Saturday, March 4, 2017

Innovation at intersections

I love writing, though you probably would not have guessed it looking at the interval between my blog posts. However, I had to share my experience of today while it is still fresh. I attended an amazing keynote lecture at Sloan Women in Healthcare Leadership Symposium at Cornell University where the speaker, Nancy Schlichting, spoke of her experiences as an unconventional women leader. She spoke of her journey and how she addressed challenges that came as part and parcel of the responsibility of leading people. There were many takeaways from her talk, the most important being, innovation happens at intersections and how a true leader had to be authentic. I could relate to the first point instantly, as our profession as a designer affords us the skill to join un-seemingly connected dots in diverse fields and convert the ideas into innovations. The latter is something I would like to think about a little more and see how do people gauge authenticity...what do you think?

The talk was followed by a reception where I met a young aspiring chemist, and over cheese and crackers we spoke of education systems in France, UK, India and US; skiing and cycling clubs at Cornell University; methods of cancer detection and how math could be similar to learning a language. And all of these in a little over 30 minutes. Isn't it simply amazing! I strongly feel, as designers we need to step out of our creative bubbles and connect with diverse individuals. It is  through such exchange that we can break the stereotypes that we construct in our minds.   

Getting back to the beauty of the day, earlier on, I visited the composting unit of the university, along with some students who were conducting research on textile waste. It was windy and below freezing, but we were a dedicated group of enthusiasts:) Here are couple of pictures of the facility:

Snow-covered compost pile. Ithaca, 2017.

Lake at the compost facility. Ithaca, 2017

Experiencing graduate school from the periphery is as interesting as actually being a grad student, and I am enjoying being the spouse of a PhD student for now:) There is so much to learn everyday by simply being in a new culture and space. As Nancy Schlichting said in maybe not the same words, "Pause. Regroup. And march ahead with positivity".

Friday, April 29, 2016

Climate + Change

Last month in Kolkata, India I felt the tremors of an earthquake for the first time. Since 2014, this has been the fourth or fifth time when shifting of the tectonic plates in neighbouring regions has been felt in the city. The floods that affected northern UK were unprecedented as were those that swamped Chennai closer to home. The increasing frequency of natural calamities and the visible unseasonal rise in temperature is creating a never before fervor in questions and exclamations– what is happening to the world?  It is unbelievably hot! The world is suddenly sitting and listening to what nature has to say.

When I was in UK, in a café in Norwich, I saw a map of UK that showed the imminent impact of climate change and the rise of sea level on the existence of both urban and rural settlements. The Bengal coastline is also in the red zone with many predicting that my hometown Kolkata will cease to exist because of rising sea level; or for that matter, some other factor that we have not given due importance to in the past. The crux of the matter is that we humans have changed our environment at a pace unseen of other species, bringing upon ourselves a situation where the world has to pledge to work towards a two degrees reduction in global temperature during the Paris summit last year.

A recent project I undertook was in this domain. In September last year, I worked on a project in climate change where I was responsible for research and strategy; team development; content and structure development; photography and narrative for an exhibition display. As a design researcher deeply interested in the cultural world of textiles, a project on climate change seemed like a stretch. But when James Hicks from Thinc Design said that my profile fitted what they were looking for, I got hooked. ICIMOD in collaboration with seven world-wide partners wanted to launch a new project “Climate+Change: Our Mountains, Our future” to address the problems of climate change in the Hindukush mountains region. In the following paragraphs I would like to take you through the design process followed.  

The project required me to plan an ethnography-based research in the states of Uttarakhand and one of the seven sisters in the northeast. My prior research and familiarity with northeast India was an added advantage. Findings from the field research would feed the launch exhibition at the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate change in New Delhi, barely four months from the time I was having the conversation with James. The timeline was quite tight; but not one to say no to a challenge, I decided to dive in.

Team building: Work on the project begun two months after my initial discussions, shrinking the already impossible time-span a project of this magnitude requires. Putting together my team was a relatively easy task as I was clear on what I seeking for – two film makers (Shradha Jain from Studio Clockworks and the highly recommended Anish Cherian), two assistant researchers (Moon Moon Jetley and Ankita Dhariwal) and a researcher (Priyanka Baliyan from Punkha Designs) who along with me would lead the field research and work on the text. The thread that connected all of us was that at some point in our careers we had worked on a textile research project in northeast India and that everyone understood the quality of work expected. We were also a passionate bunch, wanting to engage in meaningful design and travel to the hills! 

