Ashok R. Kelkar



In art and technology


A NOTION of great antiquity in the West (Latin forma, Grek morphe) form is visible, distant aspect of something such as its shape, size, arrangement of  parts, colour and surface texture as opposed to body, its tactile, proximate aspect such as its weight, feel, and inner texture. This corresponds to the Sanskrit rupa which is opposed to shabda, sparsha, gandha and rasa, the aspects conveyed by the remaining four senses.


            But one could also limit the word form to the visible, linear aspect such as shape, size and arrangement of parts as opposed to colour, light and shade and surface texture—as one does when speaking of dark forms moving in the mist. This use of the word corresponds to the Sanskrit akirit.


            In more  general terms, form may be considered as being opposed to material, substance, matter—as  just the shape, arrangement of parts and structure.  In we speak of akara as opposed to dravya.  When the word is used in this sense, we usually refer to the form of objects made by man or even of activities undertaken by him.


            Finally, one could lump together structure and material as form in the sense of the palpable, actual manifestation as opposed to the function or intent, the energy or spirit underlying the manifestation.  In this context, one would oppose the Sanskrit rupa to ashaya or artha. The underlying function or spirit helps us to understand the outer manifestation, to get hold of the meaning of form. It is at this point that the notion of design comes in.


            The concept of design combines the notion of form (in the fourth sense) with the notion of meaning.  Thus, design in meaningful form.  Here, the Sankrit kalpa is comparable, but not identical.  When an archaeologist comes across a strikingly shaped piece of flint, he wonders whether its shape has come about by accident or—by design.


            A living creature is in constant interaction with its environment.  The survival of an organism, a local population, even a whole species depends on this interaction being harmonious.  Man is no exception.  Plants wait for water or food to come their way, animals seek them, but humans go a step further.  Their survival involves not only their own adaptation to the environment but also the adaptation of the environment to their needs and wants.  Man not only transforms of restructures himself (through the norms of morality and polity) but also transforms or restructures the environment (through technology).  He imposes a design on the objects in the environment if not the whole neighbourhood itself (that’s what design in landscaping and architecture is all about).  Design is thus a meaningful form or ordering purposefully achieved by man in a product or a tool or the immediate environment.


            The design effort selects and shapes raw material to achieve a certain local texture and global structure so that it may fulfill some purpose or function which, in turn, lends meaning to the design.  If one speaks of the design of the snow crystal, a bird’s wing or of a cobweb (which are the outcomes of natural causes), one does so only, at the metaphorical, ‘or as-it-were’ level.   On the other hand, if one speaks of the design of a performance or the text of a piece of architecture or the programming of a piece of communication, the analogies among varied human artifacts and their meaningful forms (designs, text, programming) are much closer.


            Technology is neither a poor relation art nor a poor relation of science.  It is the restructuring of the environment in the course of human adaptation and is related to both art and science through the notion of design.  Indeed, as the industrial metallurgist Cyril Stanely Smith (1975) reminds us, it is more closely related to art than to science—art must somehow involve the selection and manipulation of matter … the technologist, like the artist, must work with many unanalysable complexities… historically the first discoveries of useful materials, machines, or processes… were not done for a perceived practical purpose.  Necessity is not the mother of invention—only of improvement….; it can only exploit what is already known to exist.  Discovery requires aesthetically motivated curiosity, not logic…’.


            On the other hand, early science was often a byproduct of technology (as geometry, alchemy).  Pure science works hard to arrive at, in Descartes’ classic phrase, clear and distinct ideas into which the scientist hopes to translate his initial image and hunches.  Applied science begins with the formulae and seeks to translate them into practical algorithms so that they ‘work’. technology is not all applied science.  Most of the technology prior to the industries Revolution was rather in the nature of craft---of applied art if you like.


