Celebrating India's innovative spirit through design

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Celebrating India's innovative spirit through design
Divya Thakur sits at a table she designed at her home in Mumbai, India, Nov. 19, 2009. Thakur, founder of the 21-year-old boutique shop Design Temple, and more recently the nonprofit Museum of Design, has conducted a long-running crusade to gain recognition and respect for India’s visual design tradition. Michael Rubenstein/The New York Times.

by Perry Garfinkel

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Divya Thakur was six years old when she won her first design award as a student at St. Kabir Public School in Chandigarh, India, where her father, an Indian army major, was stationed. She won a hand-embroidered towel set from the sponsor, Camlin, a crayon manufacturer.

“Even back then,” she said in a Skype interview last month, “I knew I would do something in the creative area with my life.”

Now 49, Thakur is the founder of Design Temple, a 21-year-old multifaceted boutique design shop in Mumbai, India. Since that first prize, she has collected dozens more, most recently a Devi Award in 2017, in a long-running crusade to gain recognition and respect for India’s visual design tradition.

“For centuries the intellectual, artistic and spiritual capital of India has been plucked, exploited and plundered, with barely a line of credit,” she said. “So widely unacknowledged is India’s contribution to design that modern Indians continue to look to the West for inspiration, rarely realizing that during times of emotional and spiritual bankruptcy, the West looked to India.”

She founded the nonprofit Museum of Design Excellence last October, she said, “to right these wrongs.”

Her work spans a wide range of areas: movie titles for two Mira Nair-directed films (“The Namesake” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”); spatial design for major brands (including Asian Paints and the Taj Hotels); book design (“Lights, Camera, Masala,” by Naman Ramachandran, a Gold Medal winner at the New York Festival in 2007); home accessories; and even restaurant menus (for Indigo in Mumbai in 1999).

“What impresses me most about Divya is that she’s so polyhedric,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator and director of research and development at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The two met at a dinner party Thakur threw, one of many she regularly hosts.

The defining characteristic of her design work is in how she reduces often intricate and complex classic Indian patterns and images, many with esoteric references, to clean and simple lines that evoke their origins.

In 2004, she curated her first exhibition, “India Indigenous,” at Loggia dei Mercanti, an ancient marketplace in Milan, celebrating her country’s innovations in the fields of product, graphics and fashion. Since then she has produced exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Stockholm’s Millesgarden and throughout India.

Her 2016 installation, “Design: The India Story,” at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum) in Mumbai, traced the history of Indian design through everyday objects — appliances, kitchenware, chairs. It attracted about 250,000 visitors.

Now — in an idea that time has caught up to, with museums shut because of the coronavirus pandemic — Thakur has partnered the Museum of Design Excellence with Google Arts & Culture, a platform that lets viewers experience high-resolution 360-degree images and videos of artworks and artifacts from cultures around the world.

Thakur’s India content includes a history of seating, giving chairs spiritual and cultural context; an account of the German-originated Bauhaus Movement’s influence on India; and, in a lesser-known turn, the contribution of Indian spiritual philosophy to the ideas of Bauhaus stalwarts like Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

The Bauhaus online pages have gained popular traction because the movement has contemporary resonance, said Amit Sood, senior global director of Google Arts & Culture.

“It’s easy to drop Bauhaus into cocktail party conversation, but Divya helps viewers go deeper to understand the philosophy of multiculturalism, simplicity and pleasure,” he said.

Thakur comes from several generations of successful professionals with traditional values. Her paternal grandfather was a prominent lawyer in Bihar. Her maternal grandfather was a physician who helped establish the Bihar branch of the Indian Red Cross Society. Her father, Umesh Chandra Thakur, was a civil engineer with the army and then worked for several leading Indian hotel brands. Her mother, Prema Thakur, also now retired, was a teacher and school principal.

As her parents moved among military posts, Thakur attended the elite Welham Girls’ School in Uttarakhand. “We thought we were the height of cool,” she said, adding she remains close with several classmates.

Her career began inauspiciously. Fresh out of the Sir JJ Institute of Applied Art in Mumbai in 1992, Thakur joined Trikaya Grey as a self-described “ad agency flunky.”

At the time, Indian design was still finding its way. The establishment in 1961 of the National Institute of Design marked the beginning of design as a serious discipline in India, according to Pheroza J. Godrej, an art historian, curator and chairwoman of the Godrej Archives Council.

“That was when India started to develop design sensibilities, looking westward for inspiration,” she said. “Until then, we had been looking at design through crafts and local indigenous manufacturers.”

Thakur rose quickly to art director at Trikaya Grey and then at another agency but after seven years came to regard agency work as limiting.

Established in 1999, Design Temple rapidly developed an A-list of clients, then branched out to home accessories, furniture and other creative endeavors. Thakur owned a design gallery from 2010 to 2017 as an experimental collaborative retail and educational space for designers and others.

She did one promotional video for Marriott International Hotels, on Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer Fort. Her fashion sensibility earned her a Verve Best Dressed accolade in 2016. In it, she summarizes her definition of style as “a thoughtful integration of your inner and outer self.”

Her home, a two-level fifth-floor walk-up diagonally behind the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in southern Mumbai, is itself a museum exhibition. Art and sculptures representing various countries and eras line most available walls and shelves. (And her 110-pound French mastiff, Trooper, trails her all over her home and vets anyone who invades the space.)

Thakur’s self-portrait, a modernist triptych titled “Head Study,” suggests that there is a lot else going on under her characteristically upbeat ebullience.

“My house is very much an expression of me,” she said on a recent virtual tour during a nationwide lockdown over the coronavirus. The apartment — which also houses the offices of Design Temple and was featured in The New York Times 11 years ago — serves as a fitting backdrop for her dinner parties, where she likes to surround herself with interesting people.

“I love to entertain,” she said.

On one recent evening, Thakur wove seamlessly from one cluster of guests to another, her robust laugh identifying where she was at any given moment.

“She is one of the great conveners but the least networking person around,” said Anand Giridharadas, author of books like “Winners Take All” and host of Vice TV’s “Seat at the Table,” who has been to several of Thakur’s dinners.

“To my mind,” he said, “she is a feminist icon representing a progressive future for India, valiantly resisting the global whitewashing” of its cultural identity.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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