Of Godmen & GUIs

The ‘Fast-unto-death’ theatrics of the past few weeks, allegedly (sic.) in a fight against corruption in India, have urged me to finally bring this article out of my closet. I wrote it fifteen years ago, almost to the day, for frogdesign‘s rana#3, a brilliant in-house publication that they shelved inexplicably. 

Godmen were around those days too, (their business model hasn’t changed) snaring people into their spiritual concoctions and exploiting India’s superstitious side. GUI was a term almost nobody had heard then. We in India still speak out the letters, not ‘gooey’ like the rest of the world does. Read it, like it, hate it, keep it, share it. Here goes …

India, at the end of History …

… is mystical and hi-tech.  Impoverished and affluent. A billion-strong society in a pulsating state of chaotic equilibrium. Cows and cars share city streets.  Superstitions abound and Godmen flourish.  We will show our palms to people who promise a peek at our destiny, or say they can chant away a terminal disease. We have much to learn, but the world can learn a great deal from us … 

To begin with, our developing Indian economy is burdened with the wealth of a myriad cultures and customs, without the means or the will to adapt them into contemporary contexts.  Tradition is adhered to in some instances, while in others entirely discarded in favor of foreign sensibilities. Today’s Indian psyche is but a potluck of priorities. We’ll compete in computer software tenders, yet throw our garbage into a neighbor’s backyard.  We’ll use a large chunk of our national resource to be a player in the arms race, but won’t invest in the design of a non-leak faucet.  We’ll welcome foreign qualification and disregard our own resident intelligences: Mother Teresa comes to alleviate sufferings of our poor, Sir Edwin Lutyens comes to plan our Capital city and Suzuki Motor Company comes to re-form our automobile industry.

Let’s understand then, that, to accomplish such an integration needs integrity. That customs coerce customisation.  That today fosters tomorrow.  Let’s look beyond our problem-solving (?) Godmen. All traditional pursuits have left room enough for variation — art allows individual interpretation.  Architecture allows re-arrangement of elements; and literature, hand-made paper, cane furniture, block printing, all encourage the user to invest emotions.  These are the elemental ingredients that design has to work into mass customisation.  In our need to browse through tomorrow today, a rich future lies in rediscovering the heritage we so easily write off.  I suggest, not only that design is a multi-cultural exchange of ideas but that “unselfish selfishness” should define our creativity. Through a futuristic retrovision that is assertively indifferent to the Godmen of our societies.

For centuries,Indiahas helped shape world thinking.  Concepts like “shunya” (Zero), “satyagraha” (Non-cooperative non-violence), “karma” (Motivation sans motive), and individuals such as Gautama Buddha, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Ravishankar, Zubin Mehta have stamped enduring impressions on the world’s cultures.  The alluring, hand-woven carpets of Kashmir, the exquisite pottery of Khurja and the scintillating silk sari of Kanchipuram, all demonstrate a prolific unity inIndia’s art, craft, technique and ability.

I am continually spurred-on by the possibilities that might emerge if we combine these portions of our native ethnic character with new global technologies.  If only we could liberate ourselves from the bondages of history — the world would have a chance to partake of our heritage. To aim to use design in a way that addresses ethnic sensibilities and provides the highest-possible degree of psychological well-being.  For example, we must move towards evolving a visual language for cross-cultural communication that pushes graphic-user-interface design toward a more reflective multi-cultural screen concept. If interfacing is to be seamless, we should take our cues from the accepted learning habits of the peoples of specific cultures  — and I am convinced that this can only be achieved in India through a concerted return to our native cultures.

Finally, consider the postal system, a highly standardized agency.  But who’s the user in the postal chain?  Historically, the answer has been the writer (and maybe the recipient), but such a method of addressing envelopes is selfish and ridiculous.  Until the letter reaches its destination, the “primary information” is the country or city — not the addressee.  Since we read from top to bottom (and left to right), the hierarchy should be:

USA, CA 94089
Chesapeake Terrace # 1327
frogdesign inc.
Mr/s. So & so.

Nothing could be more symbolic of the kind of “inversion thinking” that’s necessary for us to move past the apocryphal end of History, and into the uncharted prospects of the new millennium.  Indian society, even as it throws up issues and contradictions across classes, can be a potent contributor to this world direction.  I believe the occasion merits bringing together a forum of thinkers from across borders, sensibilities and disciplines — a global “think-bank” that can deposit, withdraw, negotiate and nurture ideas to yield a richer, more diverse and holistic designworld.

© Sunil Malhotra 1996.


Also read Rage of a yoga teacher — an excellent piece by Chanakya in today’s Hindustan Times.

Read Seema Goswami’s Turning back the Clock (HT Brunch June 12, 2011)

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