Habib Rahman’s design of the Maulana Azad Mazhar in New Delhi.
The devastation of World War I saw the rise of technological innovations. Against this backdrop, German architect Walter Gropius presented his manifesto of a school that would meld different art streams including industrial, design, and interior design with architecture, and turned the tide towards technical crafts and skills. Bauhaus, which translates as ‘house of building’, started as a movement in 1919 and went on to become the world’s most accessible design movement. Headquartered in Weimer, Germany, the movement completed 100 years at the close of 2019. To mark the centenary, the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation partnered with Google Arts & Culture to present an immersive online collection of archival sketches, photographs and stories around the movement and its exponents. India, too, was influenced by the movement. We speak to designer Divya Thakur, Founder and Creative Director, Design Temple, who has initiated the India series. Excerpts:
German architect Walter Gropius and Harry Seidler. (Max Dupain)
What prompted you to start the digital Museum of Design Excellence (MoDE)?
MoDE is an attempt at helping India reinstate its cultural identity. Promoting design is a long-cherished dream that manifested in many design exhibits that we showed around the world. From ‘India Indigenous’ at Loggia de Mercanti, Milan, in 2004 and ‘India Now’ at V&A, London, in 2007 to ‘India Past Forward’ at Millesgarden, Stockholm, in 2015 to ‘India: The Design Story’ at CSMVS and Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai, in 2016, each of these exhibits was aimed to promote a deeper understanding and appreciation of design in India to global and Indian audiences. The overwhelming response to these exhibits prompted me to set up MoDE. It is a natural extension of the efforts of the past decade, prompted by a sincere desire for India to take its rightful place in the world, for its intellectual capital.
How and why did you connect with the ‘Bauhaus Everywhere’ initiative?
I was looking for a way to catalogue and archive the stories. The partnership with Google Arts and Culture came about as a result of this. ‘Bauhaus Everywhere’ is an initiative by the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, which was looking for partners in different countries to tell their individual stories.
What were you looking for when you curated India ‘chapter’?
We had hoped to see where this strain of modernism had found expression, and how and to what degree. It was an insightful journey into pre-independent India. It gave us a glimpse into the aspirations of its young artists and architects, and into the impactful minds of its great thinkers such as Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru. Santiniketan in Kolkata was the first place that Bauhaus artists exhibited outside Europe alongside modernists of the Bengal School. This kind of cultural dialogue between two different countries, and schools of art and thought was unprecedented at the time.
Some of the young architects who worked towards building modern India included Achyut Kanvinde and Habib Rahman, who studied in the US, and were directly trained under Bauhaus masters like Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe. We learned that Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design consciously studied the curriculum of Bauhaus, and incorporated that into their course. One of our key learnings was that while Bauhaus found its way to India and gave momentum to the modern movement here, India, too, had impacted Bauhaus masters such as Johannes Itten and Kandinsky.
The Bauhaus Movement was about making design accessible to all, somehow we in India have turned it into an elitist symbol. How did that happen?
Contemporary India has the unique problem of addressing many basic issues. Education, food, clothing, shelter, employment, infrastructure — all these need to be raised to a level that allows for equal opportunity. Until that happens, certain aspects of design, naturally, take a back seat and become the priority or indulgence of only a few. Design, of course, can be used as an invaluable tool to aid the development of the country and bring it to a point that allows it to find larger fruition.