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A tribute to the design wizard

Toys designed by Ranjan for Rocky Toys.  

Born in Madras in 1950, M.P. Ranjan grew up surrounded by toys and furniture made at Modern Agencies, his father’s factory. Design remained the singular passion for this design guru, who passed away last week. ‘Probably the most prominent design educator from India, he himself always remained a keen student with childlike curiosity. A true polymath, he straddled many spheres; from grassroots handicrafts to high-tech processing, from policy issues to design pedagogy of the future, and much more.’ — this was senior designer Sargarmoy Paul’s tribute to Ranjan.

Ranjan joined the National Institute of Design (NID) in 1969. He studied furniture design and started teaching soon after completing the programme. From 1974 to 1975, he was totally involved in designing toys at his father’s factory in Madras and he successfully launched the Mini-Wheeler series at their shop, Rocky Toys. Ranjan’s adventures with toy making tuned his sensitivity towards craft, as seen in his trips to Channapatna, and this was a catalysing force in his long tryst bridging handicraft and design.

In 1977, fellow designer Aditi Shirali’s craft documentation work in North East India, enthused Ranjan and he also took this up in 1978, backed by the NID. Aditi and Ranjan married in 1981.

Ranjan was deeply fascinated with the design story. Design for him was about evolution and he experimented with bamboo for 40 years. “It has taken many years of experimentation, field investigations and failures, to understand the numerous linkages that are needed to make things work. Design is an investment and not an item of expenditure,” wrote Ranjan.

As the head for bamboo initiatives at NID till 2010, Ranjan’s programmes in the North East empowered artisans to make products with new tools, jigs, techniques and computers. He visualised dismountable furniture for easy transportation. He looked at bamboo plantations for their fantastic ability to rejuvenate in six to ten years. At Katlamara, Ranjan zeroed in on Kanakais, a type of bamboo that was used for fishing rods and boat propelling, for making mass-produced furniture. Tripura Bamboo Mission commissioned NID for a project, Chalo Katlamara, in 2007-08, and Ranjan designed the Katlamara chair and distributed full-scale drawings free of cost to artisans who loved working with bamboo.

A prolific thinker and writer, Ranjan published over 300 papers online. Along with Ghanshyam Pandya and Nilam Iyer, he wrote Bamboo and Cane Crafts of North East India, and it was published in 1986 by the NID. He co-authored Handmade in India along with Aditi Ranjan, for which they were awarded the Kamala Samman in 2014. This dedicated designer couple brought to light the possibilities of continuing India’s long and unique journey with craft that was haphazardly interrupted by complex factors of colonisation, policies, technology, globalisation, and aspiring lifestyles.

Ranjan was instrumental in the inception of IICD in Jaipur and BCDI (Bamboo and Cane Development Institute) in Agartala. At the NID and later at Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University (CEPT), he was highly popular for his classes on Design Process (DP), which enunciated tools and methods towards rational and meaningful outcomes in design and strategic thinking.

A man who kept abreast of technology, Ranjan always reinforced the importance of working with our hands, not just relying on computers. He never wore a watch, refused to buy a mobile phone and never drove a car.

With his wand of bamboo he was zapping out a larger scheme, one that would energise ‘all the 230 sectors of our economy’ by design.

He was looking for design not just to yield single point solutions but in creating eco-systems that were self-sustaining: To give occupations, to provide good and affordable furniture, growing back bamboo again and again.

The writer is a city-based writer and visualiser. She studied furniture design at NID and is graduate of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 6:29:00 AM |

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