Though her heritage interpretation and design consultancy, Sarita Sundar is working at keeping memories alive…in the process satisfying both the researcher and designer in her
How did you become passionate about heritage?
I’ve always had a fascination for folk performances. At my ancestral village in Kerala I was often a spectator and sometimes a participant on the periphery of many such events during the summer holidays. However, it was possibly an epiphanic incident in 2008 that made me question the issues and dichotomies that exist in the heritage space. I had gone to attend a shadow puppet performance as part of a larger project to collate an institutional archive in rural Andhra Pradesh. Very soon the shadows on the screen transported all gathered there to a mythical land of monkeys and gods. While I got caught up in the story of the Ramayana that was being played out on the stretched cloth screen, I was as fascinated by the people who were creating this wonderful scene from inside the tent, and also by the audience and their reactions. I like to think that moment shifted many absolutes under my feet, and I felt an urgency to understand the many conflicting issues that surround this space. I then shifted focus within my research and design practice to understand and create narratives that facilitate memory keeping, which is really what heritage is all about.
What role has formal design education played in your career?
Beyond the skills that design education gives, design is surely a method of thinking that is result oriented and at the same time trains one to be empathetic. Tangentially enough, methodologies of visual thinking have helped in my research and writing. At National Institute of Design, where I pursued a Master’s in Visual Communications, it was a short course on literary theory and rhetoric by a visiting professor, GuiBonsieppe, that influences my work till today. As far as my Master of Arts in Heritage and Interpretation from the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK is concerned, I believe it influenced how I look at visual culture and made me question the universal assumptions that continue to underpin contemporary understandings within the practice of esthetics.
What initially drew you to research?
I have always been drawn to the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual surrender that happens when introduced to a stimulating thread in a piece of text. Critical research – involving connecting ideas, finding patterns and rhythm — is something that I started enjoying when working on archival books and exhibitions, and then was able to hone into a skill during my academic studies.
Tell us about your MA dissertation research.
My dissertation, ‘Visual as a Mask: Intangible Heritage, Performance and Ritual Practices in South India’, questions whether visual manifestations are given more importance over cultural significance when representing heritage. I studied how cultural markers (such as tom-tom drumming, flags, garlands, real versus artificially created elephants, etc.) move back and forth between traditional forms of performance practice and contemporary forms such as political processions. In a sense the study exists in the bridge between visual culture and heritage studies.
What is the relevance of Museum Studies in a country like India?
Museum studies as a discipline is being critically examined across the world and in India it is particularly relevant in the context of contemporary discourse around questions of identity (national, community, gender, caste as an example) or for instance the hullaballoo on colonial debt and repatriation. Most of our state and national museums have followed a colonial model, but what is so refreshing is that many are waking up to challenge those models. Organizations such as Design Habit have shown that; the Khalsa museum defies earlier object-oriented systems by creating experience-oriented displays. City museums are trying to set up interactive and participative interpretations. Long way to go, yes, but it’s a start.
How does developing Museum Policy in India differ from Western practices?
The diversity and complexity of India means we need to reach out to people rather than have them come to a centralized center. A sort of eco museum model that involves communities in decision making rather than a single-curator top-down approach is ideally the way forward.
What is the story behind Hanno?
I was a founding partner at Trapeze, a multi-disciplinary design company in Bangalore, and prior to that was working at Ray and Keshavan during its early years. Trapeze was a wonderfully vibrant space and I learnt a lot from my colleagues and our collaborative projects. However, over the years I started feeling a dissonance with the intent of the studio and I guess I took action and stepped out when hit by the epiphany I spoke of earlier. It took me a while to find my ground.
My MA in Museum Studies helped wrap my head around where I wanted to go next and I set up Hanno, a heritage interpretation and design consultancy that brings together skills depending on the particular project at hand. Hanno is named after an elephant from the 16th century I ‘met’ in a project on the transfer of herbal knowledge through early European books. Georgie, who was a junior partner at Trapeze, and has his own independent practice, is closely associated with Hanno – he brings a keen visual sensibility to many of our projects.
Which have been your most memorable projects?
A World without a Roof, a graphic book on pastoralism in India: I was involved in the design, research and writing, and conceived a structure that broke away from standard norms of a beginner’s book on a subject that was alien to the target audience, using a fictional narrative drawn from documentary sources.
Terra Infirma, a book on landmarks in the history of sustainability, was unique because of the way content is structured, combining multi-layered rhetorical techniques: information graphics interspersed with poignant graphic novellas; luscious illustrations and powerful images coming together to evoke a sensitivity to an ‘earth in need of care’.
Branding for Solve Ninjas combines a bravado and almost subversive spirit through the personas we created for Reap Benefit and their target audience – youth working in civic action.
Back to the Future is an archival museum exhibit we curated and designed where we used digital technologies as a tool to facilitate narratives. We were able to actually execute many of the ideas on participative and embodied experiences that I had studied academically. For instance, a graphic map etched on the floor allows visitors to travel into the past and across geographies, using digital tablets at ‘stations’ that come off the floor.
The Goddess and her Lieutenant: This project critically examines the Poothan Thira, one of the kshetra kalas, ortemple arts, of the Valuvanad region in Kerala. Framing the ritual within the contact zone of the vela, or village festival, the research uses an autoethnographic driven approach. It looks at the changing relationships of the community within these cultural landscapes, examining how these relationships have changed from ones of subordination to those of assertion; as anushtanam, or tradition, evolves into a kala, or art, the sustainability of the practice is ensured.
How important are digital tools in preserving our cultural heritage?
Ideally digital tools should become much more normative in the heritage space – the advantages are the ability to store and access archival content easily. At the same time, a confluence of the digital with the mechanical should be the ideal to strive for. The handmade and the raw are in revival – driven by the resurgence of nostalgia, a need for personal expression, and as a backlash against the heavily machined. So in that sense, one should only think of the digital as ‘just another tool’. In the Back to the Future exhibition most visitors accepted the digital interventions as a matter of course but were most excited by the smells, the letterpress charts and the soaps that we recreated from a hundred odd years back.
What role does heritage play in brand design and communication?
Today, surface ornament and pastiches are all too easily used to reference tradition.While cultural hybridity is a good thing – and it is also inevitable that codes and conventions from different cultures come together and cross fertilize – I think designers need to be sensitive to cultural appropriation and recognize when it is done unethically and blindly.
Why do you think ‘Indians don’t like white space’?
I coined that rather provocative title for a paper on the way we communicate, and graphic design practice and education. But that aside, we do seem to be uncomfortable with the slightest gaps between people, cars or words – we rush to fill silences with a clutter of conversation.
The question I ask is – does the stereotype of not leaving the smallest gap between personal spaces echo how we treat our typography? But really, the paper is not just a discussion on the formal aspects of design practice but a search for a conceptual cohesion in Indian practice.
How important are awards for a designer?
Peer recognition always feels good, but at the same time as a client of mine famously said (using a possibly impolite and censorable comparison) that with age everyone gets them!
What challenges have you faced in your journey?
I find working on projects with smaller organizations stimulating – balancing that with the need to sustain a consultancy and hold it above water is a challenge. I am still trying to find that ideal mid path!
What would be your advice to youngsters pursuing a career in design?
Put your heart over the bars, and the body will follow; if you really believe in something then go for it and the details will get figured out.
I hope to bring out a product that connects my skills and interests – research, writing and design; it is a follow up of a grant I received from the IFA. I’m also working on a collective project about not so well-behaved women who made history. Oh yeah, I do have a mountain to climb – like literally!
This article was originally published in POOL 103.
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