CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

October 24, 2002 Sharman takes methodology of material culture to India



A Hindu deathbed

Photo by Lydia Sharman

by Clare Byrne

Some 60 years ago, Ahmedabad was the nerve centre of the Indian freedom movement; now it’s the textile capital of India and showpiece of Indo-Islamic architecture. Concordia’s Lydia Sharman, now an adjunct professor of design art, spent seven days there in December teaching Indian design students about the metholodology of material culture.

Material culture is based on the history and narrative of products, Sharman explained. Every product tells a different story. Part of her mandate from the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad was to assist 52 students, all graduates in different branches of design – industrial, furniture, clothing and lifestyle – to “read” the objects around them for their cultural significance.

Each student had to choose an object that was important to him or her in some way and relate its story to the class. “It was a window into their culture,” Professor Sharman said. The students, whether Muslim, Hindu or Christian, in a country often torn by religious tensions, all shared an underlying Indian culture.

The Hindu deathbed was one of the objects examined by the students. Built entirely of bamboo, it takes the form of a ladder when it is stacked. Death, then, is portrayed as a stairway to another world. Hindus of all castes are cremated in a five-hour ceremony on a deathbed as a reminder, Sharman said, that “in death, everyone is equal.” For Muslims, too, the deathbed is significant. Muslims make the ladders and tend the cremation, work considered unclean by Hindus.

The symbolism of the deathbed appealed to Sharman’s strong social conscience. The fact that the bed is completely biodegradable spoke also to her ecological awareness. Likewise, Concordia’s Department of Design Art places particular emphasis on ecological design.

Indian designers share that awareness, as India becomes increasingly industrialized.

“Manufacturers are telling designers to make everything last a generation,” she said.

The emphasis on durability in India contrasts with what she calls the planned obsolescence of products in the Western world. Our obsession with having the latest version of things makes us consume more and generate more waste. India is anxious to avoid these pitfalls of the consumer culture.

Sharman’s area of specialization, Islamic geometric design, particularly interested her counterparts in Ahmedabad. She studied Islamic architecture extensively as part of her PhD at the Royal College of Art in London, and continues to write and carry out research on the topic.

“A lot of cultures have a rich tradition of pattern and ornament,” she said, “particularly cultures with a strong artisan tradition.”

Morocco and India are two such cultures, and the geometry upon which the tradition of Moroccan zillij mosaics is developed is found in ornaments in the Indian subcontinent, she said.
To further investigate the similarities in patterns across cultures, she has launched a project to develop a “shape grammar” software.
The project is funded by Hexagram, an independent institute established by Concordia and UQAM to fund research in fine arts and new media.

When completed, the software will be able to analyze Islamic geometric designs, and categorize the elements. This would allow artists to develop new works based on the elements. It would also help curators in establishing the origins of artefacts.

Sharman acknowledged that Islamic design study promotes integration and understanding in mixed-culture environments. Having taught in London and New York before Montreal, she’s no stranger to cosmopolitanism.

It’s important for students from different ethnic backgrounds to study their culture, she concluded. “It’s a way of getting students back to their origins.”