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Mahendra Patel: Interview

Series on design teachers in India:

Question: We would like to know if there are incidences and events in your childhood that led you to become a designer?

Answer: Actually I was born in Ahmedabad and I was not keeping good health and my family comes from a rural area; the doctor in Ahmedabad said its better to shift this child to a village for fresh air and all sorts of things. So I went through a reverse process. Normally people go to urban areas for higher education; I went to a rural environment and that was a big change coming from an environment like Ahmedabad to a village which has hardly ten percent good built-up houses, infrastructure and only one school. People started expecting higher levels of behavior and performance from me. So that forced me to struggle to achieve in my rural environment.

I shifted in the 5th standard. And somehow in the first year only it clicked so well. I was good in mathematics and was good in drawing. So my drawing teacher was very keen to promote me as a person interested in art so he pushed me everywhere, when its an inspection etc. In a rural area you paint floors, paint pots and all sorts of things and I thought that is art. My drawing teacher was very happy, with that sort of thing. And it went and I suddenly came in 11th standard. In those days at 11th standard and there was a big speculation, whether I would take a science stream like an engineer or architect; or go to fine arts. Nobody knew about applied arts and graphic design in those days.

I had one senior student of my level, who was the son of a villager. He said “Mahendra, what will you do after doing engineering? Your father is a good businessman, you can go after school and earn money though you don’t require to earn money. So why don’t you take fine arts. Being just one year older to me he became my guru and I somehow liked that philosophy that I don’t require to earn money and my family has a good business so why shouldn’t I take something which I like, which is arts. That’s why I landed up studying fine arts in Baroda.

While I was doing fine arts I realized that my other academic excellence came in my way, since fine arts is very subjective. When you excel in school, its mathematics, geometry, science and you think scientifically. So I started approaching my fine art more logically. And I had continuous conflicts with my teachers, who were involved in emotions and expressive art, whereas and I questioned everything. They said fine art is the last thing you should do. I had good skill; I was an achiever, first or second ranker but never an artist. In my mind I was always questioning the logic behind painting, patterns, good or bad and what is drawing. So I had a big conflict within me even when I finished my graduation as to whether fine arts is the right choice for me or not; but I enjoyed doing fine arts most.

Question: How did you shift to graphic design?

Answer: I finished my fine arts in 64 in painting. I though I’ll go and join my fathers business and do my painting in my spare time. So I went to my fathers shop, started doing his tobacco business and started doing painting. But my sensitivity and what I gained as a fine artist didn’t work in business. I would have to cheat people in order to earn money. It so happened that my father’s partner didn’t like me. So I started giving service to people. If somebody comes and says, “I want five packets of cigarettes” I used to say, “buy six packets instead.” Because cigarettes were sold in those days in dozens. So I started rationalizing his business and they didn’t like it. Somehow something happened to me and I didn’t like the business, even to earn money.

So I went back to K.G. Subramaniam, my professor, and said, “Sir, I don’t like business and painting, but I want to do something with you.” So he gave a very simple example. He said “Jo BA hoke kuch nahi kar saka, woh MA hoke kya karega. Africa mein jake kapde ki dukan kholo.” All Patels are famous for going to Africa to do business. He knows that I had to go to business. He says, “You are no good.” Though you have got first and second rank, you should go back to field and start working. So, he gave me two choices; one choice to be an art teacher, there was Baroda school and some schools he said. So, why don’t you be an art teacher? Now art teachers are always looked down on and so are artists and painters and I was also one of them. I said “I don’t want to be an art teacher.” He said “It’s ok! If you don’t want to be an art teacher, I know these young people in Kalico Museum. They are searching for young people like you. So, why don’t you go and meet Gera Sarabai.” So I went there. I gave an interview with my portfolio. Somehow she liked it. She said we have this Nation Institute of Design, and why don’t you join the program because we’re going to have many consultants. We don’t have students.” And that’s how I landed up there without knowing what graphic design and graphic arts is. I had an illusion about graphic design. I thought its lithography and etching and all sorts of things and I landed up in graphic design.

And very funnily I never used scale. You know as a painter you have everything free; brush and all. And suddenly I had to start working with setsquares, and right angles and a centimeter scale. And some how it was a big change in me, because I had a scientific and logical attitude and suddenly I found a new way of looking at paintings and a sort of extension to my paintings. My first post was with Dura Teek Hoffman on letter design. I started seeing letter design as sculpture, as form and constructing letterforms and somehow all the logic I was waiting to use came into it, and it clicked with this teacher. She said, “You are doing well, so why don’t you do typography?” So from letter design I shifted to typography. And then the journey started. And once you start taking an interest in technology and design; you find a way. And it so happened that all the applied art teachers and colleagues and advertising colleagues, who were with me, were very laid back. They thought they knew everything and I don’t know anything. So I put in more energy and questioned more, and that’s how I started becoming a specialization-oriented person.

