Welcome to my thesis compendium. My name is Romik Bose Mitra, and I’m currently a first year grad-student at Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence, Rhode Island. Thank you for taking the time to look through this document! Through the course of this essay, I will look to outline my journey, both in graphic design and (briefly) otherwise; the progression of my work; questions that I am going to look to answer during the rest of my time at RISD; and finally, just an in-depth log of what I have been thinking about recently, and why.I was born in Gainesville, Florida. I then flew to India with my parents, well before my first birthday; and was brought up and educated in New Delhi.
Here are a few notes to help you navigate this document:
- Underlined words in italics are my ‘crucial terms’ and will link to a google document (still to come) that houses a list of my crucial terms. (work in progress)
- Text highlighted in yellow is to denote that it was an important part of my process in building my practice. Clicking on any of them will take you to my process log. [also linked here]
- Blue text in italics is to mark a reference to a project and an artist’s style, or a quote from a book, interview, or article.
- Text highlighted in blue is to mark my own projects. [HOVER OVER THE TEXT TO SEE A PREVIEW OF MY WORK, AND CLICK TO SEE MORE ABOUT THE PROJECT]
- Red text is to denote research questions that are important to my practice.
On August 4, 1994,
my American Passport expired. My parents applied for an Indian Passport - which was granted to me - even though the Indian Government does not recognize dual citizenship.
On March 21, 2000,
I applied for an F-1 student visa, at the American Embassy in New Delhi, to travel to the US and pursue an MFA at RISD.
On July 28, 2019,
on intuition, I called the embassy and explained this sequence of events.
On July 29, 2019,
I was told that I am an American citizen, and that I was illegally holding Indian citizenship for the past 7 years.
On August 1, 2019,
The Indian Government decided to remove Article 370 from the Constitution, and put the State of Kashmir on lockdown. This lockdown continues even now as I write this.
On August 3, 2019,
I got my Passport cancelled, and surrendered my Indian citizenship. It was also my 25th birthday.
On August 4, 2019,
Less than two weeks later, I packed up as much of my life as I could fit into a suitcase, and left India, my home, never to return as a citizen ever again. I ‘returned home’ to the United States of America - for only the second time ever - and as I walked sailed past Immigration in the ‘US Passport Holders’ line at JFK, a very tired looking airport employee didn’t even bother to look up at me as he murmured, “welcome home, sir”.
The move was a life changing one on many fronts - my work began to look at nationality, identity, and belonging; stemming from one broad question - what does it mean to be told that one is no longer an Indian citizen? Have I ever associated my identity with an official document? Why have I always taken my citizenship for granted? I began to understand that the reason I found all of this so hard to comprehend is quite simply, my immense privilege. I have never had to think twice about nationality or official paperwork unless it was for a holiday - and that, in essence, is where a majority of my recent work stems from. I have attempted to answer the questions I listed above through the course of my time here at RISD so far, but the truth is that I am nowhere close to finding the answers.
As I currently sit here at my desk writing, (notably, at 5 in the morning in early April, I have no clue what day of the week it is, and refuse to put in any effort to find out) I am at an interesting (read: incredibly odd) period of time in my life. I feel like I have lived through an entire year in the past couple of months - I went from a tremendous ‘high’ point ~working towards an mfa here at risd~ to perhaps one of the most terrifying, frustrating, and depressing low points~the repercussions and realities of the Covid19 pandemic that we are currently attempting to navigate our way through. As of now, my mind stands divided between two opposing desires - the desire to continue my education in design, and achieve what I came here to accomplish; and the innate need to rest my mind as I try to reconcile with current events and the circumstances we all find ourselves dealing with today. The global pandemic that has swept into our lives is an unprecedented calamity that is highlighting so much of what I have been circling over with my work for the past five years - issues of citizenship and belonging, the severe disparity within different classes of society, governments working selfishly and tirelessly for themselves and to satisfy their own vested interests, and finally, the media’s inability to remain unbiased and free of any prior allegiances - and yet I have found it challenging, to say the least, to find the motivation to continue building my practice during these trying times. To understand all of this, however, I must explain a little bit of where I come from; and that is where I would like to begin.
