There are numerous iconic photographs taken by Patel chronicling the visual syntax of the street economy across India, journeys to the Kumbh Mela and Varanasi, and aerial views of vibrant dyed textiles drying in the sun along the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad (1961), the latter made after meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson (the river is now leaner and choked by an embankment and dense road infrastructure). Of particular relevance here is Patel’s photographic documentation of Mithila painting and artists from Madhubani, made for the Calico Museum collection between 1958 and 1981. This visual record captures the generational transformation of Mithila painting, an art form deeply enmeshed in the region’s way of life, set within a flood-prone terrain. In association with NID’s approach to “craft documentation”—which from a critical position may also be viewed as assuming an at times extractive mode in the designer-artisan equation—Patel’s was not simply an archival impulse capturing the artist-craftsperson in isolation but, rather, an attempt to survey the socio-economic struggles and spiritual-cosmological system tying the community to the Madhubani landscape.
Another significant contribution made by Patel was the Rural Design School, established at Sewapuri, near Varanasi, between 1984 and 1991.8 After resigning from the NID in 1980, he introduced a range of facilities and products to the Sewapuri studios, designed to accommodate local low-tech conditions while still producing high quality goods, ranging from ceramics to leather ware, woodwork, stone and naturally dyed textiles. Combining artisanal techniques with a contemporary design sensibility, Patel’s leadership as an educator shone through in this initiative. He remained equally concerned with the economic viability of the school’s production output, keeping an eye on sustainability, output quality and the market chains that connected rural producers to the urban centers where their goods were sold. He helped to establish an intergenerational workshop teaching format to ensure that processes of mentorship were established as a communitarian process within Saghan Kshetra Vikas Samiti, a Gandhian integrated rural development project. After almost eight successful years, in which the school was able to prove it could succeed as an alternative development model, the experiment began to suffer reverses due to internal politics and caste tensions within the village and was finally abandoned, coinciding with the closure of the SKVS itself.9
The cultural critic Sadanand Menon, a close associate of Patel’s, has noted: “In later years, Dashrath also developed a significant critique of ‘styling’ over ‘design.’ He used to say that while, generally, the emphasis in the design process has to be on public ‘need,’ its economic capacity, effective deliverance, infrastructural sustenance and flexible production methods, designers had failed to comprehend this.”10 Similarly, Singanapalli Balaram and other NID faculty members such as M.P. Ranjan also attempted to address the failures of industrial design at the level of economic welfare and equitable development through experimental models meant to provide intelligent and efficient design products that could potentially address the gap between India’s prevalent cottage industry models and industrial mass-production. (It was not necessarily the case that Balaram, Patel and Ranjan were fully in concord with each other's methodology regarding the question of handicraft vis-a-vis industrial production, but each was able to make a unique contribution to the NID at different phases of the school’s history, with varying degrees of success in realizing their production models internally and externally.) In The Barefoot Designer: Design as Service to Rural People (1998), Balaram notes, “The second and even more serious concern, which should be the concern of every conscientious designer, is urbanisation of design. Design has remained essentially an urban activity everywhere. The attempts of urban Indian designers to design village products such as the bullock-cart or the sickle have been largely unsuccessful. The reason simply is that they were alienated solutions within the same land.”
In introductory remarks to The Robbery of the Soil, Rabindranath Tagore presented a prognostic critique of private property and the bourgeois class. While given his social background this assessment can also be construed as self-analysis, the text also conflates Tagore’s vision for Sriniketan with his larger political commitment as one of the leading intellectuals of the intermingled histories that make up Pan-Asian modernity.
“Civilisation was supported by strong pillars of property, and wealth gave opportunity to the fortunate for self-sacrifice. But, with the rise of the standard of living, property changes its aspect. It shuts the gate of hospitality which is the best means of social communication. Its owners display their wealth in an extravagance which is self-centered. This creates envy and irreconcilable class division. In other words property becomes anti-social.”11
Rabindranath Tagore visited the Netherlands in 1920. Paying a visit to the colonial institute in Amsterdam, he stood amidst its vast cultural holdings and was moved at the sight of the temple ruins of Java and ceremonial artifacts of the archipelago, held there as “museal” objects. Tagore had never before directly encountered these ornate, sacred architectural forms from East Asia, and he lamented how they had become alienated from the civilizational grounds where they were first created and held a particular social function. This visit convinced him that he should not delay further a trip to the archipelagos of South East Asia. He began establishing contacts in the region in the hope of arranging hosts and intermediaries for the different legs of his proposed journey. He eventually embarked on this seminal voyage in 1927, which included a comprehensive tour and lectures throughout Thailand, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Penang, Sumatra, Java and Bali. It remains an emblematic chapter in his effort to build an integrated Pan-Asian approach to learning on the rural campus.