In October of 2016, I took a 3 week trip to India. It was, quite honestly, one of the most amazing trips of my life. As a designer, I kept my eyes wide open, taking in as much as I could of this amazing country. As we’d only visited the southern portion of India, I was aware that this was very different from the North. With its warmer temperature and tropical climate, I was surprised to see that in addition to the climate, India had in common with the Caribbean where I spent my formative years. The vegetation was familiar; lush hibiscus flowers, shak shaks (Woman’s Tongue) and coconut trees were everywhere.
The southern inhabitants of India are very dark-skinned with jet-black hair to match. Before visiting, I was aware of the caste system and how lighter skinned Indians are revered over their darker skinned brothers and sisters. Colonialism looms large in this country and southern India seemed to have borne more than its fair share. The English, Spanish and Dutch all invaded and colonized India, leaving traces of their culture while attempting to subvert Indian culture in the process. It didn’t work. India, had a rich history of its own prior to colonization — and it still does. It was interesting to learn also, that the sari, an item of clothing we most associate with Indian women, was encouraged by the Europeans when they initially encountered native woman, who went topless. Indeed old statues, paintings, sculptures and carvings show Indian women with nothing on top other than jewelry. That changed, with the advent of Christianity and Eurocentric ideals.
Color is everywhere
When you’re from a country unlike the US that truly is a melting pot and you visit a country where everyone looks the same, it can be a bit jarring. As Americans, we are used to seeing people from all nationalities and cultures just by walking down the street. So, India was definitely different for me where I became a curiosity for most people. Most of them men there wore short mustaches (I learned that men wore mustaches if their fathers were still alive) and the women wore their hair in a simple braided or ponytail. But even so, there were bursts of originality. Even though every woman wore a sari, the silk garment draped around their bodies — each woman was able to express herself with color. Color was everywhere. There were rich reds, greens, and orange accented with gold. Also purples and pinks as far as the eye could see.
The color that struck me most was yellow. It was everywhere. Vivid and slightly transparent, this was a shade of yellow that called out for attention. But yellow was also present on trucks, signs and the sides of buildings advertising, flowers, bananas in the market, on saris and as the accent color on statues in temples. A bit of research revealed that “Indian Yellow” was actually a thing. And, the color yellow in India represents the color of merchants and commerce –those selling good or products. Thus the color was especially prominent on the sides of buildings advertising goods and services and the ever present motorized tuk-tuks seen virtually everywhere.
Indian written language is beautiful. As even the smallest of towns had bustling, crowded marketplaces, signs were everywhere. Some handwritten and others painted on the sides of buildings, shacks and walls. Anywhere there was a surface, really. When written in English, they didn’t make much sense to me and when they were written in Hindu, I couldn’t tell what they said. But, it is important to note that the typography was beautiful to look at.
A sense of space
In their design and in real life, the way Indians make use of space was fascinating to see. Villages and towns are typically crowded with storefronts at the forefront and housing which typically consists of one or two rooms for a family of 4 in the back.
Streets in India are jam packed with tuk-tuks, motorcycles and compact cars. In the southern districts (Thekaddy, Kerala) I never once saw a crosswalk or a stop light. Traffic flowed in a zen-like way. Commuters wandered into traffic to cross streets and the traffic moved around them in a kind of dance. It was beautiful to see. For us as Americans, it seemed dangerous but once you realize that the drivers aren’t whizzing by at 70mph it made total sense.
I try to look at everything from a designers perspective. Not only as a creator though, but also as a user. It is especially enlightening when one is immersed in a totally different culture. Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the ideas and design precepts of home but I found it refreshing to get out of my comfort zone to explore and learn while in India.