I was born into a family of academics and politicians. Even though neither of my parents were ever inclined to get into politics, my family has a very rich history of producing politicians and leaders that have had great impact on the Indian political climate at various intersections. I grew up with this information festering in the back of my mind somewhere, and therefore began to develop curiosity towards political frameworks, representation, and notions of power and control.
In my first year of high school, I came across an eminent Indian political satirist called RK Laxman. Laxman was a cartoonist and a thinker - an icon in the Indian art world. His now famous character ‘the common man’ was first published in 1951, in The Time of India, and continued to appear in the newspaper’s comic section every day for the next 64 years right up until the artist’s tragic death. He highlighted issues ranging from the treatment of minorities and their rights, to the Government’s handling of taxpayer money, and was never afraid to pick a fight through his often scathing representations of powerful people. Laxman was the first artist I absolutely idolized. I lived and breathed his work, and began to see how politics doesn’t need to be limited to policy and the seedy underbelly of bribes, goons, and false promises falling on deaf ears. Here, for the first time, I saw a satirical representation of a serious thought - a simplification, if you will. A complex ideology broken down into small bite size pieces that even the most uninformed reader could somehow comprehend easily. My interest in art and representation only grew from there - I studied art in highschool, and eventually started a four year undergrad in Communication Design in a college in Bangalore, in the South of India.
Art school initially threw me straight in the deep end - we studied everything from iconic painters to modern designers in a couple of years, while simultaneously attempting to keep up with and perfect various industry standard skill based lessons. I wanted to explore the world and make beautiful things. So I did. For a while. Until I began to realize that the weight of the borderline dystopian present that I found myself in was too much to ignore.
I was thinking about too many things, but at the same time, I was making things about nothing. Then the Indian elections of 2014 took place, the new Government came in, and my world, along with the fate of an entire Nation, changed almost overnight.
The current ruling political party in India (the Bharatiya Janta Party, or BJP), won the Indian elections in 2014, which then prompted the next 6 years (and counting) of tyranny, racism, and what can only be described as inhuman policies resulting in a nation that has now devolved into an intolerant, violent state, that is now unsafe space for a large part of its own population. As much as I was always deeply affected by the terrible incidents and happenings that went on in my country, I only started to include these ideas and thoughts into my art practice slowly after the shift in the Government. My thesis (or degree) project that served as the culmination of my undergraduate degree, was my first large scale foray into making work that served as a statement - work that had a voice, and spoke volumes without me ever having to say a word.
I came across two installations that changed the way that I looked at my own practice - Cornelia Parker’s ‘Cold Dark Matter’; and Damian Ortega's 'Cosmic Thing'. Parker’s installation showed me that there is beauty, and an enormous amount to learn from something that might be seemingly destroyed. She used dynamite to blow up a tool shed, and subsequently re-arranged the exploded pieces to make this incredible piece. Ortega’s piece shows a disassembled Volkswagen Beetle, suspended from wires in mid-air in the manner of a mechanic’s instruction manual. The piece is meant to give the viewer a different perspective of the incredibly popular car which was first developed in Nazi Germany, and later produced en masse in Mexico. Through his work, Ortega discusses how regional culture affects commodity consumption. He began his career as a political cartoonist (much like Laxman, one of my initial influences) and his art has the intellectual rigor and sense of playfulness that I then confirmed that I had been craving for my own practice. Being exposed to these two incredibly inspiring pieces, I conceptualized, and later brought to life my first (and so far only) installation that I titled . The installation explored the Government’s complete control of a majority of the Indian population using various News channels. I have since incorporated a lot of political opinions and statements into my work - more recently through projects that look to archive present day events via various methods of recording contemporary history.
