The idea of what comprises ‘India’ has attracted immense dialogue and debate ever since the notion of an ‘identity’ was thrust upon us by forces we did not invite. And even though not all of us will agree with each other’s definitions of it, our every day lives have a very different story to tell. They’re united, not by the language we speak or the region we reside in, rather by the objects we use in the closed spaces of our homes. Jahnvi Lakhota Nandan’s Pukka Indian is a pictorial attempt at exploring ‘100 Objects That Define India’ and how they’ve transformed through time.
As someone who has studied architecture, Jahnvi’s interest in observing the peculiarities of commonplace objects and a close relationship with trying to understand what ‘home’ meant, led her to explore elements of Indian design in objects that one is likely to find lying around in some corner of the house. “The sheer number of noteworthy objects makes choosing what to include and what not to in a book like this extraordinarily complicated. So I chose to create a portrait of Indian design”, she writes.
Bindi, Ghungroo, Hindustan Ambassador, Bartan—Pukka Indian is a photographic collection of 100 such objects that have been quietly existing for decades and centuries. The book traces their evolution over the years and the silent mysteries surrounding their origin.
What inspired you to come up with this unique list of ‘100 Objects that define India’?
It's from the time I was an architecture student in Japan; I started looking closely at everyday objects. And of course when you're distanced from the places where you grew up you are more conscious about things you do back home and the objects you use, and that becomes your memory of it.
It also happens that my family and I have travelled extensively. I’ve lived in many homes around the world. I have even had to make a home in a hotel, twice in my life, which was fun too. So naturally, you develop a very non-material approach to life. You also develop a love for certain objects that you absolutely must have regardless of where you live. This book offers an insight into what constitutes our home. I urge people to not take the design of objects for granted but to question and to enjoy them.
Auto Rickshaw Meter. Origin: 1977
Cycle Rickshaw. Origin: Around 1880
How did the research shape up and how did you go about tracking the history of each of these everyday objects?
The research was extremely difficult and therefore the book took longer than I would've hoped. Firstly, there aren't any written documents about most of the objects in the book. One of the most important ways for me to track the design of these every day objects was through the etymology of their names. I also referred to similar works on some of these objects that are listed in the bibliography at the end. I looked at similar typographies of objects around the world and how those objects evolved and if India followed a similar path, e.g. the Godrej CH-4 chair and the Bauhaus movement.
The objects seem predominantly representative of the northern half of the country barring a few like Lungi, Sevnazhi etc. Was this a conscious decision?
That's not the intention. For example, in the text on the mangalsutra, I describe how the design changes around the country. There were many reasons why these objects were chosen, one of the most important reasons was the fact that these objects are used nationwide. Their origins might have been in a particular part of the country, but they find use nation wide.
Banta. Origin: 1870s, Delhi
Shatranj. Origin: Before 500 CE
How did you manage to include a little bit of everything in ‘100 Objects’?
It's very specifically articles of product design that exhibit a certain kind of unique attitude of design in India. It's also products that have mostly originated in India or those that have been adopted by Indians and given a new lease of life.
‘100 Objects’ is an interesting mix of traditional things, like Datun and Hindustan Ambassador, as well as contemporary things like the iconic Tata Nano and LPG – how did you weigh the relevance of both kinds of objects?
For me, it’s all about product design. I am not so concerned with what is considered traditional and what is not. Of course, history and the change of design and therefore, the change in use and functionality in time is important, and I have tried to recount the same with as much accuracy as possible. For example, the evolution of the murha; it is an object that was created 2000 years ago. It was only later that they came to have a backrest and acquired an even greater meaning in everyday lives. Earthen water pots have taps now and that is what keeps them relevant.
Chyawanprash. Origin: Around 1 CE
Desert Cooler. Origin: 1950s
Has the design of everyday life in India undergone a transformation in the last few decades? How is design shaping life in contemporary India?
The kitchen has undergone the most amount of transition; from being on the floor for over 6000 years, to a sudden introduction of the platform in the 1950s; I have included many tools from the Indian kitchen because these were the first products in India. Utensils were used for ritualistic purposes. Basins with a rim that resemble the patila came into existence in the proto-historic period. Water storage systems used today, like the surahi or the matka, are similar to the ones used for Vedic water rituals. These objects have survived for so long because of their dual use in the Indian society–both ritual and domestic.
From the thousands of kitchen tools that are used in Indian cooking, I chose those products that were catalysts of change. For example, for centuries cooking took place on the floor, either in courtyards or in communal kitchens and women prepared three hot meals a day while squatting around a stove implanted into the floor. But in the 1950s the arrival of LPG cylinders that needed to be stocked below the cooking range necessitated a revolution. Cooking moved upwards from the ground to cooking counters or platforms. Recipes changed too as new kitchen tools came into being. Pressure cookers, already in existence around the world by the 1950s, were redesigned to cook large quantities of food.
The Sumeet mixer, too, relegated hand-operated stone grinders to the storeroom, as its motor was strong enough to sustain the grinding necessary for making idlis out of dal and rice grain. The importance of the mixer lies not in the innovativeness of its design but in the fact that it transformed the way women cooked. Along with the pressure cooker, it led to the emancipation of the housewife–also making the process of preparing fresh food thrice a day easier.
Text and Photographs by Jahnvi Lakhóta Nandan, Shivani Gupta
Published by Roli Books
Text Pankhuri Shukla