Field Notes:

The Other Book of Things


Sometimes physical things are so familiar to me, so ubiquitous in my surroundings, yet I don't know their purpose, or their provenance. Worse still, I don't know their names.

Sār: The Essence of Indian Design is a book to remedy this. An anthology of Indian objects, everything from the iconic - the Sumeet mixer, the Gandhi topi, sticker bindis to the contemporary - updated classics from designers such as Divya Thakur of Design Temple, Sian Pascale of Young Citizens, Ayush Kasliwal of Anantaya - is on display. 

With 200 items handpicked from all around the country, the book explores and celebrates the way design fits into our lives. With its simple format - a description and an image for each item - and striking visuals, Sār (pronounced saar) allows the reader to appreciate the essence of the object, and it titled aptly for it. A worthy addition to this coffee table found on its pages.

Last year authors Swapnaa Tamhane, an artist and curator; Rashmi Varma, a fashion designer; and photographer Prarthna Singh hit the road together in search of all the best things. We asked them to take us behind the scenes.

- Sheena Dabholkar






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The beginning

Rashmi: Swapnaa and I have been friends for the past 17 years. We’re both invested in arts and design and we always discussed doing a project together.

About five years ago we had just returned from a trip from India. The time was right and we were thinking about all these fabulous objects that we loved. We decided to pick all these quintessential, iconic Indian objects and initially wanted to propose it as a museum exhibition. Two years ago Swapnaa suggested to propose this as a book. She had worked at Phaidon about ten years ago on a compendium of design and so we pitched our idea to Phaidon and the publisher Emilia Terragni loved it and immediately said yes.

Swapnaa: We basically spent a year and a half working on the book, compiling all the content, we went back and forth with the editors quite a lot about what we wanted to include and decided no graphics nor objects that are religious icons. So while we love Jagannath idols for example, we did not want to include them in a ‘design’ context.

Rashmi: Prarthna and I met each other in 2011. I was here for a few months. We worked on a creative project together and even though that didn’t work out as expected we had a chance to get to know each other.

Prarthna: I loved Rashmi’s clothes the moment I saw them, we shot her look book together last year.

Rashmi: We needed to commission one amazing photographer for the book. Prarthna was on our list, she had just done a Wallpaper Mumbai travel guide for Phaidon. Most importantly, Prarthna has this aesthetic sensibility that lead to a very harmonious three way collaboration.




The verbs

Swapnaa: In terms of organizing all this content, we were still trying to find a good way to come up with the categorisation of the whole thing

Rashmi: In terms of categories it was like are we going to do this by material or use.

Our original list was about 300 objects but we cut it down to about 250 and the book has about 200. And it’s not an exhaustive list of everything in India we all know there’s many many more things. But it’s a broad spectrum of what we love.

Swapnaa: The categories are organised by use and the actions related to how you encounter some of these objects. Like how do you use a sindoor box, so we put it under Vishwas which is believing. Or what do a pani puri cart and hawai chappals share? They share the street, the outdoors, the idea of coming and going - therefore they are in the Aana Jaana chapter.

Rashmi: We have used verbs related to the everyday. They are very colloquial, a lot of people will very easily understand what they mean.

Swapnaa: We wanted to educate the west about what these colloquial words really are and instead use Hindi first instead of prioritizing English.

Rashmi: We wanted the book to be pan-Indian and we thought of using different languages around the country but we had to simplify. Language is always a difficult thing to pick.


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The visual language

Prarthna: When I got this project, I was really excited about it. I had never done anything like it before and it was a challenge.

For my photography in general, I have this idea of keeping things quite simple. Basing them in reality but maybe romancing that reality a little bit.

With these objects, they were so beautiful, I wanted the backgrounds to just give you hints, than having those cliched images from India. I didn’t want the images to be loud, I wanted to let the objects speak for themselves. The backdrops tell you a little bit - the Kolhapuri chappals are on a carpet on somebody’s house. Or where the Maruti is placed, you can tell it’s on a street and it has a lot of life around it but it doesn’t have the typical imagery with the temples and colour. Definitely pared it down a little, kept it silent with the objects at the centre of attention.

We did a few objects quite graphically like the dish rack. I had this idea that we need to isolate this one object. And for instance, the Iyengar blocks. A lot of stuff is just shot really simply on a black or white backdrop but even those break the colour of the other images. So it’s a little bit a bit of a breather.

Swapnaa: We also all really had the same vision which was to give an idea of India without that same typical imagery of India that is always being shown – kitschy, gaudy, with an ethnographic lens. We wanted to have something that was very quiet. I think, that’s a side of india that when you live there, you start to understand what those spaces are like, how objects sit in rooms, how they have their own presence.

Rashmi: We had this discussion with Phaidon. That India visually has a gaze on it that’s very orientalist which just keeps getting repeated and recycled. We wanted to portray something new that’s also very relevant. That crazy loud india is also very real but then there’s also the quiet moments.

Swapnaa: Isolating the object in all that noise and seeing it for what it is – size, shape, colour, form, function..

Rashmi: ..material. But like Prarthna said, there’s enough texture and feel and context of its use within the images.

Swapnaa: What’s also nice is that you never see a pani puri cart without anybody behind it, or customers around it. It’s so satisfying to see that kind of shape. It was also really fun. Prarthna just going over to the pani puri wala and asking him to push his cart across the street against that beautiful green background in Bandra and then asking him to move out of the way.




The people we encountered

Rashmi: We met historians, collectors, not just random people but people who were really well versed or have a passion

Swapnaa: One of our favourite meetings was with Mr MP Ranjan at NID quite early. This was in Ahmedabad in 2014. You know, he was curious about our project but then he was hesitant about how we would do it and very sort of questionable about it. That was a really important meeting.

