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Q&A: Incredible India 2.0 and Indigenous Craftsmanship with Ashiesh Shah

Q&A: Incredible India 2.0 and Indigenous Craftsmanship with Ashiesh Shah
Liminal sofa (2019). Courtesy of the designer.

As a spokesperson for the Incredible India 2.0 initiative, launched by the country’s government in 2017, Ashiesh Shah offers a deeper knowledge of India’s rich history in craftsmanship.

Ashiesh Shah’s practice as an architect and designer is rooted in the traditional Japanese aesthetics of wabi-sabi—the appreciation of imperfect, transitory, and incomplete beauty. In 2008, he founded Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design where he balances a portfolio combining art, design, and architecture, and acts as an angel investor and a curator of design exhibitions. Six years later, Forbes India named him as one of the most influential young art collectors in the subcontinent with a style that spans centuries. 

After years of designing custom furniture items for clients, Ashiesh opened a product design atelier in 2017, with product lines ranging from lighting, furniture, and rugs to tiles. In our interview with the designer, we learn more about his work.

Ashiesh Shah: I don’t see art, design, or architecture as different; I see everything as the same platform. I don’t like to be bracketed. I design objects that sit in a contemporary living room but could be something that you will look back at a hundred years from now and still find extremely relevant and meaningful. I think the way we design homes and spaces is fluid. For me, everything comes together as one language that is basic and identifiable. I work bridging the gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’ to make things relevant for many generations.

Ashiesh Shah: For me, Indian mythology, Indian form, and tribal geometry have been great sources of inspiration. I believe in the ruthless, tribal philosophy of design, and want to bring that part of Indian culture into my practice. I also enjoy creating one-off sculptures in collaboration with craftsmen from villages in interior India. As a designer deeply immersed in India’s design landscape, I celebrate the fusion of heritage and modernity. The historical journey of Indian furniture design, rooted in craftsmanship, seamlessly integrates with contemporary aesthetics. I envision the future of architecture as a harmonious synergy between cutting-edge technology and sustainable design principles. Trends shaping the industry include a heightened focus on eco-conscious and resilient architecture driven by climate change concerns.

Portrait of Ashiesh Shah. Courtesy of the designer.
Shantiniketan (2021). Courtesy of the designer.
Carmichael Road Apartment (2009). Courtesy of the designer.

Ashiesh Shah: As an architect deeply immersed in the world of design, the Ajanta and Ellora caves captivate me and hold a special place in my heart due to their unique and unparalleled construction technique. The temples, carved from top to bottom, showcase an extraordinary feat that remains unmatched even in contemporary times. The sheer incredibility lies in the meticulous process of carving downwards, an artistic endeavor that defies conventional methods. My admiration for these masterpieces lies in their ability to transcend centuries, embodying the rich cultural tapestry of India with unparalleled craftsmanship and aesthetic allure.

Ashiesh Shah: Our group created one of the three experiences of the exhibition [curated in line with the Incredible India 2.0 initiative and took place in May 2023]. STAMBH, a word that means ‘pillar’ in Hindi, was an extraordinary exhibition showcasing creative expression in indigenous living craft practices. Crafts found across the globe are the repositories of culture, practices, and knowledge systems; all of them acting as pillars that anchor, uphold, and sustain livelihoods and traditions. The exhibition aimed at connecting individuals to their surroundings through abstract yet rhythmic repetition, symbolizing rootedness and suggesting ascension. 

Guccha lighting (2020) for the STAMBH exhibition. Courtesy of the designer.
Guccha lighting (2020) for the STAMBH exhibition. Courtesy of the designer.

The exhibition highlighted the continuous engagement with over twenty-four craft regions across India, combining traditional artisanship with contemporary expression. The materials used range from metal (iron, aluminum, copper, silver, brass, and bell metal) to stone and minerals (marble, rock crystal, and alabaster), earth (clay and terracotta), wood, coconut, grass, Shola Pith, and rice paper. The exhibition explores various craft traditions – from Channapatna, in Karnataka, to Longpi, in Manipur, Blue Pottery in Rajasthan, and Dhokra in Chhattisgarh. It demonstrated the potential of creating contemporary artworks using traditional craft skills. The observation of forms, the exploration of dynamic and complex materials, and their translation into contemporary functional art opens promising new avenues for the future of craft traditions.

Ashiesh Shah: By designing objects that employ craft techniques, materials, and processes rooted in the region, the exhibition empowers artisans while also promoting ecologically responsible resource management and production practices. This approach leads to greater involvement of families and communities, generating employment opportunities and economic growth. STAMBH aims to inspire meaningful reflection and dialogue on sustainability and cultural preservation, fostering a deeper appreciation for how traditional craft and innovation can create a more equitable and sustainable future.

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