So I took interest in letter design and typography. And typography has a lot to do with printing. Unless and until you didn’t know printing that is in the 1960’s 70’s when the letter press was in; your design had no value. Whatever design you did has to be set by those typesetters, block makers and all sorts of things. So I started learning printing, I started working with printers. I started influencing printers about spacing, alignment and other things and it became a benchmark for a printing. So I thought “why shouldn’t I head the printing department as well?” If you are doing good work for printing; you also influence printing. So I went into printing and once printing comes then computer came in.

In between, Adrien Frutiger from Paris came. He wanted to explore what design could do or what type design could do and the look at the opportunities in the country. I had never thought of Indian script or script type of typography. But it clicked in my head that a foreigner who has problem in even speaking English can aspire to do something for India. I am an Indian and know few languages; I love India and Indian languages; why shouldn’t I get into it? So I talked to him. He was very appreciative; he said if you’ll tell me when you can come, we could work together. And that is how I landed up proposing a year of intensive work with Frutiger in Paris. And once you are there it changes everything.

Question: Apart from Hoffman and Frutiger, are there others who influenced you?

Answer: Yeah, actually, my biggest influences are Hoffman and Adiren Frutiger. Hoffman in terms of quality, fine level quality and the way she deals with graphic forms; every millimeter or half a millimeter counts, and very strict discipline, which I learnt early. Frutiger came after two years and it was a good experience. He gave me the structural, functional grounding in technology because he was very good in teaching technology. He taught me punch cutting, I even did punch matrix making, which helped me learn what would happen to your type design when it is molded. I learned digital typography; what happens to your type when it is digitized. Earlier there was this prototype setting, which is of very small type. But I did get exposed to what are optical corrections and what are visual corrections and how they can be done. I even had a chance to optically correct his design. When you do donkey work as they say; you learn a lot and that came to my help when I started working with Indian languages.

Question: Which are your favorite projects?

Answer: Actually I enjoy doing type design most, but I have bad luck with putting type design to field.

Question: Is this because of the Indian scenario?

Answer: Scenario, and also because of the Indian mindset. They are very happy, they both want and don’t want change. And I am more of a type designer and less of calligrapher, so what I did was midway; I did customized type designs. So, I did type design for airports, for example, all international airports and petrol pumps are done by me. What I thought was I should go for serious body text, where there is a set Indian mindset for typeface design. I went to signage design; I designed typefaces for contemporary multi-lingual signage systems. I designed the typeface for the airport, logo designs; my State Bank of India logo design has 13 different multilingual solutions. So I went into what you call ‘customized needs’. Till recently we had projects to design type faces for Malayalam Manorama, Deccan Herald in Kannada.

Still the Indian industry works with what you call a ‘package deal’. So when they buy printing machinery and type setting machinery; type design comes as a package. There is no separate need to have a type designer employed. Which we have tried to do, but so far we have had no success. I went to CDAC, because their way making of fonts and the way they deal with it is quite different. And I think this phonetic keyboard, the way they deal with it, is very very appropriate for Indian conditions. I went to your alumni S.K. Mohanty, and they have developed Tamil, Telegu, Kannada, English and Hindi types to match each other and I have used this in Tirupati and Tirumala signage systems.

As my type design didn’t click; and as a designer you always want to do something for the country, and sitting idle is not our nature, so I started designing maps. Though I never learned map design myself, but I started doing it in 1974, and my first map got the Presidency award (I don’t know how); by luck, hook or crook. But that got me recognition and people started coming and you dictate them; you start creating opportunity and then it became a series of types of maps that I developed. There’s one for the transportation system (AMTS), including the map for PMs. When Indira Gandhi was prime minister we designed a system for all ministers to interact with MLAs. In this map depicting infrastructure, they could know what is happening in the country. At higher levels they require big references; where there are irrigation schemes, power schemes, what type of industry; private, public. Whether it is in a plan or already executed, I created a total symbol system just before computers came into printing. And then in every five-year plan we started updating this map. Now it is computing, so it is very easy. Earlier it had to be screen printed and dealt like that. Map for planners lead to another map for means very interesting is the map for irrigation schemes. I developed a system for them, which they can print every year, update it, fold, file it and it becomes a communication map. This eventually became another milestone in Map design. .

Question: Students really consider you as a very good teacher. What is your opinion on being a good teacher?