            One cannot be very happy with the use of the words pure and applied in relation to art and science.  The traditional distinction between art and science (Latin ars scientia, Greek tekhne, episteme) is somewhat reminiscent of the traditional Indian distinction between shilpa, kala on the hand and vidya, shastra on the other.  Like kala art tends to draw upon judgement based on intuition and continued familiarity with a certain segment of experience and skill based on imitation of accepted models and improvisation based on  a certain conception of the end product.  It emphasises a grasp of the specific and concrete and a readiness t depart from nature, Science, like Shastra, tends to draw upon judgement based on reasoning form relatively explicit assumptions and skill based on rules and their internalization.  It emphasizes a reaching forward to the generic and abstract and a readiness to yield to nature.



            The distinction between pure and applied goes back to the times when the Romans divided the arts into beautiful and useful and the Victorians divided the sciences into pure are applied.  So we end up with (Pure) Art, Applied Art (Practical Art or Art Technology), (Pure) Science, and Applied Science (Practical Science or Science Technology).  The notion of design is applicable in all four of these contexts.  Respective examples are: the composition of a painting or a photograph, the ground-plan and elevation of a temple, the model serving a scientific theory, machine design.


            Certain factors condition or even constrain the achievement of design, the design effort that goes into this achievement, and the design decisions that shape both the achievement and the effort.  The achievement of design consists in the marrying of material and content.  Success in design depends on this marriage both at the local level (the texture of the outcome) and at the global level (the structure of the outcome).  One could equally consider the composition of a painting or the designing of a typewriter form this angle.


            The design effort may consists in creating a mental map, an actual map, a template or a prototype.  (The prototype of a painting is called a sketch, a study, or even a cartoon.)  Production effort picks up where design effort leaves off.  But of course the two levels of effort may overlap in time.  Fabrication and manufacture are distinct processes, but merge into each other.


            Design decisions are needed for coping with problems (through solving them bypassing them, or preventing them form arising), for meeting constraints and even exploiting them, and for exercising freedom.  The designer need not be designing for himself; he may be designing for a client.  The freedom may thus be exercised jointly by the client and the designer.  This freedom is maximal in pure art but minimal in practical science.


            There are three factors that condition design achievement, effort, and decision: the available means (material), the envisaged ends (content), and the diverse modes of relating the two.  When we think of the means, we have in mind natural resources, capital goods, and human resources, capital goods, and human resources (language, know-how health, skills, labour).  We have to consider their  quality  their availability and cost; and the available and feasible know how  relating to them.  When we think of the ends, we have in view the fact that the designed end-product serves a purpose, performs some function, has meaning.  These may relate to environmental and social needs, public needs and demands, personality and culture needs an demands, utilities and (as in war and crime) desired disutilities.  The ends may become operative through the market, the patron, or the community goal.


            Finally, there are the three related but distinct modes of relating the two: the technical, the aesthetic, and the managerial.  The technical mode consists in the minimax ratio between cost and benefit.  Technical improvement is improvement in power, range, and precision.  One may draw upon not only the prevailing technology (primitive, pre-industrial as the case may be) in the field but also the technology in neighbouring fields (from navigation to aviation) or animal behaviour (the aircraft designer A.V. Roe’s study of the seagulls).


            The aesthetic mode has to do with the exercise of  freedom, with finding he’s own way between the ends and the means, with the client’s taste and the designer’s style.  In functional art (design arts like architecture, landscaping, city planning, textile design, garment design, the design of machine-made products calligraphy) as in pure art, the relative dominance of material and content may vary.  For example, in decorative design material dominates content; in functional design, content dominates material., while in expressive design, the two are balanced.


            The managerial mode concerns questions like, given so many variables and constants, who calls the tune and takes the risks?  Is it the designer, the client, or the middle-man?  Who designs for whom?  Thus, an advertisement or an exhibit may be buyer-oriented or seller-oriented.


            India has a rich tradition in the arts, including the design an recreation arts.  And yet, contemporary India is a rich breeding ground of vulgarity.  But before we unravel this irony in the cultural context, we have first to understand the anatomy of vulgarity.


