Yesterday I had an hour-long conversation with my teacher from my design school, Prof. Mohan Bhandari. He was the coordinator of the foundation program in Design at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad.
June 25th, 1975 was our first day at the NID and Professor Mohan Bhandari stepped into the class with an intriguing introduction,
“Welcome to the foundation year in Design. Before you start learning design you will need to unlearn everything you have learned until now, reclaim your childlike freshness, and begin learning with fresh eyes and an open mind.”
Today’s call, almost 45 years after that day, was triggered by a poem I wrote last week. The poem “The inner child” was inspired by my sense of gratitude towards Prof. Bhandari for reminding us to never lose our childlike freshness. My poem went viral online amongst the alumni of the NID. One of the alumni Vaqar Khan decided to Call Professor Bhandari ( who is now 77 years old) and read it out to him. He also read out all the words of gratitude numerous other alumni had expressed in response to my poem. Vaqar sent me a message that Prof Bhandari was moved by the pouring of love and gratitude from his students and would like to speak with me. I had to first send a WhatsApp message to his wife and arrange e for a time.
Prof Bhandari had a frail voice. But as we started reminiscing the old days his voice became energetic. He did not want to stop the conversation until I realized we spoke well past his bedtime. We talked about the various exercises Mr. Bhandari had us go through during the foundation year to achieve his goal of helping us reclaim our childlike freshness and begin learning with fresh eyes and an open mind.
A class in environmental exposure involved selecting a site within the city of Ahmedabad and visiting it regularly during the entire semester to document the life in that site over typical 24 hours. through sketching. We had to select several vantage points within the site and sketch 360-degree views of that site over 24 hours. Over five months I had visited my site- The Jagannath Temple- at least 30 to 40 times and spent close to 200 hours or more generating hundreds of sketches. The experience of Sketching, more than photography, prepared us to observe with a keen eye and to notice and emphasize elements of the environment that revealed subtle yet key characteristics of the life there. During this class, I spent several hours during the day and at night amidst cows in the cowsheds watching a day in the life of the cows and those who took care of them. Amongst other vantage points, I selected for documentation were, the temple entrance, the courtyard, the hall, the inner sanctum, the kitchen, the living quarters of the priests, and the cowshed. The rich stimuli I internalized — the visuals, the smells, the tastes the textures- are all embedded in my memory to date. Though I am an atheist, I have gained a deeper understanding of life in an Indian temple and an entire ecosystem that keeps it going.
Another important exercise we did during the foundation year was an illustration of a sequence of events in six frames. We maintained a spiral-bound notebook in which we drew six boxes running horizontally across two pages. Each pair of pages had two sets of six frames. (see the image above). We had to sketch a number of events every day. We had to represent each event in six frames. We could select an event- from real life or imaginary, realistic or geometric. I remember Bhandari explaining the logic of six frames running across an open book. He said to us,
“ You may ask why six frames, why not three or five or seven? Well, I do not want the six frames to have a beginning, an end or a center. by having six there will be no center, and by having them run across the two pages I want you to feel it is only a segment of an ongoing event that has no beginning or end.”
This exercise was like drawing a comic strip in six frames. It was almost three decades later when I read the book Understanding Comics By Scott McCloud, that I realized the value of this exercise. As McCloud explains the real value of a comic is in its gutters ( the space between the frames), He says,
“Space does for comics what time does for film! This phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole has a name. It’s called closure.
In our daily lives, we often commit closure, mentally completing that which is incomplete based on past experience.”
While reading Understanding Comics I realized that Bhandari prepared us to respect “closure” as the essence of design. What we frame in our design is not as important but the meaning people construct through their inner eyes is what the real power of design is. Just as it is not the LEGO pieces that are the essence of its design but the meaning we construct in our minds while building our own imagination with those pieces. That is what closure is and that is what the essence of design Bhandari taught us. The six frames exercise ingrained in us a discipline and a restrain as a designer that design is meant- not to manipulate people’s experience but to fuel their imagination- just as comic strips and LEGO pieces do.
On that call, we revisited our learning experience from five decades ago. He admitted that he was only a 30-year-old boy from a conservative family experimenting with fresh design students. He did not have a proven methodology nor a theoretical framework to guide his experimentation. Yet he was able to work with us because the zeitgeist of the time created between the teacher and the student the audacity to explore the unknown and walk the path that was so ambiguous. He pointed out that the seventies were the years of experimentation and reconstruction. It was a decade after Woodstock, Vietnam veterans were coming back to a new life, In India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared a state of emergency and suspended civic rights on the very day he addressed us the first time. All of these events, he believed, formed a zeitgeist in which he facilitated a dialogue.
Through this dialogue emerged an awareness, a sensitivity and a creative impulse that continued to guide an entire generation of empathic and bohemian designers who continued to look at the future with the sensitivity and curiosity of a child. We learned never to prejudge and to always be open to a future that is waiting to emerge. We learned to see it coming and express it through design. The way we express our design is characterized by the humility and restraint the Six frames exercise taught us.
Thank you, Prof Bhandari,