Obituary: H.Y. Sharada Prasad (Sharadaji)

Chatterjee, Ashoke


Sharadaji’s fascination with design probably began as a youth surrounded by the crafts of Mysore. Yet his command of design flowered most when as a journalist and editor, he developed an unfailing eye for design that could intelligently convey the word into the mind. Design for Sharadaji was the sanctity of detail. Words, images and letters carefully chosen and laid out, the avoidance of clutter and fuss — all this came naturally to him. Indeed, the absence of clutter and fuss was the mark of this extraordinarily ordinary man. So ordinary that even his sons addressed him as Shouri, something I could never bring myself to do in the 40 years or more that I have lived in awe of Sharadaji’s extra-ordinariness. The idea that less is usually more was not just a design fundamental that Sharadaji instinctively understood. It was the life he lived, and the bond he shared with perhaps the greatest design team of the twentieth century, the late Charles and Ray Eames of Los Angeles, the founding spirits of India’s National Institute of Design.

Sharadiji was among the first to meet the Eames couple when they arrived in New Delhi fifty years ago on an official invitation to survey the situation of small industries, following the First Five Year Plan. They were to advise on what industrial design might do to assist the sector.  Sharadaji later wrote that Jawaharlal Nehru was attracted to Charles Eames in the way he had been attracted to Le Corbusier. Yet the Eames’ India Report, now a classic of world design literature, baffled the Minister of Commerce & Industry. He had expected a feasibility plan. What he got was a reflection on the meaning of quality within Indian tradition, on the cultural and economic decisions that India may need to make in its transition to modernity, and an essay on the lota as the finest example of what design was really all about. The India Report, which led to the founding of NID as the first design institution anywhere in the developing world, may have been quietly shelved in the best New Delhi tradition were it not for the few that understood and were stimulated by it. Among them was Sharadaji. Years later his column in The Asian Age  Sharadaji would recall that encounter, describing Charles Eames as the “visual lyricist of everyday things” with “answers to those who think that beauty and function are separate”.

That lyricism would be a bond that strengthened when Charles and Sharadaji worked together in 1963 with NID’s fledgling team to create Jawaharlal Nehru & His India, a biographical exhibition that toured the world and changed the idiom of exhibition design forever. It was this effort that first brought me in contact with Sharadaji, although I had known of him through our family connections in Bangalore. I had left India to take on a career in Washington DC.  Nirmaljit Singh, a dear friend I shared with Sharadaji and Kamalamma, was our man in New York City. The exhibition had created a sensation when it opened there in 1964. The next year it moved to the Smithsonian in Washington, and I was one of several local expats roped in to assist Eames and the exhibition team. My meeting with the Eames would also be a first encounter with the idea of NID, setting off a fateful chain of events that ten years later would take me to Ahmedabad and to 25 years of service at the Institute. One of the first questions Charles asked me was “Do you know Sharada Prasad? The guy’s a genius, a quiet genius”. It was a description I have recalled many times.

Some years later, I returned to India at the urging of Romesh Thapar to participate in a wonderfully doomed adventure at the ITDC: an attempt to professionalise the public sector through an experiment in tourism. It was Romesh’s idea, encouraged by Indira Gandhi. Sharadaji suggested that the gamble was worth my taking, and not just because his boss had encouraged the idea. The Corporation had a design policy. It would use design in ways that could create an Indian image capable of withstanding what was already the most competitive industry in the world. But then as now, India was like that only. Sharadaji was witness as bureaucrats and entrepreneurs ganged up to ensure that professionals were frustrated and ultimately discarded like squeezed lemons. But not before the ITDC had made lasting demonstrations,   transforming the industry and setting new standards of Indian design, just as Air-India had done in that glorious time with JRD before Ministries kissed its quality to death. In those tumultuous Delhi years, Sharadaji was for me an oasis, a sustaining source of reference, wisdom and hope. I came to know Kamalamma and their sons Sanjeeva and Ravi, and to enter the lives of this sometimes exasperatingly simple family that floated like lilies above the muck of Delhi’s obsession with power and blood. I learned too, as I am sure his family and other friends had, that Sharadaji was incapable of even the smallest act of nepotism. You never went to him for official favours. His way was to point away from petty concerns to larger opportunities. Encouraging every innovation in design that I would bring to him, he was intolerant of excess or of hype. Like his friend Charles Eames, he demanded focus on a central concept, and on an ability to express it as either product or system relevant to an Indian environment. It was in these years that I understood the depth of his knowledge and love of his country and his wonderful hold on the very idea of India.