Answer: I was very strict teacher actually, when I started teaching. I mean, I am talking about 1970’s. My Swiss background from Basel made me strict, straight and frightening and other thing. The whole thing came into change when I visited USA and I realized; this was in 1986 that learning is more important than teaching and students come from varying background and you cannot dictate students. Students works so excellently while they were so informal including their XXXX on the table. And they are different in country wise, in seeing and other thing. And their ability to gain from a teacher, interactive teaching that changed the way I looked at teaching. Then I created learning environment and learning challenges for students. When I came back I became a completely different Mahendra Patel. I started talking to different people at different levels, so it depends on type of students. Basically learning became more important and so is our Indian philosophy; everything is good, nothing is good or bad, it’s all contextual. So I started seeing students by their level when I go to Baroda. There are students who come from NCST background, who doesn’t know a single word of English. They have come from rural area. They don’t even have sophistication, articulation and comprehension to excel that you have come in educated students. So, how would you judge whether it’s good or bad? So I am not teaching English anymore, I am not teaching languages to them. I started teaching them Design, in their language, in their own word, in their capability, so my standard became different. And suddenly it clicked and once it started clicking I started doing experiments. How to teach smaller, longer and longer number of students. For example I have in my class 60 students sitting with a little desk, like an MBA people learning something. How the teaching can be still individualistic then those 5-8 students at NID. So I developed what you call an American happening system involving students differently getting attention. So you’re teaching technique or I would say a mind set basically and I became very attentive to it. I think it worked very well. This time for the first time I took fashion design students and we had fashion design and textile design students. And at Shristi I had a one-week plan, so this person said “why don’t you take these students in Fashion Design”, and they all hated graphic design. Suddenly I thought what could I do with them. So I went there and just started talking to them and it was a nice suggestion that we have enough of thread and fabric and things, with another person saying explore the same thing again. At the end of one week they all said they never thought that learning could be this interesting. Its not the expertise, it’s the involvement of a person and the students themselves reveal seniority. It’s like a case where the customer is teaching. Students come from; for example one student was Sindhi, completely different mind set. And different students I take it differently. One was from a remote area in Orisa with a school teacher as a father. Completely down to earth student. Just like me when I was young as a student. And there are diversity of students and I have to attend to that and it was a good learning for me as to how I can change everybody’s learning. Even my assignments varied from student to student except it was basic design, which involved certain basic principles. And another thing from Frutiger I learned is that take your audience always illiterate. Always think that everybody doesn’t know everything. Make your teaching so simple that everybody can decipher it. Anyway the intellectual person is going to learn, but those people who are ignorant or not learned enough; if they get then everybody will get. If you know Frutiger’s way of explaining is very simplistic, down to earth; its not language, its more of basic principles, which clicked me.

Question: Request you to say a few words for the new students:

Answer: In today’s society there are so many learning choices. Technology gives you even more choices and more complexity. And choice making becomes more difficult for today’s children. Forget about college students; I am talking about primary and pre-primary students. I have a small grandson of hardly eight months and he has more choices than at this age what I have. So when I teach my students in different colleges, I find that mind works much faster, the aspiration is very high and there is a big gap between the capability and sensitivity then the aspiration. They have illusion of sensitivity and knowledge. There is a difference between information knowledge and realization and its called values. Now values are based after you try something and internalize something. Most of my teaching is based on internalization and not on lectures and all these things. Its like applied theory; you learn the tools, test them, modify them and learn to break them too. There is another way of making teaching interesting is I teach them basic principles and say that “if you can’t follow, then with responsibility and accountability break the rules”. And that becomes extremely interesting. And today’s youth want to be different; they want to break boundaries, but they do it without learning what boundaries are and what rules are. So I am building those things and asking them. My advise to today’s youth would be to learn fundamentals first and then break barriers. Don’t go in a fashion mode for the new technology, but don’t avoid new technology also. Many of us particularly my generation have a taboo about the new technology. They think that computers are spoiling old trends and they don’t want to become friends with computer and new technology. One should learn about new technology but without loosing on human sensitivity.

Question: What are your opinions on design in the context of India?

Answer: In our country design is very subjective and the evolution of design, good design or bad design is extremely complex; because of language, regional styles and literacy levels. We have high-level literacy and we have low-level literacy. So it’s very difficult to take only one stance. It’s more contextual and it’s more subjective and varies from person to person and also dependent on personal philosophy. But within that one can build certain kinds of category and norms. This is required and can bring about some kind of goal or conduct or directions. Very few of us have tired it. All of us are struggling to build our thing; we’re fighting for our own identity unfortunately. There’s no collective identity with NID, IDC or Architects. Architects have established themselves to some extent. But graphic design still needs more colleges and institutions and probably this is the prime need of our country. And for me ‘Indian’ doesn’t mean those Ajanta, Ellora and iconography. Indian needs means, working for India, for Indian needs, for Indian technology or computerized Indian today. English is an Indian language today. Don’t shy away from using English language, by not using vernacular languages. If you have vernacular problems, then use vernacular language. That becomes sophisticated and that is the basic thing what we’re going through. Bringing order, because there’s lot of disorder I see at this point. And before we bring order; there’s this globalization and deconstruction; information is coming in bulk to us. Everyday new information, new trends, new styles, new influences; we know about it in hardly twelve hours and that makes India highly vulnerable. Because before we know what we can do with order, suddenly it is XXXXX. Before we break the order, there’s globalization. Before we even build our own identity, there’s global identity. Even we have not build any national identity, forget about regional identity. Now there’s an advantage to have, chunk two centuries growth and cope with it, but now ignoring it. Understand first, what regionalism & nationalism is and then go for globalization. Do not go for globalization just for the sake of it; this is what I personally think.

Interviewed by Prof. Ravi Poovaiah at IDC, IIT Bombay


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