            A judgement that some human act or its result or its author is vulgar used to be a wholly social judgement.  To have said that something is vulgar was to say that something is vulgar was to say that this is just the sort of thing that offends me about what to me are the lower classes of my society.  Then the word vulgar was extended to acts perpetrated by the speaker’s peers or even his superiors as a reproach: this is just the sort of thing that reminds me about the offensive aspects of what to me are the lower classes of my society.  From this it took only a step to speak of something as being intrinsically vulgar, as being typical of lower classes in an ideal society so to say.  The author of the judgement presupposes a contrast between his own refined aesthetic-ethical sensibility and his subject’s coarse one.  What started as a social judgement within a close-knit community with shared values and known stations in life ended up as an aesthetic-ethical judgement within a loose-knit public with values as open questions and a stress on knowing what one likes’!


            In a traditional society to be vulgar is to lapse below one’s station or the Sanskrit gramaya, or to presume above one’s station.  In an open society to be vulgar is not to be sure about the right thing to do and misreading the available clues.  Both senses of the word vulgar survive till today.



Typically, a vulgar performance is oversalient or overemphatic, over explicit rather than moderately explicit or implicit or even tacit, something that inverts the natural order of things (as when a recent Indian advertisement assured the buyer that their silk looks just like nylon or a young housewife in a Marathi short story describes the riot of colours in a sunset sky as glorious technicoulour), something that falls short of the profundity of the passion or the insight through oversimplifying or over mystifying (as does a good deal of instant religion or instant philosophy or popularized mythology), or something that borrows from a genuinely witty or profound performance only to misapply it (an intellectual or spiritual malapropism so to say—most cliches fall in this category).


The onlooker may come to recognize different sources of vulgarity: pretentious vulgarity (as when a social climber with misplaced confidence in his ability to pass off as refined moves the onlooker to laughter or pitying laughter—the Germans call it kit ch); brazen vulgarity (as when a diffident social climber hopes that the shortfall is not serious and that nobody will notice it and so moves the onlooker to pity or laughing pity; and then there is the upper class fellow trying to pass off as robust without possessing what it takes).  When there is no disharmony between intention and performance, then of course the onlooker sees no vulgarity—only gracefulness or earthiness, as the case may be, which is often accompanied by a certain insouciance or a certain confidence.


Contemporary India offers plenty of examples of pretensions, brazen, and nervous vulgarity in the design arts (textile design is a notable oasis in this aesthetic desert) and the entertainment or recreative arts. This vulgarity can be traced to certain cultural ironies which facilitate the process of vulgarization.


(1)  the designers of consumer products, popular decoration, and popular entertainment who think that they can manipulate and exploit popular taste but themselves become victims of their  own uncertain taste which hovers uneasily between the middlebrow and the lowbrow (for example, between films with a social or patriotic message and grade-B masala films);


(2)        the ‘folk’ reject folk art in favour of the lowbrow and the lowbrow and the middle classes indiscriminately find virtue and wholesome robustness in folk art without examining each individual piece on its merits;


(3)        the middle classes often flaunt their refinement but merely succeed in exhibiting genteel vulgarity;


(4)        the highbrows often embrace the imported middlebrow to emphasise their refinement and end up being  tourists in their refinement and end up being tourists in their own country, often affecting their ‘discovery’ of the Indian tradition (Ravi Shankar! How cute!) and often treating as refined what is deemed to be coarse in the West (fashionable Indians making a delicacy out of fast food).


Aristotle defined the ludicrous as that which is ugly without being painful.  There is a good deal around us of which it is difficult to say whether it is ludicrously ugly or painfully ugly or just plain ugly.


A visiting Westerner one said that India has a few first-class mathematicians, but no mathematics to speak of. A visiting non-resident Indian once said that Indians consume mathematics, but don’t make mathematics.  Between them, the two visitors have covered a good deal that is wrong with pure science and science-based technology in contemporary India.  If a good deal of our technology deserves the jibe ‘screwdriver technology’, a good deal of our science too is screwdriver science. If increasingly brazen vulgarity is the besetting sin of design in contemporary Indian pure and functional science.


What is missing is design effort.  Production effort picks up where design effort leaves of, but production effort cannot replace design effort. But that is precisely what contemporary Indian scientists and science-based technologist appear to be trying to get away with.  Heuristic, improvisatory creativity cannot be replaced by algorithmic, rule-bound productivity—at any level.