Left to right: Shradha, myself, Anish & Priyanka
Research Methods: While the brief was quite open, James from Thinc Design and Amy Sellmayer from ICIMOD expressed their expectations from the field research succinctly. Our aim was to gather and document stories that capture the challenges, perceptions, aspirations, and solutions that communities have come up with to adapt to the impacts of climate change in their daily lives. Participatory research tools such as seasonal maps, a day in the life of and community maps were selected to be used in the field. A semi-structured questionnaire was adapted from BBC’s Climate Asia Community Assessment Guide.  

Field research: Two multidisciplinary teams went each to the Himalayan states of Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh. The places visited during November 7-16, 2015 are shown in the maps below.
Credit: Mridu Mehta

Credit: Mridu Mehta

The field research was planned in consultation with the knowledge partners of the project, our experience of the terrain and personal instinct of the team members. Personal acquaintances and colleagues from NID greatly helped with their time and resources - without it, it would have been difficult to achieve what we did.  
Outcomes: Based on the stories collected, initially two short films were to be produced. Finally, two 5-mins films, four 2-mins film and one promotional film were conceptualised and created. Content for a prototype exhibition was generated and the exhibition boards were visually designed by Mridu Mehta. The exhibition was unveiled at the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in New Delhi from December 11-17, 2015.

Pick-glass: Looking closer
Traditional knowledge, both cultural and ecological most often had a deep rooted logic and sense of respect for available resources. In the name of development and greed, this community knowledge is more often than not sidelined. We realised on the field how environmental problems affect the socio-economic and cultural practices of a community and how everything is connected.  I can sense the change in my perspective on global environmental and economic post this project. Words like resilience and adaptation have a context now. I read more deeply now, and observe more keenly.

This project has also made me appreciate the efforts of my previous team leaders – I now know the difficult task they were facing while navigating us through the field research and post-research compilations. Initiating new projects and working with creative individuals requires an assessment of individual strength along with stimulation, nurture and engagement of the various collaborators. Adding governmental and non-governmental organisations into this mix in the same time and space requires a fine balance, oodles of patience and remembering, as the protagonist of the film ‘Survivor’ says, what are we in this for?

I am still figuring out how to reduce the size of the films we made and share the same with all of you. Including below some snapshots of the launch exhibition in New Delhi. 

The erect panels with field research data. Right in front is the panel acknowledging the project partners and collaborators in the field

Film screening during the exhibition
Details of the exhibition panels

Monday, March 9, 2015

It will soon be 6 months since I came to the UK. We are at the onset of spring with the flowers promising the good weather round the corner. 
Crocus and snowdrops

My husband decided to pursue his masters in Human Factors at Loughborough University and that brought us to the land of pies and casseroles. We wrapped up our house in India. There was an odd sense of freedom in selecting from the material possessions we tend to accumulate over time, what we can pack in our suitcases for the one year we planned to be here.

                                                Sumptuous Christmas spread thanks to my friend Vaishali

The highlight of my time here, has been the interesting people I have met; a lady who worked in the hills of India in the 60s as a health worker, a specially abled fiesty lady who rides the town in her recumbent bike, a lady who mirrors the thoughts of our Prime minister that India needs modernization and not westernization, a taxi-driver aching to go back to his home country etc. We have been fortunate to have listened to their stories and those of countless others who speak fondly of the times when they have been to India. Our country of origin is often the starting point of many conversations.
The view from my window on a snowy day
But the biggest joy that I have experienced is the personal space around me when I walk on the cobbled paths of Loughborough and the busiest of London streets. Most people step aside, wait, let you pass, say thank you and apologize for mistakes which they have not committed.

People here are always asking me what do I do with my time. A lot of reading and a lot of writing! is always my reply.  And surprisingly, this is my first post since I came to the UK! I have been busy working on a research project on children's garment, but more on that in a separate post.

The reins of Whitewater are being managed by my younger sister in India at present and the studio has temporarily shifted there. And hopefully, you will see some of my UK reflections in the new collections in the coming seasons along with a new product line using materials local to Bengal.

