Visual thinker

Print edition : December 31, 2010

Dashrath Patel, the designer-philosopher. In the backdrop, a painting by Bhupen Khakhar.-ANUJ AMBALAL

Painter, ceramist and photographer, Dashrath Patel (1927-2010) offered help whenever the nation seemed to fail; yet the nation failed him.

ON the morning of December 1, Dashrath Patel sat on his chair by the window in his home, gripped his thick-nib bamboo pen, dipped it first into the black inkpot and then into the red, placed the tip on the open page of his notebook and let the play of light guide his wrist. There was a surge of flowing lines. He had whipped up a whirlwind. He kept his bamboo pen aside and gently picked up the long, sturdy peahen feather I had found for him, a few days earlier, on the campus of the Sarabhai Foundation in Ahmedabad. He had sliced the tip to a thin point and was using it as his quill. Once again he mixed the inks and let the feather give wings to his imagination. Three more pages of abstract forms flew out from within the infinite resource of fantasy he was blessed with. He could summon forms at will.

A lifetime of filling pages and notebooks with a mind-boggling abundance of lines, and he still felt he was nowhere near to being satisfied. Literally hundreds of notebooks lovingly inscribed with this unceasing quest for form. When he was not doing anything else, Dashrath was drawing. His hands would quiver if he had to sign a cheque. But when he was drawing it was like a musician catching his shruti. The creator and his creation aligned on the same axis.

It always reminded me of the story attributed to Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, one of Dashrath's early mentors while he was a student at the Government College of Art, Chennai. A shaagird of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, founder of the Kirana Gharana, Harinda was puzzled that every single morning Ustad devoted exclusively to practising the ni' note. This was his daily ritual. One day Harinda asked him, Ustad, you are known as the samrat of nishad'; yet you spend so much time practising only that every day? Abdul Karim Khan put his tanpura aside and said, Beta, zindagi bhar main is nishad ko maanjta raha hoon, maanjta raha hoon, par kambakht haath hi nahin lagti. (All my life I've been polishing and polishing this nishad, but the damn thing still eludes me.)

Dashrath's daily journey with the line drawing too was his own search for the elusive. But that morning on December 1, after doing seven drawings, he quietly succumbed to the elusive and became part of the light that so fascinated him all his life. It was his last flirtation with light. A monumental creative spirit had departed.

In the space of a fortnight, India had lost two unique, yet fraternal, souls. Hardly had we recovered from the passing away, on November 14, of L.C. Jain, than his friend Dashrath too followed. Both of them lucid thinkers with original, non-pedantic and non-formal ideas on national culture, who felt the need to harness the skills and capacities of ordinary people in creative social organisation. Both brought clarity of thought to issues, often startling in their simplicity and effect. Both had walked out of doors originally opened by Gandhi, but carried no bags or standard wares to sell. Visionaries in short, whom the nation largely betrayed. Ultimately, India failed both the economist-philosopher L.C. Jain and the designer-philosopher Dashrath Patel.


L.C. was part of the limited brigade of economists who practised economics as if people mattered. After a long innings in traditional economic sectors such as rural handicrafts and handlooms, when, in the late 1980s, he was drafted into the Planning Commission, he suddenly realised the mammoth exercise in chicanery that the planning process had deteriorated into. Deputed to sit on the State Planning Board in Tamil Nadu, he had his patience tested once with the Board visibly being hijacked by industrial lobbies. He delivered a thundering rebuttal and, before anyone could get him to endorse any proposal, he ducked and spent some quality time with Chandralekha and me.

L.C. has written: Fifty years after Independence, there is not a single village out of 350,000 villages which is self-governing. Is it surprising we still have 300 million people who are poverty-stricken and as many who are ignorant deprived of literacy; and there are starvation deaths in villages alongside with buffer stocks of 60 million tonnes?

Critique of capitalists

Dashrath, too, was like one of those innocent, wide-eyed heroes of post-Independence Indian cinema, bursting with idealism and faith in the capacity of the artist to transform his society. Gifted with a cornucopia of diverse skills and talents, he believed that the nascent industry of young India would be automatically on the look out for an indigenous design.

