ROOM WITH A POINT OF VIEW
A lotta fuss about lota
By SHAGORIKA EASWAR
Image above: Lota from Desi News Archives. Book image: Chasing Innovation by Lilly Irani, Princeton University Press, US $29.95.
A friend recalls his sister getting a frantic call from her son’s kindergarten teacher. He was refusing to come out of the washroom and kept asking for Lotta.
Who was Lotta, the teacher wanted to know.
Not who, but what, the child’s mother responded, hard put to control her giggles. And not Lotta, but a lota.
A lota, of course, being what many desis call the mug in the washroom they use to wash up.
While not very visible in washrooms in this part of the world, the actual lota is ubiquitous in homes across the subcontinent and something people use to bathe with or take to the fields when they go to attend to the calls of nature.
I remember reading about it in Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher.
But who knew it is viewed as a marvel of design?
In Chasing Innovation, Lilly Irani quotes American designers Ray and Charles Eames from The India Report (1958): “Of course, no one man could have possibly designed the Lota. The number of combinations of factors to be considered get to be astronomical – no one man designed the Lota, but many men over many generations.”
Can entrepreneurs develop a nation, serve the poor, and pursue creative freedom, all while generating economic value?
Irani documents the rise of “entrepreneurial citizenship” in India over the past seventy years, demonstrating how a global ethos of development through design has come to shape state policy, economic investment and the middle class in one of the world’s fastest-growing nations.
She cites a quote attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister: “Creation is the sign of life, not repetition and imitation.”
Nehru was instrumental in setting up the much-lauded Indian Institutes of Technology in the newly independent India.
Drawing on her own professional experience as a Silicon Valley designer and nearly a decade of fieldwork following a Delhi design studio, she vividly chronicles the practices and mindsets that hold up professional design as the answer to the challenges of a country of more than a billion people, most of whom are poor.
Entrepreneurial citizens promise value with social surplus, she writes.
She quotes a host of innovators and thinkers, Arvind Subramanian and Anil Gupta, among them.
Gupta, a professor at IIM-Ahmedabad for many years, has long made the case that “rural Indians have appropriate technologies and traditional knowledge ripe for capitalization”. Gupta and Vandana Shiva, writes Irani, had argued that “innovation, creativity and genius” of the poor ought to recognized as IP.
Later in the book, the example of the cloth-wrapped lota that helps keep water cool and Mitticool, an earthenware “refrigerator” bear this out.
She includes images of old State Bank of India advertisements. One that was released in 1991 celebrated the global Indian.
“The Indian entrepreneur has made the world his backyard – so wherever he lands, his business acumen and skills lead him to success. He overcomes language barriers, the foreign environment and local competition,” reads the text for the ad.
Her time with the young innovators at Delhi’s DevDesign has her interact with those involved in projects to design a latrine poor villagers would actually use; work in teams that are part of a hand-washing project; test water filters; and more.
She explains human-centred design or HCD, as “a form of ethnographically-guided, experimental design practice branded in Silicon Valley” and the Indian concept of jugaad, a clever improvisation. Interestingly, they don’t sound that different from each other!
In describing how Sri Aurobindo articulated a transformation of the nation through swadharma, or virtuous work, how he encouraged one to follow one’s passion, Irani has a lesson for desi parents who tend to point their offspring towards a select few professions..
“ I do not think the Gita would bind down a Vivekanda to support his family and for that to follow dispassionately the law or medicine or journalism. The Gita does not teach the disinterested performance of duties but the following of the divine life.”
The link is clear – follow your passion, chase innovation.