I worked for a very wide range of clients between 2016 and 2019 - I had just entered the job market after my undergraduate degree, and I was still very much shaping my graphic design practice at the time. At this point of time I realized that in order to sustain the kind of pseudo-political practice I was beginning to embark on, I would have to make sure that I also developed a ‘commercial’ graphic design practice alongside it. I was fortunate enough to get to work under an incredible mentor in Prasun Mazumdar (pmdindia.com) for three years - during which I worked towards building my portfolio as a brand identity designer. I worked on branding projects for a couple of schools, an interior decoration firm, a few corporate advisory firms; made illustrated patterns to be printed on fridges for Samsung; and eventually got to lead a small team of designers that worked on projects for Unesco’s Delhi office. Though I had drifted away from what I had initially considered to be the main focus of my practice - using graphic design to amplify voices, narrate incidents, and make sure pertinent information doesn’t get lost in time by documenting the world we live in - I found something that I seemed to be naturally comfortable with. Brand identity design thus became a pillar in my practice that will always serve as a potential source of income to fund the other ‘side’ of my practice that may not always be financially viable independently. helped me find my way back to my initial goals, and eventually, to apply to some MFA programs that seemed like they would be ideal to take my practice forward.
I spent a bulk of the second half of 2018 and the first half of 2019 on my applications. As I mentioned at the beginning of this winding essay, I then spent July and August running between banks, embassies and passport offices - in a roller coaster of fast-changing developments that suddenly, within the blink of an eye, saw me get accepted into the course I wanted, get the scholarship I needed, manage to successfully navigate the State Bank of India to loan out the rest of the money, apply for my student visa, get rejected on the grounds that I was already a citizen of the USA, apply for a new American passport, surrender my Indian passport, realize that my loan is no longer valid because I am no longer an Indian citizen, apply for a Federal loan from the American Government, acquire an Exit Permit to get out of the country, pack my entire life into a suitcase, successfully acquire the student loan I applied for through FAFSA, fly to the US, settle down in a new house with a roommate I met on a Facebook group, and begin with my first class at RISD - all within 5 weeks. That almost felt exhausting to type out.
After the initial shock of having made this enormous series of decisions began to wear off, I gradually managed to begin to apply myself to my work. I had to battle with a truck-load of self doubt for the first few months - what am I doing here? Do I belong here? Have I made a gigantic wrong decision that will eventually come back to bite me? The only reason I managed to (sort of) successfully navigate my way through that period of time was to make work about it. Most of my work at RISD so far has been to further my own understanding of the concepts and areas I’d like to tackle with my work. These questions were born out of a genuine need for answers - they address concepts and concerns that are crucial to me - both in terms of my art and design practice, and otherwise. What does it mean for someone to belong to a place or a country? What politics play a part in the concept of belonging? I find myself constantly questioning the relationship between the notion of belonging - a concept so deeply rooted in emotional experiences with people and other customs and practices - and power. Where (and why) do power dynamics play such a large role in a person’s identity? A question that eventually led to my researching the relationship between design and power. Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk are two designers that have had an incredible impact on my design journey so far. Speaking about their brand identity work for Sealand, documented in their now iconic “Uncorporate Identity”, Daniel said, “ Design can create usefulness and reach ubiquity through network effects – it thus very actively constitutes the world and in that sense it is very powerful. Individual designers don’t necessarily have power. But they have agency and they can choose what it is they want to do, with whom to work with and form alliances. Not just in terms of defending their political views but also their rights. Designers can do things that have an effect on power.” Reading about their work and watching the interviews in which they talk about their outlook changed the way that I was looking at my practice. I began to be extremely aware of the consequences of every move - and the way in which this can potentially affect power dynamics. In my first semester here, I made a website (in the form of a Wiki) titled the State of Kashmir in India had just gone into a severe lockdown (which meant locking borders and shutting down the internet and phone lines). The region went into a very dangerous politically charged ‘curfew’ during which many muslims were on the run as they were being hunted down by the authorities - the website included multiple methods of communication during a high-surveillance lockdown like the one in Kashmir, including a system of glyphs that I designed based on the iconic ‘hobocode’ (developed by the Hobo community, first seen more than fifty years ago) - for people on the run to communicate with each other in a safe and secure manner.
In order to begin working on projects like the Wiki I made, I had to first deal with an ever growing internal struggle - what does it mean to be told that I am no longer an Indian citizen?