Already a well-known painter, ceramist and photographer, he aligned himself with the national design project without a second thought as the National Institute of Design was set up in 1961 and started its professional design practice and pedagogy in 1963. After two decades of training a generation of designers and design teachers and having interacted closely with Indian industry, Dashrath would be heard saying exasperatedly: The Indian industrial class lacks both dignity and courage. They are just sons of merchants, conservative to the core. Their sole interest is gathering profit without investing in the future of the industry in product, process or human development. It is the kind of scathing critique of the industrial class that I have not heard even Marxist critics make.

Dashrath's politics, as his art, was intuitive and visual. He could see that the Indian bourgeoisie had no interest in sinking any money into design which, for him, represented optimisation of scarce resources. His story of how the NID developed the first differential fan in the 1960s and took it to Usha(the fan maker), which turned it down, has not been publicly repeated often enough. For him, this betrayal by captains of industry was unpardonable. He was unsparing in his critique of the Indian capitalist's lust for joint ventures in which they had nothing to lose. They just had to buy some discarded, obsolescent blueprint from the West, set up a sweatshop and rake in profits. He would describe the puffed up ambitions of Indian industrialists as dressing up a tractor in a dinner jacket.

In later years, Dashrath also developed a significant critique of styling over design. He used to say that while, generally, the emphasis in the design process has to be on public need, its economic capacity, effective deliverance, infrastructural sustenance and flexible production methods, designers had failed to comprehend this.

In a magazine interview earlier this year, he said, Due to the open market strategy followed since 1991, India experienced the incredible effect of globalisation and the design arena was further degraded. Fresh design graduates misplaced their priorities and emphasised merely product styling' and the look' and this trend continues. Design is not for styling; it is to enhance the function. Many of his aphoristic sayings and constant concerns are poignantly captured in the hour-long documentary, In the Realm of the Visual, by Iffat Fatima made for the Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia-Millia Islamia, during a Retrospective Exhibition on Dashrath's 50 years in Delhi in 1998.

He also used to chuckle at the comical fallout of globalisation in our context. His favourite example was the new-in-the-market sedan cars. He used to say, Most of these sedans are designed in the West as owner-driven vehicles. So the driver's seat is the best designed, with ergonomic detailing and precision, and is the most comfortable part of the car. The back seat is for dumping the grocery and kids. But when this car comes to India and is sold for Rs.15-20 lakh, the vanity of the owner does not permit him to drive it himself. So his poorly-paid driver sits in the most comfortable seat, while the millionaire himself sits in the dickey.

While Dashrath moved all his life from one creative discipline to the other with the excitement of a child finding a new toy, he also resisted slipping into sedentary celebrity hood. While at the NID, one by one, he had executed some of the most prestigious national and international projects of the 1960s and 1970s. Nehru Exhibition, Tokyo Fair, Osaka Fair, Montreal Fair, New York Fair, Gandhi Centenary Exhibition, Agri-Expo he did it all. For each of them, with unhesitating back-up from NID founders Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, he worked with a new top-of-the-block consultant in design, photography, architecture, display techniques, graphics and stadium-scale exhibitions enhancing his own learning in the process.

He travelled the length and breadth of India three times during this period carrying his heavy camera bag slung from his shoulder, photographing each detail of daily life, custom, ritual and hand-made processes in every region. As he used to say gleefully, he returned to the same region, village and person every 10 years and documented them afresh, studying and noting all the changes that had taken place in the interim. He was quick to spot the changes in the wares displayed in Indian village markets indicating the changes in the economy and the entry of, first, nylons and then plastics into rural and tribal lifestyles. With this vast data-bank of visual material, he was to construct literally the image of India for exhibition purposes. It was an India illuminated with the little joys and hopes and festivities of thousands of its ordinary people.

But one major negative experience in 1980 at the NID made him leave the institution, on the heels of being conferred the first Padma Shri for Design and Design Education in India. It is interesting that the next decade saw him travel two entirely different trajectories. On the one hand, almost single-handedly, without the benefit of the NID and without even a proper design studio, plagued by failing eyesight, he executed two of the most ambitious spectacles of the period the inaugural ceremonies of the Festivals of India in France and later, in the Soviet Union both massive in scale and in the human resource it mobilised. The other was the dramatic switch he made to working within small, negligible economies, for need-based programmes with non-governmental organisations and activists, developing stunningly simple methods of communication through screen-printing and field darkrooms.

