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In 2003, I began making research trips to India, primarily to the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, where I had a Fulbright Fellowship in 2005–06. India proved to be an invaluable laboratory to study the nature of artisanship, design thinking, and the lessons of innovation and sustainability that could be learned from the Indian craftsman. The artisan as designer is a major stream in my on-going research.

During the same period I have been investigating the nature of visual perception and how (and why) our physical and cognitive functions affect how we create both two-dimensional and three-dimensional artifacts.

Several years ago on a walk through the village of Parvathagiri, Andhra Pradesh, the two parallel lines of study in Indian artisanship and visual perception collided in the work of a local sign painter. Without the study in visual perception I would not have seen the radical innovation of the three-dimensionality of the letterforms I was seeing around me in India, and the perceptual leaps the sign-painters were asking of their viewers. This has led me to ask additional questions about the role of pattern and color in culture that I am investigating for upcoming work. The two documents, which you are free to download here, will give you some indication of the nature of this body of research.

Subtle Technology: The Design Innovation of Indian Artisanship
Published in Design Issues from MIT Press, Autumn 2011, Vol. 27, No. 4.

Vision and the Visual—IIT-B
Lecture given on March 2, 2012

Village India Program

A part of my research time in India has been spent in the village of Kalleda, Andhra Pradesh, where I ran the Village India Program for Washington University. VIP provided an opportunity for students to experience first-hand the ebb and flow of village life in a rapidly changing society. Kalleda is one of the bases for a school that is part of the Rural Development Fund educational initiative, and the Washington University students participate at the high school level by offering enrichment courses for their students that are taught in American conversational English. While it is an opportunity for the Telugu-speaking students to learn some English and have exposure to a sampling of American culture, the greater learning is achieved by our students who immerse in a very foreign culture, simple, welcoming, and rich in ways that are difficult to describe without the experience of being there.

I am fascinated by the rhythms of life in the village, beginning at dawn when the village is waking when the women and girls emerge to take part in an ancient aesthetic ritual of making what they call “muggu” in Telugu and “kolam” in other parts of the country. The women make designs with crushed rice powder first making a grid of dots and then filling in the design around the dots. The powder slips between their fingers in a controlled stream to accomplish subtly complex designs ranging from recognizable icons, like the mango and lotus leaf, to the more geometrically abstract. This is done at the threshold of each household and business in the village as an auspicious sign, one that expresses care and devotion, and participating in the gestures of each household to the collective village environment. Within minutes of having made these designs they begin to disappear under foot and to be eaten by animals. They are completely ephemeral gestures with no attachment to permanence. No one know the origin or how old this practice is, but for me the muggulu remind me of the diagrams I found in astronomy books of my childhood where the constellations would be drawn from star to star. I like to think these designs are reflections of the night sky.

Shown here are two videos. The first is “evening rush hour” in Kalleda when the herd of buffaloes returns to their homes from the pasture. No one in the village owns more than a couple of buffaloes but they are cared for collectively each day, like buffalo day care. When they return in the evening the herd moves up the road of the village and they individually, without prompting, peel off to return to their homes where they’ll be milked and bedded for the night.

The second video shows women of the village making muggulu on the grounds of the temple of the village.