One of the first few projects that I worked on here is Atlas - a collaborative project that culminated in a publication that had sixteen-page contributions from each of the twelve of us in class.The aim of the project was to answer the questions “who am I?” and “where am I?”; which seemed like almost impossibly perfect questions for me to attempt to answer at the time. My eight spreads were about my journey and the various ridiculous steps and obstacles I faced on the way - when I applied for a new American passport at the US embassy in New Delhi, the process went very smoothly. Except for one small task that they had for me - since I had not renewed my passport for twenty five years, (and since I apparently didn’t resemble this photograph that is on my first passport closely enough anymore), I was to show them “photographic evidence via a progression of images” that would “trace my journey” from looking like the infant that I was, to the way that I now look. I was to find not one, but two photographs for every year that had passed between when my first passport was issued to me, and present day - ie., every year that I have lived so far. This led to a mammoth scramble that involved digging up old photo albums from decades ago, calling up relatives to ask them for photographs, scanning old identification cards from school; and somehow, amidst much laughter and joy and some tears, I managed to put together the folder. Many of the photographs uncovered during this time became a part of my Atlas pages, nested amongst many other similarly odd and yet somehow significant experiences.
One of the things that I found myself focusing on through the course of the first semester was the language we use to communicate with people that are close to us - more specifically, focusing on and analyzing conversations that I would have with my mother, halfway across the world in India, and finding patterns and repetitive habits within them. ‘I’m Okay’ is the result of a short week long prompt where I tried to answer the question “do we use codes today? If we do, then how?” The project involved my making a set of glyphs that would hypothetically replace the ‘o’ in the phrase when I type it in a conversation with my mother. Each glyph in the set of eight represented a different ‘honest’ state of mind - “I’m not feeling well today but I’m choosing not to tell you because I know you have a lot on your mind and I don’t want you to stress over something you can’t do anything about.” - for example. It was during this project that I started paying very close attention to ‘voice’ as a concept - the difference that a few words and the way they are said can make, and the language we turn to in an urgent state - when we may not have time to think about what we are saying. I find myself re-visiting this area of interest often.
Though 2019 was an incredibly impactful year in my life personally, it was significantly more impactful on a broader, country-wide and international scale. On August 3, the Government of India revoked the special status, or limited autonomy, granted under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution to Jammu and Kashmir—a region administered by India as a state, and a part of the larger region of Kashmir, which has been the subject of dispute among India, Pakistan, and China since 1947.
Among the Indian government actions accompanying the revocation was the cutting off of communication lines in the Kashmir Valley, a region gripped by a prolonged separatist insurgency. No internet. No phone lines. Limited journalists. A statewide curfew. And it is Still. On. Today.
At this point I had been reading the writings of Josef Albers for a few weeks, and had started to think in detail about the ethics of design. “I've handled colour as a man should behave. You may conclude that I consider ethics and aesthetics as one.” I began to understand the responsibility in every single choice or decision that I make as an artist, and the impact that this has on a viewer.
Continuing with my new found method of working my way through real life stressors by making work about them; I made a back in September - at a point when nobody could have imagined that the Indian Government would somehow manage to continue this inhumane lockdown for more than seven months. The Government persisted through till December, amidst protests and calls for action from all over the world (including multiple statements from the United Nations), and finally ended the incessant focus on Kashmir by dropping another gigantic policy-bomb on the Indian people - in December, the Government announced plans for two seemingly independent (but in truth, dangerously entangled moves - the CAA, or the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the NRC or National Register of Citizens. A clearer and more detailed explanation of both bills can be found here, but here’s my short summary: the NRC asks every Indian citizen to prove that they are not illegal immigrants by providing a birth certificate - a document that an alarmingly large amount of the Indian population does not have. The CAA, however, provides citizenship to most of the people that would be left without proof by the NRC - and I say most, because it explicitly leaves out muslims. The two part move was the culmination of a larger scheme that had been in the works for many decades in India. A significant part of our current Government is made up of former felons and wanted murderers - and what’s even worse is that they won their second term in office in early 2019 - by a larger majority than their first term.
