed as we learn the western aesthetic sense. At the same time all true qualities of a learner is also destroyed by the schooling process. One learns to compete, lie, to cheat, to project one self etc.

Humility is replaced by arrogance and false pride. Before I go on I would like to state my admiration for various thinkers and doers who were part of the design movement in the west. They were being very honest to their situation and were responding authentically nor am I blaming the people who brought design education to India . Probably the political climate of those times did not allow this kind of search and obviously we were imitating (aping is a better term) the west in every other aspect of our lives too.

There no villains, only victims of their conditioning.

At two levels the design education was creating problems. One at the aesthetic level and the other at the process level. The second may be ok with in the industry frame work but it was surely creating havoc when that process and sensibilities were being applied at the craft sector. Designers working with artisan communities are already doing lots of damage and from the past few years the NIFTians and IICD ans are also systematically taking part in this. Students can’t be blamed as they are being ‘taught’ that they need to ‘help/ save’ the artisans with their ‘design skills’. Power corrupts perception. And added to this if greed is also present then it completely distorts they way we see things (want to see things).

Now that I have been going to IICD, it has clearly given me a picture of what is wrong with design education preparing students meant to work with artisans. Machine aesthetics is being imposed on students as they are being taught the same courses that are being used at NID. The design process also makes students to think in terms of the logic of industrial production. Mass production, scaling up, standardized design solutions, moulds, mechanization etc. One is taught to forget the strengths of the craft system. That they can produce variations with no extra effort, artisans are very skilled already or have the potential to become one (see the link http://www.rediscoveringchildhood.org/kollam.htm) and the strength of the craft is that it is very location specific with diverse aesthetic sensibilities etc. But since we are only taught how to impose and not the sensitivity, respect nor the eye for seeing their strengths we, along with other professionals takes away the self respect and self initiative of the rural artisans. So in that sense the designers will soon homogenize and standardize the diverse crafts in India unless serious re thinking is initiated.

Since the introduction of design education in schools has not yet happened we do have the possibility of re think. My research has also gone deeply in to the biology of learning. Till now the focus has been on the psychology of learning. It is very clear that our educational system is producing mindless and insensitive professionals with no sensitivity and creativity. The recent increase in suicides among school children points to the big crisis. Again and again the real culprit is not identified and instead the students, the parents and to some extent the teachers are being blamed. The very idea of ‘schooling’ or in other words ‘cloning’ goes against the very nature of how human being learns. So we need to take this as a design problem and find out what is wrong with schooling. A deeper study is called for.

I would like to end this with looking at what has gone wrong with modern Indian architecture as they also had followed a similar path. Srinagar , the capital of Kashmir, is the only city in India that has a distinct architectural character. Because in Srinagar architects have not had opportunity to practice architecture. Even though the designer has to function in local contexts the design education is non contextual. Every generation needs to relive, recreate and reinvent certain aspects of its cultural sensibilities by engaging with the reality around them. The student needs to be PRESENT to the local contexts totally-psychologic ally, emotionally and sensually and the teachers should play an effective role to ensure all. Contextually rooted aesthetic sense is what once created the diverse cultures around the globe. The present architecture of Srinagar also points to the fact that ‘un trained’ people have the ability to respond to modern needs with in their cultural frame work, most often unconsciously. May the conscious and sensitive designers role is to step out and allow this to happen. Laurie Baker, a British man by birth seems to be a good example to emulate. He learned architecture in England but practiced in India , creating culturally rooted architecture. He responded honestly to the local needs without being driven by the market forces. So what did he bring from his education from England and what did he drop? How do we produce more such people through education? Authentic aesthetic sense is one of the key factors that lead to cultural diversity.

I have researched on indigenous design process and education since 1989 among non literate artisans and children. Traditional artisan’s learning is experientially rooted, learner driven. It has the quality of re-creating, re-inventing and re-living knowledge. The cognitive space ensures the first handedness in these learnings and helps the learner to situate oneself in the cultural conditions of ones life. Can there be an education that is sensitive to these vital issues that retains diversity and authenticity? Do look at some of the links below to see some examples of the work/ research being carried out. I am doing two presentations (6th and 7th) in Chennai on ‘how education kills creativity, culture and diversity’ where Mr. Swaminathan who was a professor at IIT Delhi is engaged in deep research on various aspects of ‘Indian’ culture that would put our institutions to shame.

By the by what fundamental RESEARCH are our institutions doing or supporting? Links to my work with children. Following the principles of non interference (Other word is ‘teaching’) children began to create absolutely beautiful stuff.
WEB SITES: http://www.rediscoveringchildhood.org/sensing.htm
BLOGS: http://my.opera.com/jinankb/blog/sensing-nature
Powerpoints: http://www.authorstream.com/tag/Jinankb ,  http://www.slideshare.net/jinan



What do we know to be able to design anything. The human mind is so small and limited, and yet through its arrogance thinks it can ‘design’ – everything from Nation States to ‘Methods’ of finding ‘God’. The massive crisis of violence we find ourselves in, in all our relationships stands testimony to the smallness of our intellectual mind, which needless to say is running the modern world. Such a mind cannot know beauty, and its sense of aesthetics is bound to be static and stagnant. Not deeply nourishing and enlivening. To know Beauty a totally different quality of being is required. One that is open and receptive and involves all of oneself. Not just heightened logic and analytical abilities. Such Beauty is profoundly rooted to its soils even as it sublimely transcends all form. The mechanistic mind cannot know this. All it knows is to imitate and copy. To be second-hand. binge upon the past or somebody else’s truths. When such a petty entity has been made the ruler, its only natural ugliness and noise blot out the silent and unsullied. The banishment from Eden could well be cognitive and perceptual, rather than physical as commonly believed.

The crisis in all aspects of modern day living i feel, is because of our losing touch with an inherent, innate sense of beauty and wholeness thats natural to us. having lost it, we are now needing various patch-up efforts like design ‘education’, social “change”, ‘art’, religion and ambition etc to feel good and be gratified. The Sacred has to be rediscovered, if there is to be healing again, and for that we will have to know our Self. Only then can we truly respond to life. Be life and fully live it. At such times design happens through us. We are instruments through which the larger intelligence unfolds its music. Surrender and absence bring about a different kind of Presence. One of freedom and not internal effort.

Stepping back from all this, the crisis itself is design too, one we can’t comprehend, but is still unfolding through us. Everything that happens, happens for a purpose. And we might well bow down to it and be brought alive by the mystery.

Thank you Jinan, it was amazing to have heard you in Madras recently. it was very illuminating. One realizes the damage might be quite deep, and a long way to go before it heals, if at all. But thanks for helping us see this, however hazily as yet.

Also, i feel its important to expand this to beyond matters of schooling and modernity. Agreedly, school is one of the breeding grounds of the mechanistic mind. But aren’t there other agents of conditioning too?

Thank you.


Ps: attaching a couple of essays that you could use for your website if found meaningful. One called “That Beauty is a State” by Ananda Coomaraswamy, parts of which i found insightful. Another, “Conscious Purpose versus Nature“, an overview of the “western” cognitive space and a Biologist’s call for scientific humility.

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