Also Jyotindra Jain at Sanskriti was very helpful. We talked to Divia Patel at the V&A very early on, and Dr. Deepali Dewan at ROM in Toronto. We’ve been having these conversations with these amazing experts around the world for quite a long time. They all had questions for us because this is a mammoth task of contextualising or unifying all these seemingly disparate objects.

Rashmi: Even with our families. Calling them up and asking them ‘What is this called? Where do you get this? Give me the story behind it.’ Those people who use it everyday that knew what we were doing.

Swapnaa: Rashmi’s cousin sent her this beautiful sindoor box. When we were moving it while photographing it, we didn’t realise it was full of sindoor, so that’s how that really nice photograph happened.

Rashmi: What about my police inspector deputy in Bhubaneshwar? She sent out two police officers to various villages in Orissa to find the cow dung toys for us. People did all kinds of things just to help us out that way.

Prarthna: We harassed a few people I think along our way. We needed to.

We chased a guy down in Srinagar because we wanted to shoot his Maruti 800. We were in a little Alto and were like ‘gaadi bhagao iske peeche’. The truly amazing bit was that he was more than happy to let us take the picture, he patiently stood out in the rain while we parked his car on the opposite side of the road so I could get my shot.

Rashmi: Even the guy with the Royal Enfield we found in Srinagar. He was a shop owner and he said to our assistant, ‘Sure just take the motorcycle, ride it around the corner and photograph it.’

Or the man who invited us into his house and his wife had just come out of a coma and we were all chatting away drinking tea. So many people were so welcoming. We did knock on many stranger’s doors. They were a little bit like ‘Ok whats going on here?’ but they let us come into their space, move things around, photograph it and leave.

Swapnaa: When we said we were looking for a namda rug, his gentleman Mr. Vakil – whose wife had just risen from a coma three days before – was like ‘let me show you a namda rug’ and then he pulled out this beautiful 70-year-old one.

That was amazing. The discovery that things we wanted to photograph were hidden away in these people’s houses. I think doing a book like this in India leads to so many surprises, and so many encounters that you can only have in this country.

Prarthna: People were really proud of a lot of things. They wanted to show it off. Swapnaa, like the tailor with the Bajaj scooter in Bandra. He was like ‘Ya my scooter’s amazing. I’ve never had to get it serviced for these many years.’ He was really happy that we were photographing it because he was like ‘I love my scooter’.

Swapnaa: Even the rickshawalla with this brand new super shiny rickshaw.

Rashmi: Especially if it’s their livelihood or it’s an item that they use everyday. They use it to get to work. There’s this connection and stories they have attached to it. To share that with people is fun. The opposite is that people sometimes are like you wana shoot that? Why?

Prarthna: There were enough people who were like ‘Why are these girls tripping out on this milk canisters?'




The experience

Rashmi: It was a bit of a scavenger hunt. You want to find the best examples of these objects and you know you can’t travel the entire country looking for it. You’re working out of a few cities, you’re trying to see the best ones. Sometimes some things looked really good in person but doesn’t photograph well or vice versa.

Prarthna: Some objects we got multiple images of. Because we were like ‘Oh his is great’, but later we were like ‘We got a better example of it. Let’s do it again.’ We kept building our database of objects. You guys added a few right along the way because you were like 'This is so beautiful. We should have it in there.' It was an ongoing process.

Swapnaa: All of us were keeping our eye out for things. Prarthna, sometimes you found something you liked, or an environment you liked, and you would make that photograph happen.

Prarthna: Always walk around with, always carry around at least 15 objects in your bag at all times so you can shoot them everywhere you go. (Laughs) Oh amazing light. Amazing wall. Oh this house. Let’s go into it.

Swapnaa: We’d be carrying various utensils with us just trying to find the right location for them.

Do you guys think that we had an easier time because we were three women?

Rashmi: Yes.        No.

Prarthna: We got our way into homes and lots of people served us tea, and they made us cake and sandwiches. They were really nice to us.

Swapnaa: That part is interesting, getting into people’s homes was very easy. But then again Prarthna you had a tough time with these so-called photo assistants.

Prarthna: We had our share of ups-and-downs especially dealing with men in India. Assistants and generally just being surrounded by groups of men who have nothing better to do who just want to watch the tamasha. And once you have a camera it’s like something exciting, ‘Shooting chal raha hai, shooting!’ Then when you start shooting the object they’re like ‘What? This balti?’ That maybe deterred some people.





The highlights

Rashmi: The heat. We shot this book in fucking 45 degrees and in fucking torrential rain. So we were passing out half the time, well not fainting but having to take a lot of breaks. Actually it wasn’t funny at the time. Swap was better.

Swapnaa’s Hindi was quite entertaining.  

Swapnaa: (Chuckles.) Guys my Hindi is not that bad okay.

Prarthna: Her Marathi is better, let’s just say that.

Rashmi: She’s fluent in Marathi. It was the heat. That’s why we went to Srinagar for a few days.

Swapnaa: What about the food! That one paratha at that dhaba that morning.

Prarthna: We went to Kashmir for a meal and finally on day 3 did we manage to have that wazwan.  

Oh my god, what about our amazing Kashmirloom experience, that ended up in all of us buying pashmina shawls. I really loved watching how they wash the shawls in the Jhelum. That was amazing.

Rashmi: Meeting people from all walks of life.

Swapnaa: This is the amazing thing about design though. There is no hierarchy of economics.

With your basic kitchen, your basic dish rack. It doesn’t matter if you’re super wealthy or you live in a village, you might have the same stainless steel dishes, you might have the same utensils, you might have the same chimti, or tawa. That’s what makes it so amazing. The democracy of it.



Sar is available online at Phaidon and Amazon India.