Rajeev Sethi: “Designers Should Become Catalysts for Change”


Rajeev Sethi: “Designers Should Become Catalysts for Change”

One of India’s most well-known design thinkers, and the curator of the Jaya He museum at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Rajeev Sethi explains why a country’s cultural assets are indivisible and should be seen as a way to gain economic and social relevance. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You have long argued for art in the public domain, for a synthesis between India’s often disparate cultural industries. To what extent has your work on Jaya He accomplished that?

In India, the word “culture” clubbed with “industries” raises eyebrows. Not so at the World Trade Organisation, Unesco, World Bank and international foundations linking growth of legacy enterprises to emerging intellectual property rights issues as well as green and sustainable livelihoods. With nearly 20 million “educated” young roaming idle on the streets of South Asia, the future of work poses a volatile scenario. As both large industry and agriculture turn inevitably to automation, global knowledge economies continue to seek original content providers wherever they may be. The latent talent of our creative communities still lying anonymous is tragically short-sighted.

The Jaya He museum is perhaps a timely attempt to connect the unique work of indigenous artists and craftspeople scattered all over India, to what the world wants. So far, the airport provides only a glimpse of what is possible within the ambit of large public art programmes using tangible, design-led installations. Imagine the tactile edge when we introduce the intangible elements of performing arts, culinary practices, rituals of hospitality to this package.

How can this museum become an example to create links between different ministries—from tourism to rural industries, human resource to tribal affairs and others?

Cultural assets have to be understood as indivisible and mutually supportive to gain economic and social relevance. Two plus two must be more than four in a bleak scenario where ministries have to learn to do more with less and be less ad hoc. NITI Aayog would stand to reach out to many more skilled poor if creative livelihoods and traditional knowledge systems get better mapped, with appropriate systems of classifications in place. Departments lacking coherent, coordinated agendas devalue new synergies, becoming like fortresses and white elephants.

I gave a year to the erstwhile Planning Commission in 2006, steering an unprecedented inter-ministerial task force and creating a plan of action on creative and culture industries, compiled as a voluminous 1,500-page document…with an executive summary…that remains unread, gathering dust.

One now has far more faith in public-private partnerships enabling wider public participation and inclusive development of heritage issues. Jaya He gets 40 million footfalls…more than all the galleries and museums of India put together. My proposal for a virtual museum with unrestricted access at the airport precinct itself will be open to double that number of visitors, who come to leave and pick up passengers.

What are your thoughts on the insufficient implementation of the government-stipulated corporate social responsibility (CSR) allocation since 1972—2% of the total expenditure on art in every public building?

The CSR mandate for 2%, with considerable advocacy, has included art, culture and traditional knowledge but few corporates will support this sector or take it up beyond their own family-held foundations. The recommendation by the Central ministry of works and housing in 1972 that 2% of building costs be allocated to purchase and incorporate artworks used in the built domain, has so far been carelessly ignored. This regulation is not even close to the public works policies of countries in our neighbourhood, such as Bhutan and Indonesia.

I myself discovered this huge dispensation only a few years ago when the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) came to me with a budget to buy artworks for their new headquarters in order to obtain their completion certificate. GVK (which runs Terminal 2 at the Mumbai airport) is leading by example, pushing the envelope by following the rules for greater accountability.

Art patronage is an issue that is ignored in India. Do you think that the Indian rich as well as companies and corporates aren’t easy converts to this cause?

The rich in India really need to take a crash course on how to support culture. Governments have to look beyond the song and dance routine and concentrate on devising tax incentives, transparent CSR for NGOs (non-governmental organizations), provide land for public art, private museums and libraries, etc., and extra FSI (floor space index) to builders, who must rise above being mere contractors.

India practically invented the idea of holistic festivals in the last century but the brand was devalued ​over a period of time and more recently, ​when no road map for international promotion and positioning of our art and culture followed.

Appreciation for design must go beyond industrial design and interior decoration and certainly more than servicing media events, fashion weeks or fancy awards confined to the few. Designers too, on their part, have to reinvent their roles as catalysts of change, becoming accountable to the public money spent on their education.

How do you differentiate between Make in India and Create in India in the context of the Jaya He museum?

Jaya He is 101% made and created in handmade India. Historically, we have always made more money on things we could do better with our hands than others. India has been a nation of suppliers long before Abu Dhabi, Taiwan and even Japan. The world may also need our incredible capacity to improvise meeting all sorts of requirements—our made-to-order adaptability, inter-personal forms of ritual entertainment… whatever is unique to us… Khadi, integrative medicine and pharmacopoeia, yoga and ingenious spiritual pursuits, an unparalleled sense of colour, natural materials with traditional skills. In my scheme of things, a homespun recipe may occasionally require a dash of high-tech interventions to make it more accessible and, indeed, attractive… mixing the old with the new. There is video art on handmade haveli façades. We must constantly invent a less intimidating line of products and services with a human touch that are not piled up in godowns or picked up as inexpensive for their cheap labour.

We require constant updating of a trans-disciplinary discourse routed in inventive pedagogy. Maybe we may need a little bit of de-schooling…not just more and more formal schools.

How did you navigate the challenges of working with multiple decision-making teams at Jaya He? An airport is, after all, as much about security and round-the-clock operational priorities.

It is difficult to pluck a flower without altering a star. Everything is unseemingly connected. Airports require really highly tuned orchestration between civil work operations, electrical and mechanical services, complex signals and signages, customs and commercial considerations, all enveloped in evolving deadlines and undefined security issues.

Even as one negotiated 300kg of cow dung applied on chicken mesh by village women wearing helmets and navigated thousands of craftspeople moving in and out of electronic checks, I soon realized that nothing would have been possible without the unstinted support of (vice-chairman of GVK Power and Infrastructure Ltd) Sanjay Reddy, (leader of the GVK team that worked on the museum) Karthi Gajendran, the airport’s miraculous management teams and my own studio of madly motivated colleagues.

The museum stores are a terrific business-to-consumer (B-to-C) step forward. Would this and other outreach measures contribute to unorganized sector livelihoods in the future?

In South Asia, museums have been rendered cabinets of curiosities, with no thought given to stakeholders’ long-term engagement and outreach…

Advocacy of a design showcase will never translate into empowerment of the skilled poor if markets are not brought to their doorsteps. All the major museum institutions of the world have extended their scope to evolve new grass-root level models that pool socio-economic capital with design training for quality products and services. Successful merchandising programmes now provide substantial fiscal support to museums.

To begin, we require domain expertise on aesthetics and merchandising, the best practices of reproduction, systems of display and storage and constant negotiations vis-a-vis costs. A well-developed collection stuffed on shelves sharing space with also-ran, quick-buck merchandise can ruin the feel-good security of an unsuspecting public buying at museum retail. If the retail managers cannot be creative about each and every interpretation of the objects on offer, supported by a research portfolio of its development with equally concerned vendors in the field, one can run the risk of artists’/authors’ disapproval or indifference. That is B-to-C hara-kiri and difficult to recover from after the first flush of exposure. Media is always on the lookout for negative stories and loopholes. Bad word travels faster and good reputations take longer to build.

You are right about Jaya He. The museum store builds on the strength of a huge skill bank virtually available in a visible library of reference. The way forward for the coming years includes an inclusive outreach agenda going beyond the airport. I believe GVK can recover more than five times the money it has spent on the museum within five years by putting Jaya He in the appropriate retail domain.