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Politics

'I Turn to You as Our Only Hope': The Speech Mallika Sarabhai Planned to Make at NID

"Together we must counter the darkness that envelopes our nation and our soul today, the hatred that is being passed to us as nationalism."

On February 7, the prestigious National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad was supposed to host the convocation ceremony for its graduating class of 2020. Well-known dancer Mallika Sarabhai, who is also on the institute’s board, was supposed to be the chief guest. Just three days before the event, though, the administration announced that the event was postponed due to “unforeseen circumstances”. 

Sarabhai has been a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government and has opposed his government’s decision to bring in the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Six top bureaucrats from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry are on NID’s management committee. 

Below is the full text of the speech Sarabhai was going to make at NID.

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Dear Graduating Students,

When I received the invitation to be here today, and to have the honour of sharing thoughts and ideas with you, I was thrilled. And surprised. I have worked closely with NID over the years, although sporadically. I have also served on your Governing Council. But to have this opportunity? I accepted with alacrity.

A few days later I was sent a book with the convocation addresses of all the luminaries who have been guests here. Glancing through it I was surprised and dismayed to see that in the 38 years of addresses included in the book, only one was by a woman, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, in the early years. Wow, I thought to myself. Let us hope I break this glass ceiling.

I can’t remember a time when I was not fascinated with design and textures and textiles. I went to a school where we were made to use our hands – we learned weaving on back strap looms, played with mud pretending to create pots, and made lop sided tables in carpentry class. At home, my mother Mrinalini, Amma to most of us, had a sense of aesthetic that pervaded everything. Even meals had to be colour co-ordinated, textured right. If one dish was crisp, another had to be soft and a third, crunchy. Our home was filled with beautiful folk and adivasi art, brass statues from across the globe, and hand made things in actual use. Khadi, cotton, beads, brass grass, natural.

Since I was 13 I had been putting together my own clothes with a tailor, making bead and feather jewellery with our Kathakali makeup artist’s help, collecting stones and silver beads to make buttons, putting patches of left-over dance costumes onto bits of leather and making holdalls. When I got to college, I realised that people my age did not want expensive and permanent clothes and accessories, they wanted new, different, varied, funky.

I was always asked where I got my clothes and costume jewellery from. This lead to an entrepreneurial idea. Why not start a boutique providing my kind of stuff to others and keeping an upper price limit of Rs 50 for any item? Then anyone could afford it, and afford to wear it only a few times. My first and only successful business venture was born. It was a week-end boutique called Tamasha and ran out of a spare room in our academy, Darpana. A year later I closed it down because its success meant I was doing nothing but designing all week, all day. Friends started persuading me to open the shop for peak previews earlier in the week so that they could reserve clothes! I was supposed to be studying. Enough, I thought.

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In the early 70’s Amma took over as Chair of Gurjari and now our home turned into a veritable studio for the crafts of Gujarat. Toofan Rafai, then on a Quixotic mission to have people understand the value of organic dyes, would come in a rickshaw with a huge bundle of saris that Amma would buy to sell in Gurjari. Bandhni, ajrakh, namdah, mochi bharat – these words became part of my vocabulary, and when on vacation, I started taking trips with her into the deepest villages of Kutchh and Saurashtra. Amma took it upon herself to wean young people away from polyester bell bottoms and T shirts, and to make Indian and cotton trendy. She birthed the idea of taking the embroidered yokes of backless rural cholis and making kurtas with them.

Shabana Azmi, Parveen Babi and I were all starting up in films then and she persuaded us to do photo shoots only wearing crafts based kurta pyjamas – they were called Punjabi suits then and were actually worn only by North Indians. It took her efforts and some years for them to become the most worn of Indian garments, as they are today in their myriad manifestations. I started informally designing for Gurjari, mixing block printing with bead work, and embroidery with bandhini.

The NID Ahmedabad campus. Photo: University website

In 1979 the one-issue-old Inside Outside magazine, India’s first attempt at a platform for serious discussion amongst design professionals, was about to die a premature death. A publisher friend was offered it but had no interest in design or architecture or craft. He in turn offered it to me. Me, publish a magazine? I knew nothing about publishing or magazines and the magazine offices and all advertisers were in Bombay and I, in Ahmedabad. It seemed daunting and deliciously adventurous. I said yes. This started three years of a wild and exciting journey where, for the first time, I was thrown amongst professionals in the fields of design, architecture, craft, textile, planning, urban design and more. I was in world that I found I cared passionately about.