But its a bright and sunny day and I should step out to catch up on all the sun I have missed in the winter the way weather is an important topic of conversation for me now:)

And I am waiting for the bluebells and walks in the blue woods...

Friday, February 28, 2014

Collection 1: Mother's Love

After a long hiatus touching base again. We have been busy at Whitewater Designs putting together our first collection of socially and environmentally conscious textile and craft products for children. 

Whitewater is an initiative to introduce a new born baby to the world of storytelling through organic textiles. Most of us, who have grown up in cities, have read and heard western stories in our growing up years and are not familiar with the rich treasure of Indian folklore. At Whitewater, we aim to change that. The stories narrated through Whitewater products are part of a rich culture we are gradually forgetting. Inspiration is also drawn from everyday observations and personal experiences, not dominated by seasonal trends. These flashes of ideas are penned down as poems to be read aloud to children, and also form the inspiration board for developing the signature prints and appliques.

Our first collection "Mother's Love" was officially launched last year. The poem, inspired by my nephew's visit to the zoo for his birthday was translated into playful block prints and hand appliques. Bright polkas and chevron patterns with subtle hand needlework added colour to the muted block prints in natural natural indigo and madder. Together, they provided the starting point for a range of bedding, decor and clothing for infants and toddlers.

Block printed fabric drying in the sun before they are coloured in a village in Kutch, Gujarat
Women artisans creating the textiles in my studio in Ahmedabad

All the textile products are made with 100% organic cotton sourced from GOTS certified manufacturers in India. We are also using khadi woven by local cooperatives here in Gujarat. The dyeing process incorporates eco-friendly principles; products are AZO-free and have not come into contact with any heavy metal dyes.

Special attention was paid to the branding to try and develop tags that can be recycled. Below is an example of the poem that can be used by children to personalise and pin on their soft boards.

The inspiration behind the collection was part of each product.

Since the past 4 months, we have been promoting the cause and the collection through various channels. Some examples are as follows:
Part of The Colours of Nature, symposium on natural dyes, Kolkata
Chor Bazaar, Kolkata

Pappadum, Chennai. Photo credit: Pappadum

Jaypore - an online store retailing curated hand crafted products. Photo credit: Jaypore

Green Fest, Juhu, Mumbai
This is our endeavor at Whitewater - to create awareness that small actions can have a big impact on our environment, health and society. A change in the thinking process has to begin somewhere!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Felt Acoustic panels

I was recently commissioned to design and develop textile based acoustic panel for the home theatre of one of the clients of Mamta Gautam from Dirty Hands ( in Ahmedabad. The brief was to develop 3D textures for the walls. After much deliberation between the choice of fabrics ranging from muslins to tweeds and plaids, we settled on using woven felt in two colours - a neutral dusty beige with a bright lime. Techniques used were quilting, machine stitching and pleating.

Four of the textures developed for the back walls of the room

Texture developed for the ceiling panel

 Details of the quilted texture

Details of the spaced pleats

Work in progress at the site on the back walls

Work in progress at the site on the side walls


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rang Khel


The cuckoo bird is singing; spring is in the air
White yells to everyone, “let's play loud and fair!”
Fill the balloons with water, paint the faces with rangoli
The festival of colours is here, let us celebrate Holi!

Red are you hiding in the gulal?
Are you playing hide and seek on the road?
In the tomatoes, strawberries or my shoe,
Come soon, Red or I will get bored.

I can see Yellow up in the sky
The colour of the shining sun
It is the colour of haldi mumma uses in food
With yellow, blue has so much fun.

Where is blue? Is he in the water?
Where colourful fishes swim and play
Is he with Lord Krishna who is playing the flute
Or with red he has run away? 

Red, yellow and blue love to play together
They can create more colours you see
When all the colours are mixed they make black
When there is no colour, you will see me.

I am White, the colour of rice
And the kheer we eat with a spoon
The cows who give us milk is me
I am also the colour of the moon.

Black is the colour of the small dot
That wards off an evil eye
It is also the colour of the dark clouds
Flying high up in the sky.