There is always going to be an endless amount that I can write about the ongoing events in India and why they shouldn’t be happening - and it took me a while to go from just writing about it to making something that is inspired by, or more accurately born out of the injustice and my very strong emotional ties to the victims and the anger that I have for those in power. I spent a majority of our winter break hearing about protest breaking out all across the country - with liberal arts institutions at the center of all of the dissent. My irritation at not being able to be there, combined with my fear for loved ones that work or study at some of these institutions left me in an extremely agitated state most of the time. I found myself feeling annoyed and helpless, and spent the entire break in this agitated, worked up state of mind.
Winter break finally ended, and Wintersession began - I had thankfully chosen to enroll in an Open Research course with Ryan Waller (Other Means); in which I was to propose a project that I wanted to work on, and complete it in a month under Ryan’s guidance. I say thankfully, because I was in no position to even think about anything else - which automatically removed the possibility of making work about anything else. If I was going to be doing anything even remotely productive - it would have to be about India and the student uprising. Ryan agreed.
My idea was to make a flyer (the idea was originally an entire zine but Ryan very aptly asked me to revise that idea, and I eventually landed on a two-sided flyer print) that would look to inform people about the two bills that were about to be passed. I contacted a bunch of people I know at various schools across America, and had quite a few of them ready to receive the print files, print them out, and leave them in a few public areas on campus for people to pick up. I worked on the flyer concept for a week before I decided that I wanted to make more of a statement with the project I do. Alan Fletcher said “Don’t adjust your mind, just maybe walk around once in a while,” and I have never looked at any issue the same way again. I didn’t think any less of the importance of getting the information out, but I also realized that there were better platforms to do that through - and so, I shifted focus. Or perhaps I should say I zoomed in and narrowed down the area of focus. One of the most pertinent and alarming facts about the Government sanctioned violence that continues to take place in the country even now, is how blatantly they have targeted students and institutions where free speech and policy are taught. My mother is a Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, an institution that has been the main target of all the state sanctioned violence that the capital has seen so far - and so I get constant live updates about the various heinous and often unbelievable actions undertaken by this Government - even though almost all of these actions are hidden from the country by the news and print media, most of which they control.
Irit Rogoff, in her piece ‘Turning’, writes “At a conference I attended, Jaad Isaac, a Palestinian geographer, produced transportation maps of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank that had an almost mind-blowing clarity to them. It made me think of what gargantuan energies had to be put into turning the evil chaos of that occupation into the crystalline clarity of those maps—energies that were needed in order to invent Palestine. In their pristine clarity, the maps performed a challenge to the expenditure of energies as a response to an awful situation. If education can release our energies from what needs to be opposed to what can be imagined, or at least perform some kind of negotiation of that, then perhaps we have an education that is more.” I chose to include this lengthy quote because I think it brilliantly sums up the space that I find my design practice gravitating towards. What is the power of information? How does a simple design move shift power dynamics and help highlight something in an entirely new light?
There is always arguably ‘too much going on’ in the world at any given point of time. Our current circumstances, however, are perhaps the epitome of said statement. I believe it’s safe to say that there are very few people whose lives have been left untouched and unaffected by the pandemic we are navigating through one day at a time - which leads to an interesting thought - this is the first time in a very long time that essentially the whole world is collectively living through an experience. We are all, at varied levels, having to adapt to the suffering, disruption, and displacement caused by the spread of Covid19. Why is this significant? Does this mean that we have finally found a reason and platform to unite together and unionize for the sake of efficiency and on a broader scale, humanity? No. After all, as Le Guin put it perfectly, “If we have anything to learn from politicians, it’s that details don’t matter.” I don’t think that it is reasonable to believe that the world we live in today will be instigated into cooperation at any cost. However, I do believe that this will lead to a collective understanding. An acknowledgement of having lived through this strange period of time in our lives. And most importantly, a need to look back upon how and what we did - right and wrong and everything else in between. This is where the crux of my interest currently stems from. Contemporary history is a classification for the study of any event or period that occurred during the historian’s lifetime. I further narrowed my understanding of the concept to focus on recording things as they happen. Not only in the way a journalist might, but to filter, collect, highlight, amongst many other actions, the events, and curate them into a medium or moment in which they can then live on forever.