Rural design school

The dynamic activist Vikasbhai egged him on to set up camp at the Saghan Khshetra Vikas Samiti, the Gandhian integrated rural development project in Sewapuri, near Varanasi. It was a 10-year period when he virtually turned the place around, getting the workshops in textile, carpentry, leather and ceramics to turn out products no less sophisticated in form and finish than what was being made at the NID. It instantly changed the profile of the subsistence economy of the region. He also set up a Rural Design School there for the children of artisans and anyone willing to apprentice with him.

This was perhaps his most resounding critique of the Indian elite design project that after 20 years at its helm, he chose to create not one more national school or urban design school, but that he chose to link the otherwise pompous idea of design in India to a sustainable economy of needs and resources. It was this return to basics that prompted his friend L.C. Jain to comment, If Gandhiji were alive today, he would have been proud.

Dashrath's spontaneous austerity was as genuine as his immense delight in high-end gadgetry. When he was almost 75, he took to digital photography and to the Mac Notebook like a duck to water. He possessed, along with an old (and still working) Braun spool recorder, a state-of-the-art Sony digital recorder. He played with some of the most fascinating collection of pens and, until almost the last day, was happy speaking into a smart little digital voice recorder-cum-pen drive. And yet, he never moved away from his khadi shirt or kurta and, in the last decade of his life was always seen wearing a starched handloom veshti (dhoti), even when he drove his second-hand Mercedes.

The Chennai Connection

Chennai had a special place in his life and heart. For one, there was his life-long friendship with the equally versatile and diversely creative Chandralekha, who had made Chennai her home. This yielded some feisty collaborations The World is my Family exhibition for the Gandhi Centenary Year; Stree Women of India, exhibition for the Festival of India, Soviet Union; and the Pudu-Paavu exhibition of South Indian sarees, were all projects executed with great elan. There were also the masterly concepts for the Bronze Gallery, Madras Museum and the Art & Science Pavilion for the Discovery of India exhibition for the Nehru Centre, Mumbai, which did not get actualised. Together, they did some striking photo essays, including published works on the vessels of India, Hasta-Mudras, and the recently released Why the Sky is Blue, a collection of photographs and sentences from Sir C.V. Raman's famous lecture. Dashrath has documented all of Chandralekha's dance work from Navagraha through to Sharira, besides having created stage backdrops for Lilavati, Yantra and Mahakal.

Beyond this too, Dashrath has left his mark on the city. He was the first assistant to his teacher Devi Prasad Roy Choudhury in the execution of the two iconic sculptures along the Marina Beach Triumph of Labour and the Gandhi statue. For these, Dashrath created the plaster-of-Paris maquettes in various shapes and sizes before the famous bronzes were eventually cast. Fifty years later, he was thrilled to be invited to create a sculpture at the junction along the IT corridor near Tidel Park, on the theme of fire. The 35-feet tall coloured plumes in reinforced concrete will remain his visible signature on the city.

Just a few weeks before his demise, Dashrath had celebrated his 83rd birthday with an evening's outing for a round of ice creams. Since his cardiac surgery last October, he had lost his appetite and had dropped over 35 kgs. He had turned uncomfortably frail. But ice cream was a magic word to get his excitement level up. The other adrenalin was the smell of some new work. The evening before he passed away, when I called him, he sounded very feeble and it was clear there was not much time. To perk him up, I told him about my new appointment on the Apex Committee of the National Museum. Immediately his voice stabilised and he said, They have ruined the museums. Suggest some good ideas to them and I will join you. We will do that together.

'FIRE', SCULPUTRE IN reinforced concrete, Tidel Park junction, Chennai, 2005.-

This was quintessential Dashrath mercurially in the present; and looking ahead. Whenever the nation seemed to goof, he was there offering help, a handyman, a visual thinker, a man of his times. Suddenly, the dappled light seems profligate.

(The Dashrath Patel Museum in Alibagh, off Mumbai, houses under one roof his collected works. Created with the help of his designer friend Pinakin Patel, it is open on weekends.)

Sadanand Menon learnt and worked with Dashrath Patel for 35 years. In 1998, he curated In the Realm of the Visual, Dashrath's 50 years Retrospective Exhibition for the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi. This was re-mounted in 1999 for the NGMA, Mumbai.

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