by Clare Byrne
Some 60 years ago, Ahmedabad was the nerve centre of the Indian
freedom movement; now its the textile capital of India and showpiece
of Indo-Islamic architecture. Concordias 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 Sharmans strong social
conscience. The fact that the bed is completely biodegradable spoke also
to her ecological awareness. Likewise, Concordias Department of
Design Art places particular emphasis on ecological design.
Indian designers share that awareness, as India becomes increasingly
Manufacturers are telling designers to make everything last a generation,
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.
Sharmans 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, shes no stranger to cosmopolitanism.
Its important for students from different ethnic backgrounds to
study their culture, she concluded. Its a way of getting students
back to their origins.