Designing a new peace
Belfast yesterday? Kashmir tomorrow? A common sense approach to harmony means lots of utilitarian public art
Here is the Kashmir conundrum: Why such terrible uncertainty in a Valley that so many people of different faiths regard as the gateway to heaven? It is easy to blame religion, sectarianism, nationalism. But is that really true?
In the England of my youth, troubles in Northern Ireland were wrecking havoc on the nation. Reports of murder, destruction and torture were part of the daily news. It was almost a given that the centuries-old religious divide would never allow peace to prevail. But two very interesting things happened.
First, the people got fed up with all that was happening and realized it was forcing them to live in a medieval time warp. Second, politicians changed their ways. Instead of raking up the past, they concentrated on formulating policies to improve the economic and living condition of the people. It worked. While there are still some people in Northern Ireland who perpetrate hate, by and large, peace prevails.
Perhaps this is the “common sense route” that Kashmir’s people and politicians need to follow. War and all that goes with it rarely solves anything. In Ireland, British and Irish ‘terrorism’ compounded the problem. Northern Ireland’s war ended when the British government began to reshape its towns and cities. Waterways were cleaned up; new areas were created where people could shop and eat in comfort. Many sincerely believe that the people of Northern Island saw what was happening in Belfast and wanted a piece of the action. It was as simple as that.
The design for social change was equally profound in London and it revolved around the Thames. The South Bank complex was the focal point of a project that involved remodelling the Docklands, Canary Wharf, Chelsea Harbour and other areas. As the city developed many new ‘hearts’, it learned to breathe new air. It was to be the life-blood of a sense of the greater common good.
Today, London is one of the world’s best integrated and harmonious cities.
The key to great social change – planning for it and executing it quickly and magnificently – was that the UK had been investing in design for decades. Ample talent and ability was available – the UK had the architects, landscape designers and interior designers it needed to design change. There was also the recognition that great design creates a great environment which, in turn, creates good citizens. Eminent British designer Sir Christopher Frayling recently told the UK’s design fraternity that design is at the centre of truly great societies. And good design can mean good economics.
Cynics may say this is a well-meaning but insubstantial philosophy. But it is clear the economic gurus have hardly been entirely right. Sections of the arts fraternity knew from the early days of Thatcherism that preaching the philosophy of greed would end in tragedy. Why not listen to the arts world now? Investment in design is as important as investing in other professions, perhaps more so.
Design does not limit itself to buildings or products. But investment in design also means serious investment in design education, and this is the problem for India. We cannot expect to progress to the level we should if we let this potentially beautiful country remain an eyesore. Should we really feel proud that within minutes of stepping out of any Indian airport, visitors are greeted by filth? Some of the new buildings and townplanning projects underway are missing the mark by miles.
Why? There is almost no design education in India; we don’t have the well-trained designers we need and virtually no design managers. In the UK, probably 1 in 2000 of the population is involved in art and design education in some way, be it as teacher or as student. In India, the ratio is probably 1 in 200000. Add to that the fact that many trained designers in India see themselves as fine rather than utilitarian artists. In line with the Aristotelian definition, we don’t need many more artists; we do need very many more practical and clever designers.
Poverty, population and the aftermath of Partition have undoubtedly made the designer’s job very difficult. But we live in times of great change. I was born in a London of bomb sites, slums, a depressed economy and broken spirits, even though we technically won WWII. I remember a River Thames in which fish could not survive. That was just 50 years ago.
India too is a different country from 20 years ago. Marutis have replaced Ambassadors and Mercs are now replacing Marutis. Change is everywhere, and there must be broader opportunity for Indians to study design.
Kashmir could be a benchmark. It has a young chief minister, who symbolizes the truest hopes of his people, perhaps best summed up by a Kashmiri gentleman in a recent interview during the Shopian protest. All he wanted, he said, was for the bandh to cease so he could get back to work and support his family.
Kashmiri crafts are famous around the world; we need to build on that reputation. Kashmir’s beauty is fabled; we need to ensure that more people are able to enjoy it. Some of this is underway with the chief minister’s support for a project to clean up the Dal Lake. The famous Lake is said to have become an open sewer, but the restoration programme could restore it to its former glory.
It can be oddly disorientating to visit the Valley at a time of violence and unrest. I was there in the immediate aftermath of the death of two young girls in Shopian. After visiting the usual tourist areas, we were taken to the backwaters where a host of small hamlets had come up. I cannot begin to explain its fascination: A mix of Lake Como, Venice and Amazonian jungle. In the hands of competent, caring and visionary designers, the area could become one of the world’s most sought-after destinations, bringing wealth and prosperity to a troubled people. That may be the best design for peace in our times.