Reclaiming Dashrath Patel: designer, artist, ceramicist
An online exhibition of select works was organised to commemorate Dashrath Patel’s 10th death anniversary this year
Dashrath Patel, among modern India’s most versatile yet lesser known artists, made memorable contributions to painting, photography, ceramics and design — a body of work that is today coming in for a serious relook.
On his 10th anniversary this year, an online exhibition was organised, showcasing a selection from his large range of works and giving a glimpse of Patel’s immense creativity. Curated by arts critic and writer Sadanand Menon and technically designed by Miti Desai, the exhibition is in the form of a virtual gallery experience and can be viewed here. It will be periodically remounted with fresh displays over the next six months.
It includes a film on Patel’s 1998 NGMA Delhi retrospective by award-winning documentary filmmaker Iffat Fatima. The film can be viewed here:
The 10th anniversary of Patel is as good an occasion as any to revisit this unusual, exuberant and neglected beacon in India’s arts and design firmament. Delhi-based architect and urban planner A.G. Krishna Menon, who collaborated with Patel over a decade on different projects, describes him as “a polymath in the design disciplines, an exemplar of the proverbial native genius, whose designs evolved from a rational understanding of the local context…”. Patel’s self-confessed shagird or disciple, Sadanand Menon, has often compared his prolific productivity in diverse media and disciplines to that of Japanese artist Hokusai.
The multifaceted Patel could move easily from painting to photography and ceramics, from architecture to design — including product, graphic, jewellery, glass, textile, industrial ceramics, leather, wood and large-scale exhibition design. This was formidable talent indeed.
Impatient with formal schooling from a young age, Patel used to say that he preferred instead to wander around on his bicycle — “like a vendor” — carrying sheets of paper and colours; returning home only after he had exhausted all his material.
Dropping out in middle school, where he distinguished himself in cricket, Patel explored the possibility of an education in fine arts. After an unsatisfactory testing of the waters at Tagore’s Shantiniketan, he decided to join, under the mentorship of Devi Prasad Roy Choudhury, the Government College of Art in Madras, from where he graduated with distinction in 1953. He then went on to do a Master’s at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris, during which time he held several solo shows.
The story of his meeting with Henri Cartier-Bresson while in Paris in the mid-50s is well-known. Of how Cartier-Bresson thrust a camera into his hands and of his reluctant initiation into photography. Soon, however, the camera became his sketch pad, through which he made copious ‘visual notes’. He was soon acknowledged as a master of the medium. Realising the camera’s ability to compensate for his perceived lack of verbal skills, he began to use photo images to tell stories, sending photographs the way others would send letters. Cartier-Bresson had, indeed, assessed Patel’s special ability to ‘frame’ a story, to ‘see’ it.
Patel’s extraordinarily large body of photographic work documents the newly independent nation, its people and their quotidian lives filled with explosive colour and a design aesthetic of the street that is replete with a latent sensibility for patterning, shape, arrangement and juxtaposition. His invention of a nine-camera contraption worn as a collar around his neck, operated by a hand-held shutter button, so that he could capture 360° images for a Circarama projection at the India Pavilion of the Montreal Trade Fair, is the stuff of legends.
Over time, his photography moved away from realistic images towards a finely honed abstraction of lines and colour. However, it is in his dance photography, perfected through years of spending time with his friend and muse, the dancer Chandralekha, and his extensive travels as part of her dance tours, that we see his magical ability to unfreeze moments of movement in still images that yet pulsate with a kinetic aura.
Ceramic art is another area Patel excelled in. His foray into ceramics began at the village potter’s wheel outside Ahmedabad and in later experiments with industrial pottery in Mumbai. He later trained under the renowned ceramics master, Prof. Otto Eckert, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, becoming one of India’s pioneering studio potters. In Prague, he learnt advanced techniques of glazing and firing, he learnt by experimenting and “making mistakes”. The unexpected surprises and successes these led to, in turn, contributed to his mastery of the medium.
Setting up NID
It was around this time that Pupul Jayakar, the powerful Nehru-era cultural administrator from Delhi, met American designer Charles Eames at MOMA, New York, and arranged for the Indian government to officially engage him to suggest a format for a modern design education institute suited to the needs of the young nation. The result was The India Report, a vision document for design pedagogy by Charles and Ray Eames.
The Sarabhai siblings, Gautam and Gira, managed to bag the project — the National Institute of Design (NID) — for Ahmedabad. And they invited Patel to help get NID off the ground. True to the spirit of the report, Patel paid attention to Indian sensibilities and aesthetics while also considering quality, function, and environment. In many ways, Patel already lived the recommendations of the report, which advocated multi-disciplinarity, focused on communication, and encouraged openness.
At NID, among other things, Patel was a one-man army launching professional industrial design practice, establishing departments, and training the first crop of teachers. By the late 70s, however, Patel grew disappointed, that the market had taken priority over the “quality and values of environment” that the Eameses had advocated. In 1980, he left NID to play a completely different role, eventually helping set up the Rural Design School at Sewapuri, near Varanasi. Here, he put together a training programme that looked at community and environmental sustainability, personal safety, aesthetics and function, product quality and the local economy.
Egged on by Gandhian activist Vikasbhai, Patel intervened in the various production processes at the Saghan Kshetra Vikas Samiti (SKVS) at Sewapuri to tighten the production cycle, minimise wastefulness, and impart techniques to the village refractory. It was here that he designed a new range of products in terracotta, leather, turned wood, and woven material. This was also an attempt at rejuvenating the faltering Khadi and Village Industries Commission’s (KVIC) network of rural units, which would ensure a new kind of dignity and better wages for rural artisans.
Designs for a new nation
Meanwhile, from the mid-1960s on, Patel had also been the principal designer of exhibitions at India pavilions at both international and national fairs, culminating with the inaugural events of the India Festivals in France (1985) and USSR (1987). In hindsight, although some of these projects faced flak for promoting Nehruvian ideas that homogenised diverse peoples into simplified, national stereotypes, they were initially envisioned as projections of a newly independent, modern nation as it emerged on the world stage.
It was also at this time that Patel became actively involved in conducting workshops as part of the Skills Collective in Chennai, which brought together artists, NGOs and mediapersons to work with suppressed voices in marginalised sectors. Through a series of workshops, this group developed viable alternatives to mainstream media for self-expression and self-sufficiency. Using his multidisciplinary talents, Patel helped this group create low-cost solutions such as screen-printed posters, field darkrooms, and hand-crafted projection devices for areas without electricity. A pointed attack from the government caused the initiative to languish, but it was this experience that shaped the artist’s later work at the Rural Design School in Sewapuri.
Patel spent the last decade of his life shuttling between hands-on projects at the Sarabhai Museum in Ahmedabad, at Spaces in Chennai, and his studio in Alibaug. The Alibaug space now houses a museum in his name and exhibits a large cross-section of his works that were part of a massive retrospective curated by Menon at NGMA-Mumbai in 1999. The home where he lived in Ahmedabad and the Spaces archives in Chennai also hold a significant number of his drawings, early paintings, and photographs.
National honours did come his way, like the Padma Shri in 1981, and the Padma Bhushan (posthumously, in 2011), but they do not compensate for the despair he felt for what he called “the betrayal by Indian industry of the native good sense of the people” and its failure to support the possibility of evolving an indigenous design vision. He categorised the conservative Indian money-lender-turned-capitalist’s understanding of design as wanting to “dress up a tractor in a dinner jacket”. Neither tractor nor jacket benefits.
The writer is a doctoral scholar at the Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Madras.