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Vikas Satwalekar: Interview

Series on design teachers in India:

Question: How did design happen, as you were pursuing literature at College?  

Answer:“Yes, I did literature at college. Even when I was in college, I used to go to art classes. My dad had an art class. He was a fairly well known painter of his time. I grew up in a family of artists actually. My grandfather was also a photographer and painter, till the age of 60 when he became a Sanskrit scholar. So, I had decided to take my own way in the arts, focusing on design. But at the time, there was hardly any good school on the subject. I had decided to join Xavier’s, to do literature, so one has probably a slightly broader outlook towards life than just have a single minded focus on graphic design. I used to go in the mornings to my dad’s institute, while I went on with literature. In the evenings I used to go to the J.J.School of Art, for live study classes. Then I think, when I was in third year in college, one of my dad’s friends had just come in from Czechoslovakia. He had just joined the N.I.D., which had just started then in 1963, with Dashrath Patel as the head. Dashrath Patel suggested I should visit the institute. So in my summer holidays, I went off to Ahmedabad to one of dad’s friend’s place. I was doing some graphic project work for him. So, it was then that went to NID and completely loved the place, it was in the old Corbusier museum building at the time. I also met Gira Sarabhai, my dad had taught her, she was actually looking after the institute and she said, “Why don’t you join after u finish your college?” So in about July1964, after finishing college, I joined NID.”

“As a young graduate of 19 years, I got hooked on to both Charles and Ray"

Question: How did you get into graphic and exhibition design?

Answer: “At the time, when I had joined, the National Institute of Design had just about planned to start a postgraduate programme at NID. It was to start in January 1965. But from July 1964 to January 1965, was one of the most seminal points in my careers. As that was when the institute had asked Charles and Ray Eames to do the Nehru exhibition. As a young graduate of 19 years, I got hooked on to both Charles and Ray. And being interested in history I was fortunate to be the one in charge of what was one major section of the exhibition i.e. the history wall. I completely enjoyed working on the project, which is at Pragati Maidan today. The original exhibition was to open in New York and tour all around the world. I was involved with it in 1972, when it was set up in Pragati Maidan as well.”

".... multilinguality has stunned me in India, and I believe it is a powerful tool to express India in various domains."
Question: What do you remember most about your learnings at NID?

“At NID I had the opportunity to associate with masters of design at the time, who came to NID to spread learnings. I had kept in touch with Eames after he left. He came back in 1970 and I met him then too. In January 1965, with the presence of Armin Hofmann at NID as our teacher, started a new phase in my career, which was about Swiss Design.  Since then I have not been able to shed that particular idea of talking about concepts, which were taught to us.  He was at NID for 6 months. And in about 1967, I along with Mahendra Patel and Ishu Patel, where sent off by the institute to Switzerland, at the Basel School for a year. I was doing graphic design at Basel school apart from a range of other things like photography, typography, field study trips etc. Classes used to be from 7:30 in the morning to 9:30 in the evening. And Armin had a rather unique way of teaching. I still remember, in the summer holidays we were told to go across the town in Switzerland, on foot and document. I had a documentation of church paintings, Mahender bhai had a documentation of something different. So, it was a fantastic learning experience. By the time we were about to finish, Bob Gill and Ivan Chermayeff had come to at NID. And they were trying to get the Osaka World Fair-India pavilion, with Dashrath Patel. With Bob Gill it was quite interesting as he was bought in to work on a family planning communications campaign with the ministry of health. And that’s were I got the opportunity to get involved with visual communications at a different level, more than just advertising or pure graphic design.  Over the years I have kept in touch with that. We did 2-3 very major projects with the Rajasthan govt. Years ago there was also a seminal project done by this lady in Nepal in terms of communications through visuals to audiences who are not necessarily literate. And document really got me excited.

And then there was this amazing priest in Calcutta, Father Rebeiro, amazing man! I got really influenced by him when he was at NID. So he told me if I was interested in such work relating to communication campaigns with various people, why not pursue it. He said he would set up a workshop for me in a place in Calcutta, which would be in the wilderness.  And it was to work on this health programme with local volunteers to develop communication tools. So I had great fun there and that really developed my interest in such kind of communications. And that really formed the basis of the family planning communications project in Rajasthan.

In 1968 when I came back from the Swiss School, NID had taken up postgraduate students. Most of us already students at NID, got involved with teachings as well, so while we were studying with Bob Gill, we were teaching as well, which was a great experience. It was an amazing time.”

Question: Which project has given you lots of pleasure?

