Encountering Vishnu

You may call me crazy, but as much as I like the city, the only reason for me to move and live in NYC is the Metropolitan Museum of Art; I swear I would spend there every single weekend of my life.

George Lois contended that the DNA of talent is stored within the great museums of the world. I couldn’t agree more, museums are custodians of epiphanies and these epiphanies enter the central nervous system and deep recesses of the mind. The history of the art of mankind can inspire breakthrough conceptual thinking, in any field. One example suffices to prove my point: look at what the Met had in storage for us lunatics during a few months.

Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press Shri Vishnu, 1894–1900 India, Lithograph; Sheet: 28 5/8 × 20 1/2 in. (72.7 × 52.1 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mark Baron and Elise Boisanté, 2012 (2012.523.6) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/78253
Shri Vishnu, 1894–1900

Vishnu is accompanied by his wives Sri Devi and Bhu Devi, who ride his celestial mount, the mythical man-bird Garuda, here depicted in full avian form. Vishnu is portrayed as “The Blue Lord,” richly garlanded in pearls and flowers, while his wives hold yak-hair fly whisks to fan their lord. All wear gold and jewel-encrusted crowns. Garuda has in his talons a cobra, the eagle’s mortal enemy, here symbolizing victory over nature spirits. This is a superb example of a chromolithographic Hindu devotional print designed by the famed artist Ravi Varma (1848–1906) and printed at his Fine Art Lithographic Press in Mumbai.

This print was part of the exhibition “Encountering Vishnu: The Lion Avatar in Indian Temple Drama”, in which Vishnu’s Narasimha (man-lion) appearance was celebrated with several dramatic sculptural depictions. They all explored the theme of Vishnu in his man-lion form, revealing himself at the court of an evil king in response to the king’s attempts to slay his own son for his unwavering devotion (bhakti) to Vishnu. This narrative was dramatically represented in painting as well, and when staged it was given heightened drama by the wearing of five powerfully expressive wooden masks recently acquired by the Met. This temple drama, known as Hiranyanatakam, is still performed in the Kaveri delta region of Tamil Nadu, in villages around Thanjavur in southern India.


Bijoy Jain

Two years ago I was invited to Mextrópoli, the first international congress for architecture organized by Arquine. I was well prepared to reconnect with several colleagues and acquaintances, but certainly not with Bijoy Jain. I was introduced to part of his work in 2013 during a short trip to India, but I had never heard him talk about Astrology and that alone made the conference worth. This renowned architect shocked an overcritical audience speaking about Monsoons, the Sun, the Moon and how these and other celestial bodies had influence on the way he works. Equally enthralling was the part on how he conceived space in Indian terms. Right in the middle of the conference I caught myself thinking: What’s the chance of a contemporary architect taking seriously the astral movement? What’s the chance of Alibagh coming to Mexico? Statistically maybe .000000001%. Lucky me.

Studio Mumbai

Jain humbly presented the working methods at Studio Mumbai, a collective of architects and Indian craftsman residents, led by him in south Mumbai. Studio Mumbai’s work is based on the act and process of constructing, on the idea of working collectively within the spirit of a workshop. It works with a human infrastructure of skilled artisans, technicians and draftsmen who design and build the work directly. This group shares an environment created from an iterative process, where ideas are explored through the production of large-scale mock-ups, models, material studies, sketches and drawings. Projects are developed through careful consideration of place and practice that draws from traditional skills, local building techniques, materials and an ingenuity arising from limited resources. Here ideas take form through a shared dialogue capable of integrating the thinking and making of architecture; an architecture that, without being self-referential, transforms thoughts into construction.

One can freely say that Bijoy Jain is a revolutionary in his own right. Many architects pay lip service to a building’s environment and local materials. Jain makes these his mantra so that the finished building doesn’t impose itself on the environment and the surroundings, but becomes part of it. It’s a singular achievement because this central idea runs constantly and rigorously through all of his work.

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. http://www.amazon.com/Sar-The-Essence-Indian-Design/dp/0714870501