There are so many colours in the rainbow,
Violets, Indigos, yellows, oranges, reds and blues
The game is simple you have to tell me
To play Holi which colour will you choose?

  by Shweta on 19.03.2013

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Open Elective - Rags to riches

Who does not enjoy a good story? Bedtimes, lunch breaks, vacations, occasions...contexts are unending, yet the feeling of wanting more is probably universal. Story times are occasions of taking a journey to the magical kingdoms or to ancient lands or maybe just a break from the reality. The best of our story tellers, our grandparents, could hold our attention for ages through narration as well as the content. Many elderly have interesting stories to tell - from the past, probably a lot regarding the present and some about the future.

During the Open elective course at NID this year ( we explored the narratives which come so naturally to our elders. The umbrella theme for this unique 2-week module from 21st January-1st February 2013 was ‘Active Ageing’. The course was organised and conducted along with Sajith Gopinath, an industrial designer and faculty at NID, Gandhinagar (  Sajith is interested in understanding the “concept of play/playfulness” as a tool for designers. He is also interested in designing play spaces as well as creating interactive space for children. We were also joined by a group of craftspeople from Ahmedabad. The aim was to capture and narrate these stories in a tangible contemporary visual story telling form using textile techniques and practices such as hand appliqué, hand embroidery and machine stitching. We wanted to combine the traditional craft with the contemporary aesthetics of the students who belonged to diverse design streams (textiles, film and video, exhibition, information and interface and product).  The final result was a small exhibition that included products as well as an installation. 
The stencils made by the students for doing the applique work forms a screen near the entry of the exhibition
We spent the first 3 days connecting with elderly people both familiar and unfamiliar and expressing these stories and experiences using visual mediums. The idea was to sensitise the students to the world of the elderly and understand the power of communication. 

On the left is the work of Sarah, exchange student at NID from Manchester School of Art and on the right is the work of Neha, a textile design student at NID. Both used different mediums to express their collected stories and share it with the group on the second day of the elective.
Panels prepared by Aarushi and Gowri, design student at NID to narrate the stories of technicians or kakkas as we fondly call them at NID. For them the character of the person was more important than the face and hence they have used shadows to express the stories
On one of the afternoons, students visited senior citizens in their homes and in old age homes and day care centres for a one to one interaction session. They came back filled with the warmth that one often associates with our grandparents.    
Sarah illustrating the profile of a resident.

Anamika with an elderly person at the Red Cross old age home in Ahmedabad.

Shruti’s depiction of her interactions with Dr. Armeti Davar in Ahmedabad
We gave creative freedom to the students and had interactive sessions with them where they were encouraged to narrate these stories and other insights using a medium of their choice. As part of the elective we also engaged experts like Dr. Anwar Ali, an occupational therapist, Mr. S.Sethuraman, an independent design practitioner and Mr. Massey from Helpage India. The end results of these interlaced interactions were low cost high value products like story books, boardgames, and craft products, all designed with a positive message for the greying population. The students worked along with the craftspeople learning the craft as well as translating it into a finished product. For the installation, the students worked on a 10” x 10” textile square and interpreted a story of their choice using hand appliqué and patchwork.  

The students working in the courtyard along with the craftspeople in NID
Sonika choosing the fabrics for the appliqué.
From Left to right: Anupreeta, Aashish & Shaheen's interpretation of their chosen stories using textiles
We added another layer of symbolism to the concept of storytelling through textiles. For their final product, the students were prodded to introspect, connect the dots and realise a product that had a deeper meaning – either something that the people whom they had interacted with could take away something from or something inspired from their lives and stories. It was challenging in the limited time to actually ‘think’ and create an out of the box product that had a message. 

From left to right: Anamika's reminder softboard, Vivek's Gamcha, Aashish's experience notebook & Aishwarya's Shadow lamp
 Each of the students also compiled all the work they had done during the workshop in a journal. 

A page from Lola’s Journal showing her ideas for the final product and an illustration of the craftspeople.

The final installation was well received by the visitors.

For me it was an extremely satisfying experience to hear all the stories and guide the students to transform them into textile pieces. All the students worked very hard and there was never a moment to complain. The craftspeople enjoyed themselves and left the workshop having learnt newer avenues to utilise their craft in. Excellent support was provided by the Open elective team and workshop staff at NID in realising the final installation. And with Sajith around everything seemed possible. ‘Rags to riches’ was an exhausting but I hope good learning for all the participants.