“Getting involved in projects along with teachers while studying was something exciting at the institute. This unique way of NID was really great, to be working on live projects, whether you are a teacher or a student. That really gave us a kick-start into areas of design. NID had bagged this very major project on the centenary year of Gandhiji, in 1969. Dashrath Patel was leading the team of “The world is my Family”, it was indeed a wonderful exhibition. I worked with Dashrath on that as a graphic designer. So that was my first involvement in the whole area of communications through exhibit design. Simultaneously he was also doing a traveling exhibition for the ‘Air India; called ‘Shringaar’ and I was working on the graphics of that too. That was also a great learning experience. That’s really how I got interested in exhibitions; working with Dashrath Patel. He’s a great person to learn the ways of looking at things, perceiving things. The sensitization in terms of finer details got developed. He had an amazing capacity to pickup team members to work on details and he would himself look at the larger picture and put together people the entire exhibition. So this synergy is what I learnt while associating with him. What I learnt was that exhibition design is not a one man show, its a team effort. Some of these projects were a major break through in terms of contribution to exhibition design.

And it was in 1977 when NID bagged 5 major projects from the Ministry of Agriculture, who was hosting a major exhibition called the AgriExpo’77, where NID did the theme pavilion and rural development pavilion. And it was the first exhibition I did on my own, which was the rural development pavilion. It is indeed one of my most memorable experiences. The director at the time Mr. Ashok Chatterjee, questioned what is the effect of the exhibition in terms of actual transmission of information to the people who come to see it. So it was decided to conduct an impact study. While doing the exhibition, I was also working with the team that was developing the questionnaire for the impact study. Fantastic findings came out of it. And so that helped me with an approach to ask questions, to understand what is the communication criterion that a designer must keep in mind from a non-designer’s point of view. So we used that to great advantage in the Rajasthan project, where we got researchers to develop questionnaires on feedback studies of what we had developed.”

Question: What was your experience as a teacher and also the director of NID for about 11 years.

“I think one of the greatest things of learning at NID was really the synergy of students and faculty working on projects. The AgriExpo’77 was one such project where one got to see that in full swing. And what it taught us as faculty, now thinking in hindsight, was that, when the students involved in the project got back to college after having worked on it for 6 months, they asked various questions regarding the courses they had missed and how they would cover up. And the culture of sitting and talking with students was something that really helped. Various evening classes were carried out to compensate for the classes they had missed. And every student who worked on the AgriExpo would come back after having passed out and say “they would give an arm and a leg for that kind of experience”. And the fact that they would come and talk about it, was something great I feel.

And a very interesting incident I remember, that I would like to tell was, when I was a director at NID. I got angry with students, coming in from the hostel and would walk across the lawn. Subsequently, the wonderful lawn, which was a huge effort to maintain, started developing a track on it. So I called a meeting and talked about it. But the next day it was the same thing. So we fenced the lawn. And to my surprise, I saw the fence was uprooted. So another forum was called, and what was amazing was that the student who had done it owned up to it and said that “I do not agree, I think its completely against the essence of NID to fence something within the campus. So I told him well “you dint look at the other side?” I might also be environmentally conscious as you are, you never came and asked me as to what was my next step, and within a month there would be greenery on the fence”. Anyway he was not convinced and he put the fence back. But the point of the story is that, he was a brilliant product designer, he did extremely well and he came back to me after graduating, and said, you know something, may be you had a point then. Sometimes, these are things which are important, its not important to just be doing great pieces of work only. And the relationships I established with people, whether faculty or students at NID that I really cherish.

Apart from this there were several other projects too. We did the complete   revamping of Doordarshan. With Nina Sabnani we did some awesome animation work for Doordarshan. We took the project for Discovery of India. We put it up in 1992, it was done in 2 phases. We were taught that exhibitions were made to last and that helped us a lot while working on the Discovery of India exhibition project as well.“

" ...I have been very lucky, traveling around the world. Looking at things. Learning and exploring ..."

Question: What have been your inspirations or are there any designers/works do you appreciate a lot?

“I have been very lucky to have worked with and studied under really encouraging and supportive teachers. And they have also inspired me. It was an incredible opportunity for me to be working with Dr. Kurien. It was in 1970-71 that Dr Kurien came with his entourage. They wanted NID to develop a milk vending machine. But at the time, I got hooked on to Kurien and became a passionate admirer of his work. I developed the drop symbol for mother dairy. And I presented my concept to him. Dr. Kurien asked me “ I told you it is the operation flood and you have come up with the complete antithesis of the brief.” So he said I will think about it.” Three months later he called me up and said we’ll take it up. So in about 1975, there was a world dairy congress in Delhi, and I was asked to make a corporate presentation. I told him I had always dreamt of doing an animation film. Ishu Patel, was to help me with it. I said it will cost about rupees 60,000-70,000. He had been encouraging for that as well.