The excuse that the run-of-the-mill scientists and technologists cannot aspire to creativity will not hold good. It is not only given to a Jagadish Chandra Bose or a Vishveshvarayya to be creative.  It is also given to any professional to be creative at his own level.  Otherwise there is no essential difference between an engineer and a mechanic, a physician and a paramedic, a professional and a tradesman.  At the same time there is an essential affinity between a creative genius and the person with no more than a spark of creative imagination and intellect.  A spark may be a spark, but it is also fire.  If one realizes suddenly that one has creativity, be it only a spark, one certainly does not shout about it from the house tops.  However, one should accept this realization without panic.  One mustn’t say, how could unworthy me possess such a gift?  Rather, one should guard with one’s life what little one has.


            Society, in its turn, must accept its debt to creativity.  The history of mankind reveals that this fact is slowly drawning upon different societies.  The all too common mistrust of the gifted individual who is often eccentric, nonconformist, arrogant and modest by turns is being replaced by a distant respect for him, a forgiving acceptance of his folbes, a shrewd sense that creativity is good investment.


            The present woeful situation I India (one has only to recall here what the  Nobel prize winner. Dr Khurana had to endure before he left India for good) can no doubt be attributed in part to the dependent status of your economy and to the short-sightedness of the Indian businessman.  But only in part.  There are deeper cultural and social factors that one must address one self to:


The authoritarian tradition of medieval India which frowned upon innovation, which fostered a deep mistrust and jealously of the gifted nonconformist (the dharma hastra distrust of scientific astronomy and medicine, for example), and which facilitated intellectual slavery of the West (treating modern science like shastras—to be memorized and stored away and regurgitated if occasion demands);


 The  linguistic schism between the Sanskrit-knowing pandit and the rest (later replaced by the schism between the English-knowing babu and the  rest—which served the vital educational link between one’s mother tongue and the everyday realities it embodies and abstract and innovative thought contained in the other tongue, which hampered the flow of insights and even information between the two segments of society, and which encouraged the linguistic elite to be intellectually lazy and arrogant with no real professional pride or tradition (both the pandit/babu and the unlearned were the losers—our ‘indigenous technology’ had to be discovered for us by others);


 The borrowed schism between the two cultures in education and in intellectual life generally—which has made the scientist and technologist oblivious of the aesthetic and humane component of his essential activity, oblivious of the vital need of linguistic and communicative competence for the ‘making’ of new science and technology and for its dissemination to the initiated as well as the general public, and oblivious of the larger social context of his activity;


 The excessive dominance of the managerial mode over the aesthetic mode over the aesthetic and the technical mode in marrying material and content in scientific and technological design effort which resulted in the tyranny of the administrative babu in our educational, industrial, and research  establishments and in what has aptly been called the tyranny of the ‘small decision’, of putting a premium on the short-range, the expedient, the stop-gap (thus, when it comes to consumer goods, attractive product exterior, skilful packaging, and enticing advertising persuades people to buy things they don’t need or can’t use in order to impress people who don’t care).


Vulgarity and derivativeness—certainly not a pretty picture, not even a ludicrously ugly picture of design in art and in technology in contemporary India.  But it is hoped that the analysis of the underlying factors presented here provides enough of a base to begin finding a way out.  Whether we could also restructure ourselves enough so as to muster the necessary moral and political will to actually adopt this way when it is identified is another question.




Huxley, Aldous, Vulgarity in literature, London, Chatto and Windus, 1930,  pp.2-3


            Kelkar, Ashok R., Art as education, New Quest, no. 43, Jan-Feb 1984;


            Exorcizing technology, Indian Horizons, New Delhi, JCCR, 1989.


            Sampath, S., Man-machine symbiosis: Key to a viable future, Journal of the Institute of Engineers (India) 34;12 Bulletin Supplement, June 1985.


Smith, Cyril Staley, On art, invention, and technology (1975).  Reprinted in his: A Search for structure: Selected essays on science, art and history, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 1981, pp.325-31.




            This was published in Design and Aesthetic members of Seminar no.356 April 1989.