Nikhil Joshi: the Multi – Modal Narrative

There is not a form of media which can aptly describe a reality of difference. One of the qualities of being human is the assumption that we know much more than we do; that all things can somehow fit into the framework of our culturally-biased reasoning and imagination. Although, if you consistently draw comparisons between cultures in order to give meaning to an experience, you will likely miss the underlying condition and the essential communication. This experience can be a frustrating mastication of ineffective words, which circle meaning, and never arrive. However, from this ambiguity, unassuming is the palate which can distinguish these flavors of humanity. Language is much more than words. But, that is why we have art.

Presently, the term Post-Digital is floating around the air. The basic effect of this term, is that the novelty of technology is wearing off, leaving us to (re)define that which has meaning. So then, what is an effective means of communication within this expansive domain of media and even greater domain of meaning? In this context, India is interesting because it is a culture that has transformed radically within the last thirty years. Because of this rapid change, you are able to find a range of technologies juxtaposed. Part of this transformation includes a flow of western media containing messages of morality, ethics, trash films and unchallenged ideology. However, another part brings innovation, media production, design, and aesthetics. Academic programs and interactive design and production in India are still infantile, without any hint of design epistemology. But, perhaps starting with a ‘clean slate’ is a timely advantage in the post-digital era?

I recently spoke with Nikhil Joshi, who is an artist working with technology and founding partner of Digital Jalebi. As a designer he is progressive and questioning, as an artist, sensitive to the evolution technology presents to the broader spectrum of the mass of culture called India. I asked about how culture has influenced his education and development with technology.

One can be overwhelmed by the brilliance and expertise available to an Indian design student. I studied at the National Institute of Design for 3 years. NID is a mixed bag of crafts inspired by design practices and technological innovation. Most of the courses find their way in the crafts found all across India, from glass work and jewelry design to toy design. Some famous crafts are the glass work of Ferozabad, wooden toys of Chennapatna [e.g. Maya OrganicKaveri Crafts], and braiding from Karanataka. The education process starts with inspiration from these artists and craftsmen, then moves toward contemporary design practices. Including, considerations for mass production, usability, and brand reflection.

Another factor which has detracted from the emergence of a particular contemporary style, is the lack of documentation of regional arts and crafts. NID has been trying to document and share works from different parts of the country for last 50 years, to make them available to the next breed of designers.Otherwise, this lack of documentation, backed by a culture of not-documenting-things, makes it very difficult for a style to grow and develop, so it is a blow to the the entire idea of opensource, as well as, research practices.


Traditional Rajastani KawadTechnology can’t be separated from culture, anyone’s culture, I think this is a pre-requisite for selling that technology to people. But, you have provided some examples of how technology is changing concepts in art and design, do you perceive a dilemma or paradox at work? Between your reality and the ideals propagated by the media, be they foreign or domestic?


This contrast doesn’t really effect most of us who have lived and studied in cities, with a  high western impact. Our schools and academics have had a heavy western influence, and like us, most of the post-80′s artists from cities are a result of Indian acceptance of digitization and technological advancements. We have seen TV sets go from a single channel to 1000+ channels.

Although, there is a heavy conflict when it comes to accepting technology as an expressive medium. Particularly from more experienced artists from the more under-privileged parts of India. Someone has correctly said, “It is very hard to unlearn”. With the opening of western markets for Indian artists and craftsmen, there is an exposure for them to understand uniqueness as a fundamental need, but the entire design world from India is so new to the western markets, that it will still take another 15-20 years for them to strive for competitive uniqueness among themselves.

Cross-culturally, the narrative is essential to all. It seems that many artists (analog or digital) in India reference traditional art forms. Are culturally established forms of the narrative particularly relevant to evolving artistic disciplines which use technology? And, what, if any, consequence does this have on an individual’s identity?

If you look at an art school in the U.S., uniqueness has a relation with being the best. If you want to be the best, you need to be unique and spectacular to that effect. That is, how people judge you and that is how you judge yourself. I think this is linked with a core belief that is a basic level in western society; you have only one life. You you have only one life, so you have to be the best now!

By contrast, culture in India accepts the idea of many life’s or Janams; you have seven lifetimes. This aspect is something which is deeply rooted in us, spiritually and/or culturally. It is reflected in the arts and crafts all across India. They make things that are relevant to their culture, and they are likely to produce the exact same work throughout their entire life.
Technology today does help a lot in exploring ways towards creating more multi-modal experiences. So, the potential is not being fully realized, yet. But, narratives are very important to India. I think they are important to everyone, everywhere because any piece of information is contextualized by events. The cultural context creates patterns people can recognize and learn from. For instance, I was reading Ramayan the other day, where the Ram says, “Humans want to judge everything in good or bad, pleasure or pain, profit and loss.” People create meaning out of narratives to form culture, and that forms their perception of the world.
When considering contemporary design, the idea of interactivity or an ‘experience’ is superficial in India. When I say superficial, that actually is not a question about the skill or the output but their intention of how much they want you to be a participant in the system. Most of the artifacts coming out of the interactive design process access fewer human senses then are possible. The point I am try to make here, is art or design was never meant to be multi-modal in nature. It is as if these designers never thought of the ways they would invite people to participate, as well as, the ways in which they could broaden and enhance their experience. Technology has played a major role in empowering artists/designer with tools to achieve multi-modality. I think multi-modality would just allow you to experience objects or events in more ways then just a singular way.

I don’t know if I would agree that art was never meant to be multi-modal, but by making a comparison of superficial work, you must know of examples in which the relationship between viewer and artifact is multi-modal? Work which the designer or artist approach the viewer as a participant?
This is the biggest difference I see in our approach today as new media artists; looking back at what people have already done or have mastered. Different artists in different domains are now trying to experiment with media and attach more senses to their creations. I think one of the best examples is the work of Nina Sabnani. She presents a very interesting way of telling stories that includes different sensory input. She narrates stories using a tangible art form where you flip open a structure with various faces and use it to tell stories: Kawad Storytelling Tradition. So, when you start putting music, texture, visuals all together in an interactive format, you are really expanding the playground for your viewers.
Nikhil and Digital Jalebi have recently been working on a project for the Kathputli Colony in Shadipur, Delhi, which involves the relocation of a community of artists and artisans in the wake of gentrification. Likely to disenfranchise families that have worked for generations as performers, the project gives expression to the residents’ hopes in realizing the colony’s potential by focusing the viewer’s attention on what they have to offer, now.
by Michael Dotolo (De Fenestrated)
Michael Dotolo (a.k.a. Defenestrated) is a contributing writer to LatusCreativity, a multimedia artist, and educator who has lived and worked in Europe and Asia. He currently lives in New York and continues to produce technology-based art forms.
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