On a trip to New York to find distribution for Inside Outside in the US, I changed course and ended up in 1984 launching Mapin Publishing, founded with the single purpose of making world class books on our arts, crafts and heritage, written and photographed by Indian experts, for the world. Today Mapin is India’s leading publisher of culture, craft, architecture, photography and design with close to 400 books on its list, including NID’s Handmade In India.

While my direct day-to-day work as Mapin’s Chief Editor came to an end in 2001 because of my commitments with performance and lecturing, my involvement with design for a better, healthier India has continued. Be it the first entirely solar run home in Gujarat at my organic farm in 1996, or Natarani, our state of the art, green theatre inaugurated last year, my concern for and mainstreaming of hand made, cleaner and kinder technologies has continued and deepened.

We live in troubling times. Over the last few hundred years humans have come to believe that we are the centre of the Universe and the Universe exists to serve us. This has lead to our using nature and all non human elements of the Universe greedily and exploitatively. This system values the biggest as the best. It values brute force over compassion. It values the show of power more than humaneness. It values having and hoarding more than giving and sharing. It is a system that is patriarchal and muscular. It is a system without humanity, one that treats us as consumers rather than as persons. It celebrates quantity over quality., might over right. And it lives on fear and insecurity. It is a system where ones’ worth is judged by what one has and not what one is. And in doing this, it is destroying the soul of our unique country.

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India’s uniqueness in the world lies in one thing and one alone. Our culture. Our languages, our diversity, our crafts, foods, habitats, arts, beliefs and their manifestations. In all their contrariness, contradictions and chaos. If we believe that our splendour lies in bigger, faster, taller, we will always be also-rans, just another nation trying to catch up. If our sense of self worth lies with the rules of successful capitalism, with the homogeneity of taste that leads to everyone wearing denim or eating hamburgers, then we have lost our paths, because we are reducing ourselves to sameness and lack of diversity. Does our special place in the world of nations lie in building the fastest air craft? No. It lies in our 900 languages. It lies in the dal tasting different in each home and in each community and village. It lies in the nath, the nose ring adapted from Cleopatra’s cat, that signifies suhaag, having a million variations from the pin to the bulaku, to those attached to the hair and those that cover most of the face.

The powers that rule us, that make policy, look outward, to other “more successful” nations to assess our own worth. They do not look at our wealth, our crafts and design, our building technologies suited to our many different climates, and develop those into technologies that the world will follow. No, our policies try to iron out our individualities, our quirks, our diversities, to enforce a oneness, a single approved truth or way of life. And in doing so shows the deep lack of self worth that has become our corner stone.

Today most architects build in cement concrete – a material that uses up far too much water in its making, and that crumbles in fifty years, never merging with nature. But our lime forts stand tall and strong after hundreds of years. Should we be teaching our young the destructive technologies of the First World because we feel insecure and have inferiority complexes, or should we be propagating our kinder and more nature friendly technologies and lead the world into sanity and away from the self destructive path on which we are running?

Today we face unemployment as never before, with more and more young people like you pouring into the job market. 70 million people in India are involved in handicrafts, 70 million who are working as entrepreneurs, using little of the earth’s resources other than their own strength and skills. Yet these are 70 million who are not encouraged, not valued, not sheltered, not nurtured. In their death and in the death of their work, lies the death of the greatness of humanity, for what they produce is the heritage of all humanity.

I turn to you as our only hope. Already, by choosing careers in design, you have showed a tendency towards the right brain, towards self fulfilment over high earnings. As designers of products and textiles, exhibitions and garments and much more, you have the capacity of changing the way we view development, success and happiness. Adopt a single village. Go and study every craft and technology that can be reinterpreted for a world that is self destructing. Use your imagination and skill in giving a new, kind, relevant life to them. Give our craftspeople, traditional builders, water diviners the vision of your world view. Take their skills and make them yours, to share with them and the world. Learn the thrift and the individuality of our varied traditions.

We are in need, as a nation and as a people of re-finding our true selves. Not a sense of self sold to us by brand ambassadors and peddlers of fear, but the self that will once again make India a nation to lead to a clearer light, of reason, compassion and humaneness, of inclusivity, of acceptance of difference. Together we must counter the darkness that envelopes our nation and our soul today, the hatred that is being passed to us as nationalism.

I wish you well. We depend on you.

Let us be the finders of light, for India and for a saner world.