Having said that, I would say there have been two major influences I had, apart from my dad. One of them has been Gira Sarabhai. If one actually sees, in her own quiet way she has trained super designers like Subrata Bhowmick, film maker Navroz Contractor etc. She had a very important contribution in my growth as a designer as even when she came and spoke about her interest in art, design, music, readings, I used to learn a lot. The other major influence I would say was the travels. I have been very lucky, traveling around the world. Looking at things. Learning and exploring.

But the one thing the institute taught me, I think, was to be passionate about one’s work. And by work I do not necessarily mean design work. Right from keeping our toilets clean to watching our studio classrooms. And if they are not cleaned one needs to clean them up on their own. That is the kind of refinement one must have in order to be sincere towards anything they do”.

Question: As the head of a design institution what do you think has been the contribution of the institution towards churning out talent in the field of design? What do you feel has been your contribution?

“One of the things I felt was the legacy that all of the other directors had left at NID was that the director was one of the faculty. I never saw myself as the ‘head’ of the institute or anything of the sort. So one could initiate the ideas about changes or introductions in the courses or programmes taken up and the rest had to be taken up from there. My philosophy has been that when the institutions takes in students you must have a well thought out programme. So when we started the exhibition design programme we carried out a series of meetings with designers and spent quite a bit of time in trying to formulate and understand the requirements of the programme. We always endeavoured to listen to the nuances that came from all my wonderful colleagues.

The institution should give options to students; it should extend itself to students. I believe that the greatness of an institution or teacher lies in just being able to discover in a student that particular aspect that can ignite a fire and create what I call the billiard effect. If u can do that the teacher is successful. It is only upto a point that the teacher or institute can influence the student. I remember, Preeti Giannetti now the proud owners of one of the top advertising agencies, who was my student. She came up to me once and said I have an opportunity to go to America for 6 months, what do you suggest. I said you must go, because I believe learning is not only in a classroom and I believe she is flying today, to some extent, because of the influences she picked up. Yes, the institution has a role in giving a broad base, because of the library, the people who come, the faculty and interactions in the hostel. But all the students who have been successful today have been so because of the kind of people they themselves are, because of who ‘they’ are. But the important thing is that there are very few people who would not admit they were at NID, very few.”

Question: What readings or looking around do you recommend?

“I can share with you some of my interests actually. I’ve not yet started painting again. I wish to do that soon. I have no creative hobbies like playing an instrument. But I love listening to great music. I have a huge collection of instrumental music, especially of this long Japanese flute. Its basically called Zen music. What is beautiful about it is not only the sound but the silence between two sounds, which is what great typography is, great design is, painting is. We were very lucky to have gotten the opportunity to interact with great designers during the time spent at NID and even later and while traveling. I also do read a lot. I never studied my own language, so I feel I have missed out a whole world that one would love to discover. I like reading history a lot. Lot of Indian authors are also coming up. One of my favorite writers is John Le Carre, he really has this layering of texturing. Years ago the BBC had brought out a television series on one of his books, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”. And a lot of design books. I have put together a good library of my own. Have you seen a book called, “Forget All the Rules About Graphic Design: Including the Ones in This Book”, by Bob Gill?  Its a great read!”

What message do you have for students of design?

“Umm.. Not a message as that would mean I have some pearls of wisdom to say, so I have none!. But yes, I would encourage all students of design. The only thing I think is needed, is curiosity, curiosity to be able to pursue in depth whatever one is doing. I think unless one has that, its very difficult to really reach the top. And one gets that only if one is passionate about one’s work. Sometimes, because of the present circumstances in the world people get very successful very fast, nothing wrong with it, my only feeling is how many people will be able to sustain that, unless you go in the depth of things. But then again I maintain that my perspective is one way of looking at it. I often give the example of this Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and his movie “Rashomon”, its an amazing movie which beautifully establishes the multidimensionality of things. There are various viewpoints, only one viewpoint is your own. Design I feel is the same. So, when I say one must have passion in whatever they pursue, its one of looking at it. There may be other ways too, but that is my way. The book “The art of looking sideways” is an amazing book. It has gone the whole way describing the ways of looking at things. Education probably teaches you to scratch the surface in a way, but it’s the commitment to the self that really teaches you to go deeper, into the surface. So that’s what it really is I guess.”

Interviewed by Shruti Agarwal and Chetan Shastri, Mumbai, November 2007



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