Quiet in the chaos

Co-authors Rashmi Varma and Swapnaa Tamhane teamed up with photographer Prarthna Singh to depict a unique visual language in Sar: The Essence of Design.

Hitting the road
Rashmi: About five years ago we had just returned to Canada from a trip to India. We decided to pick all these quintessential, iconic Indian objects and initially wanted to propose a museum exhibition. Two years ago Swapnaa suggested that we do a book. She had worked at Phaidon about 10 years ago so we pitched our idea to them.

For our research we travelled extensively around the country, spoke to design and art experts, curators, our mothers and dug around the cupboards of our friends’ and relatives’ home.

Scavenger hunt
Swapnaa: All of us kept an eye out for objects. Often, we rang friends and colleagues, asking them what they had in their homes. We wanted to show these things in a way that indicated their use. We searched through markets, and sourced items from museums and private collections.

Rashmi: You want to find the best examples of these objects and you know you can’t travel the entire country looking for them. Sometimes some things looked really good but didn’t photograph well or vice versa.

New faces and places
Prarthna: We harassed a few people along our way. We needed to.

Rashmi: So many people were so welcoming — the man who invited us into his house, Mr Vakil, whose wife had just come out of a coma three days before. We did knock on many strangers’ doors. They were a little bit ‘Okay, what’s going on here?’ but they let us come into their spaces, move things around, photograph and leave.

Swapnaa: When we said we were looking for a namda rug, Mr Vakil said, ‘Let me show you a namda rug’ and then he pulled out this beautiful 70-year-old one. That was amazing. I think doing a book like this in India leads to so many surprises, and so many encounters that you can only have in this country.

Spread from the book. Wooden printing block.
Hindustan Ambassador designed by Hindustan Motors; Chai glasses and holder.

Ups and downs
Rashmi: The weather — the extreme heat and monsoon were definitely a challenge!

Prarthna: We had our share of ups and downs, especially while dealing with men in India — assistants, and generally being surrounded by groups of men who have nothing better to do but watch the tamasha. And once you have a camera it’s something exciting: ‘Shooting chal raha hai, shooting!’ Then when you start shooting the object they go ‘What? This balti?’ That may have deterred some people.

A Tranquil India
Prarthna: The objects themselves were so striking that I wanted the background to give a hint about where they belong, and at the same time not become overpowering.

For example the Kolhapuri chappals are on a carpet in someone’s home; the way the Maruti 800 is placed, you can tell it’s on a street and it has a lot of life around it but it is not surrounded by the usual fruit vendors and autorickshaws. We made a deliberate effort to stay away from the cliched images that you often associate with India. My aim was to create a visual language that was pared down, almost like finding a moment of silence in the midst of chaos.

Swapnaa: We all had the same vision, which was to give an idea of India without that same typical imagery that is always being shown — kitschy, gaudy, with an ethnographic lens. We wanted to have something that was very quiet. That’s a side of India that you know when you live here.

Photographs by Prarthna Singh.
This article originally appeared in Verve magazine, August 2016.