The Essence of Indian Design

Throughout history Indian culture has been subject to a myriad of different influences, from the Mughal Empire to the British Raj to the now globalized nation in transition. To all those who’d like to find out how these influences have fit into the lives of Indians and moulded the national character, I strongly recommend “SAR: The Essence of Indian Design. An exploration of the timeless beauty of Indian Design through 200 classic objects”. In this book, the artist and curator Swapnaa Tamhane and the designer Rashmi Varma explore the elements that make Indian design so special, including the varied manufacturing and decorating techniques of the country’s incredibly skilled craftsmen, highly specialized object designs that have been refined over centuries, and on-going responses to nature, technology, and necessity. The objects were chosen for their enduring quality and beauty, and their integral connection to Indian culture. Here my take on two of them:

Gandhi Topi गांधी टोपी

nThis simple white cap, a bit like an upturned boat was made popular by Gandhi during the South African Indian passive resistance struggle of 1907 to 1914. Gandhi and other jailed Indian protestors were obliged to follow the dress code of black prisoners, which included the cap that Gandhi was to make his own. When Gandhi returned to India, he adopted the custom of wearing clothes made with homespun “khadi” cotton. Along with the use of Swadeshi goods (as opposed to those manufactured in Europe), the attire represented his message of cultural pride, self-reliance and solidarity with India’s rural masses and a symbol of non-cooperation against the British Raj.

The suave Jawaharlal Nehru (photo), India’s first prime minister habitually wore a smart version of the Gandhi cap; so did several of his successors. But over decades, it faded out of fashion; regarded as dated and distinctly uncool the topi vanished. However, good stuff never dies, only transforms: it is now back in style – and indelibly associated with the upstart force in Indian politics, the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (common man in Hindi) Party.

Designer Ravi Bajaj, who showed colourful polka-dotted and moulded versions of the Gandhi Topi in his fashion show this year, says that it makes a strong statement on the ramp. “I wanted people to look beyond sheer symbolism; so I paired them with tailored suits. It was a rebellion of sorts,” he admits. Other fans include Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Tarun Tahiliani.

From humble headwear to haute couture, from political emblem to style accessory, the Gandhi cap has undergone quite a transformation, I guess very much according to the sign of Indian times.

Mojari मोज़री


Introduced to India by the Mughals in the sixteenth century, the mojaris (closely related to jutis), traditionally with distinctly pointed toes and flat soles, have evolved into many styles, with production clusters throughout the country. Mochis — shoemakers of Jodhpur (a popular area for making mojaris) — use soft cow, goat, camel or buffalo leather for the uppers and hard leather for the sole, moulded round a three-piece wooden cast. Densely embroidered uppers in bright colours, made in thread work, zari (metallic thread), wool and leather cut-outs, are common, although plain, unembellished leather shoes are worn by Rajasthani farmers, for example. The soles are attached using a thick, white-cotton chain stitch and there is generally no distinction between the left and the right foot. In general, men carry out the leatherwork while women freestyle with the embroidery. Worn by both men and women, mojaris have become extremely popular in recent years, especially for weddings and occasion wear.

SAR: The Essence of Indian Design. An exploration of the timeless beauty of Indian Design through 200 classic objects.


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