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The year was 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev was restructuring his country and the Festival of India had travelled to the Soviet Union. The Gandhi Exhibition was part of the festival and would halt at six Soviet cities including Moscow and Irkutsk, a town deep in the Siberian forest. Spatial designer Amardeep Behl (who designed the exhibition gallery at Khalsa Museum in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab) and his team were stranded without help in Irkutsk. "One morning an armoured truck arrived. Two Siberian guards stepped out with Kalashnikovs and opened the truck. Out came 10 prisoners and one of the guards said, 'here's your team'. By the end of it we were all friends — the guns and tunics lay discarded and soldiers, prisoners and designers worked as one," says Behl in Dekho.
This is one of the many stories in Dekho , compiled by design firm Codesign. Privately published, this anthology of designers' stories, their idioms, and their references, provides a view of India's design landscape. This book is an important design introduction for a country bearing traditions, colonial baggage and cut-and-paste pastiche that passes for creativity. Rich in visual gymnastics, its orange and black cover has eyes drawn on it, which create an illusion of movement.
The editors have interviewed eight Indian and three international designers, curating the visual and written word to build a story. The book opens with Prof M.P. Ranjan's 40-year-long design evangelism, it contemplates the direction design education should take and how design interventions should occur. Late Prof Raghunath K Joshi's play between sound and word makes him aptly the techno-designer the world knows him as. A beautifully illustrated calligraphic interpretation of "Aum", unifies the spoken and written word, like a visual invocation. We encounter history in Neelakash Kshetrimayum's resurrection of a forgotten Manipuri script, Meitei Mayak. We move from history to branding in the story of People Tree and how it evolved to become a celebration of all things Indian. The design camera pans out to include New York-based Stefan Sagmeister, whose work inspires graphic designers and typographers the world over. But the introduction to Swiss designer Wolfgang Weingart's work takes one's breath away. The page opens with half an illustration of this graphic designer's portrait with the facing page erased of text through the middle of every line. It highlights the designer's belief: "we need to rethink our whole reading system, starting from the alphabet".
Codesign, in the business of brand and communication design, has succinctly illustrated the flavour and temper of different designers. Seldom has a braver attempt been made in Indian design books, specially in terms of visual language. Of the many books on Indian design that stores hold today, this one triumphs on several fronts by proving the possibilities of the medium in the message. The book is sure to inspire others who wish to narrate their story differently. Even the place-keepers, thin satin ribbons in tricolour, tell of the care that has gone into this three-year book project. Little wonder then that Dekho has been nominated for the Oscars in design, the Designs of the Year awards by the Design Museum in the graphics category.
But for some typos and a binding that eats up some of the words and images, this book leads the way. The choice of designers doesn't wander too far from the National School of Design, seemingly the origin of "good design" in the country. This book may not be a destination, but it has started conversations. And that seems to be the intent of the editors after all.
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