Sharadaji had encouraged us to involve NID in the tasks of tourism infrastructure. This offered insight into the importance of what was happening in that corner of Ahmedabad. Not just that a significant profession was being ushered into India, but much more than that: a system of higher education was being introduced in which learning was by doing, not by accumulating pass marks or exam certificates.

By 1973 a severe crisis in leadership had caused the National Institute of Design to flounder. Some even suggested that the experiment be wound up. Design still meant little to most. NID’s first graduates had not yet emerged, and the very notion that they would do so with a portfolio of professional work rather than a mark-sheet had already enraged the Ministry of Education. Sharadaji, Pupul Jayakar, Romesh Thapar and Gerson Da Cunha worked tirelessly to ensure that NID not only survive but that its experiment in education be reinforced. That needed a new Director.  Romesh and Sharadaji called me to meet Pupul, who had stepped in as NID’s Chair. With Sharadaji and Romesh at her side, Pupul asked me to take over. They put me on the line to Prof Ravi Matthai. He had already volunteered to keep the NID team together through the storm, having just stepped down as IIMA Director to commence an equally bold experiment in education in the deserts of Rajasthan. Despite dire predictions from all sides, the quality of this team made their appeal irresistible. I left for Ahmedabad the morning after the Emergency was declared.

Through all the 25 years I was to serve NID, Sharadaji was an unwavering support and inspiration — and not only through his sensitivity to education processes, to design, or the cultural resources and networks of talent at his command. He was as interested in improving a machine tool as he was in our work on crafts or typefaces. No need of a student or teacher was too small for his attention, no management puzzle too distracting for his time and thought. The generosity with which he shared his knowledge and friendship ensured that I had the support of the entire NID community when I invited Sharadaji to be NID’s Chair.  That was a fitting destination for a relationship with the Institute that had begun in its studios as he and Eames, and for a time Indira Gandhi, had worked together with the NID community to create that historic tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru. Incapable of talking down or acting the VIP, Sharadaji was approachable to all. His most ardent fans on the campus included our driver and housekeeper. When in the ‘nineties India’s design boom brought prosperity and opportunities unimagined twenty years earlier, Sharadaji shared my concern as the term ‘designer’ moved swiftly from noun to adjective, and notions of fashion overwhelmed those of responsibility and service. Yet we both knew that there were many Indias, and each had its legitimate design needs. Our dialogue on this challenge has lasted, influencing whatever I was still do after NID was left behind me.

Let me end on a personal note. During his time as NID’s Chairman, Sharadaji and Kamalamma met with a hideous car accident while returning to the campus from Modera. There was a long, enforced convalescence in Ahmedabad, and for Kamalamma years of suffering. In all that time, there was never a demand from either one of them, only words of thanks and concern for those they felt they had inconvenienced. Concern again, much earlier when in Ahmedabad I found myself a bachelor father, a single parent in circumstances almost as extraordinary as the original journey to NID. Sharadaji and Kamalamma were among the few who at once welcomed my little son Keshav as family. Their affection protected and strengthened him in ways that both he and I would fully understand much later. When Keshav became a father, he and his wife Prativa insisted that we journey to Delhi so that little Kabir could have the blessing of Sharadaji and Kamala. I don’t think I ever got around to thanking Sharadaji in those early years. I hope I can do so now, through Kamala.

Sharadaji has left us. In the words he used to mourn Malikarjun Mansur’s passing, the river has gone back into the mountain. As in design so in life, less was more for Sharadaji. He made minimal demands on society or on nature, concerned more with replenishment than extraction. This is the ethic for design in the 21st century, and Sharadaji lived it. If his footprint was light, Sharadji’s   conviction was strong that design is ultimately about caring. That is how his friend Charles Eames once described the profession. Sharadaji loved Eames’ unforgettable lines on the lota as India’s symbol of dignity, service and love — all the qualities that finally distinguish great design. As well as great lives, like the one we honour today.

25 September, 2008

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