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Design Development in Nagaland

Balasubramaniam, A. is a Product Designer based in Delhi. He works with both the industrial and the crafts sector providing design intervention for products for better appeal and marketability. A graduate of NID, Ahmedabad, he has worked with artisans in design development projects in UP, Punjab, Assam, Tamilnadu, and Nagaland. He was also the product designer for the India-Pakistan design workshop: Dostkari. He is visiting faculty at major design institutes in Delhi. He writes regularly on the subject of Design in Economic Times, Times of India and other design publications.



When the Managing Director of Nagaland Handloom and Handicrafts Development Corporation, wanted me to come to Dimapur to explore a design assignment, I was both thrilled and apprehensive. Thrilled because I always wanted to visit the interiors of North East India and wanted to savour the sights and crafts of the place first-hand. Apprehensive because like all common people, I was worried if the place was safe from terrorism and whether I would be able to do a successful project in an alien culture with an unsure set of artisans.

As the flight was descending down upon Dimapur on mid-summer morning, I was amazed at the greenery I could see from the skies and I was as excited to land as the Japanese couple sitting next to me and was raring to go. When I met the friendly face of the co-ordinator, all my fears disappeared. I knew I was going to enjoy my stay there.

When one refers to Nagaland, it is always about the place, its greenery, its mountains, its cuisine, its proximity to other cultures all over the world, etc. Of course, Nagaland has been well endowed. But what struck me first, about the place was the genuine friendliness of the people. Not the polite, Delhi-type of friendliness, but gregarious. They all have a great sense of humour, a life style that is more laid-back than most and an easy-going nature that makes any outsider comfortable.

My project was to assess the skills of the artisans of the cluster, Nagarjan, identified by the NHHDC and see their product range. After assessing the skills, I had to design products that will match the skill-sets with the kind of products markets all over the country and also abroad will like to buy. As a designer, I found the challenge both exciting and interesting.

In my first visit, I met a range of artisans who were into a variety of products. Products ranged from the ethereal to the practical. On one hand- a carved chair that resembled an eagle which took 2 months to make by one artisan and on the other hand a simple rice plate that is carved out of local wood which is used for daily eating.

The Eagle Chair
The Eagle chair
The Rice Plate
The Rice plate

There were also a lot of other products that were made for the local markets and the emporiums. These include Spears and spear holders, small shelves, corn leaf decorations, boxes and similar decorative items.

Dolls made of Corn leaf     Mithun head Plaques
Traditional Crafts: Dolls made of Corn leaf, Bowls, Mithun head Plaques

DESIGN APPROACH:
My task as a designer was cut out for me. I had to use these skills of carving and carpentry that these wood artisans of Nagarjan were so familiar with and design products that the markets in Delhi and other places will enjoy buying and gifting. In this task, I had keep in mind that these products should not lose the Naga identity which is so typical and yet make products that would be universally appealing. Moreover, I had decided to create a new range that will be less of a decorative product and more of a utility item. This way, there is a possibility of repeat purchase value for the products.

My second and third visits to Dimapur consisted of two week stays. Each time I designed prototypes of new products at my Delhi studio and trained all the artisans to make these. There were several rounds of prototype development, so that artisans learnt to make these to perfection. After initial reticence, the artisans understood my approach.

I took inspirations from museum pieces of the traditional tribal products of Nagaland. I researched the ancient objects of culture from Nagaland. I revived some motifs, borrowed some others from a variety of traditional products. Also designs and motifs from traditional animal shields, smoking pipes, jewellery and tattoo marks and patterns were chosen for products of utility like lamp bases, kitchen trays and photo-frames.

Some techniques were retained in a new format. The artisans who made spears as give aways were trained to make photo frames with spears fixed on them.

Spears that are made for gifting
Spears that are made for gifting
New design photo frame with small spear
New design photo frame with small spear

Artisans who decorated these spears with red and black dyed goat's hair were trained to use this technique for a new design of lamp base.

Goat's hair technique
Goat's hair technique
New design lamp base
New design lamp base

Traditional motif of the bull's head, called the ' Mithun' in Nagamese, was used as a motif on a couple of kitchen products, to give commonplace products a Naga identity.

Spice Rack
Spice Rack with Mithun head motif
New design Tray
New design Tray with animal motifs

Since the Nagas are predominantly Christian, the product range also included some Christmas products like Candleholders and special photo frames with Christmas motifs.

Candleholders      Candleholders
Candleholders inspired by tribal jewellery forms

A brand was created to reflect the new range.

"KOHIMA", the brand was meant to identify these new products that are both aesthetically appealing to everyone, yet totally Naga in outlook and feel. The products were exhibited in the India Habitat Centre for feedback and orders. All products received some order or the other, which was heartening because it means that the design has been appealing to a cross section of people. Additionally, several were interested in exporting these products as well.

This project gives a whole new meaning to cross-cultural interface. When the Naga statue lamp base reaches the bedrooms of the world, and people from various cultures eat out of the salad bowls, made in Nagarjan, I know my task has been done.


Photographs: A. Balasubramaniam / Shailan Parker
© Copyrights: A. Balasubramaniam: bala@januarydesign.com



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