January 2020 was a month full of violence, fear, and tremendous nation-wide uproar in India. A couple of weeks after the Government announced their divisive policy plans, they began to systematically target and annihilate any form of opposition no matter how big or small. The situation took an extremely personal turn for me on January 5 - when one of the country’s largest liberal arts schools, JNU, was attacked by members of a far-right organization called the RSS. My mother, who is a professor at JNU, was flying back to Delhi at the time and so, miraculously missed the brutal attack on her institution. “They beat up a few of my colleagues and yes I would definitely have been there if I were in town!” she casually told me on the phone later that day. I understood then that I could not possibly be the only person stuck far away from a loved one in India, worried about the state of educated liberal men and women that refuse to blindly conform to the fascist state we are inching towards. Working alongside my friend and fellow Delhi-ite Arnav Adhikari, who is currently a PhD candidate at Brown’s English Department, I planned a semi-large scale event in Providence to gather like-minded people and give them an outlet for their frustration and fear, while providing a platform for open discourse about the state of the nation, to share a meal, and to listen to some beautiful music together. We worked tirelessly to make the idea for the event a reality - I got to brand the event, in a way, to appeal to the sponsors we hoped to get (and eventually succeeded in getting), to appeal to the musician we were hoping to convince to perform at the event, and of course, to get the word out and get the crowd we were expecting to show up. We secured a beautiful space - Marcus Berger’s Repair Atelier; successfully procured a substantial amount of funding from Brown University’s Center for Contemporary South Asia; managed to get Ankur Tewari, and award winning Indian singer-songwriter that had been performing at various protest rallies in the country, to perform at the event; and most importantly had a line-up of absolutely incredible contemporary thinkers that were going to give informal ten minute talks from the perspective of their areas of expertise - including Nora Khan, Vazira Zamindar from Brown, and Rohit De from Yale. Organizing the event was a culmination of a number of external factors - to begin with, it was an immediate urgent reaction to everything that was happening in the country at the time. Indians all over the world were organizing to show their support and I felt the urge to do my part to battle the reality of being a million miles away when I should really be on the streets facing the tear gas with all of my loved ones. Beyond just an urgent response, it was also an exercise in curating, organizing, and gathering - to capture that moment in time so it could be remembered when we look back at 2020. I reached out to more than 35 artists from all over the world that had been making artwork in response to the protests and the government’s handling of them - received responses from essentially all of them, and managed to curate a mini gallery of some beautiful and extremely powerful work.
Devastatingly, , as we had named our event, was cancelled five days before it was to become a reality - due to the coronavirus outbreak. We called off the event in compliance with the CDC guidelines that were being announced publicly at the time. It took me quite a while to get over the initial disappointment generated by the cancellation. I had put all of my energy into it, and hadn’t realized just how important the event had become to my mental health and well being - to feel like I had a purpose and was working towards something meaningful had really been the driving force for me for four or five weeks prior to then. However, as the reality of this pandemic set in and it became more and more evident that this was a very serious situation, I calmed myself and gradually got to a point where I was able to look back and analyze what we had achieved. We were expecting approximately 200 people at the event, and had countless people writing to us telling us just how much they needed a space like the one we were looking to create. My posters made for the event were being shared well beyond my own personal circles, and I was amazed by the number of people we had managed to connect to in such a small span of time.
Meanwhile, I had been continuing with spring semester classes, which meant that I was back to attempting to tackle broad politically motivated questions of identity and representation. Hito Steyerl, in her book Duty Free Art, says that “Political representation in a liberal democracy is gained mainly by participation in the electoral process. This requires citizenship. True political representation is thus inadequate in a majority of democracies across the globe.” - This brought me to a question that I have thought about very frequently over the past year - what is the difference between citizenship and belonging? A prompt from my Grad Studio class led to my interest in the role of artefacts and experiences in the concept of belonging, and their blatant misrepresentation in official documentation and paperwork. While talking to a friend of my roommate’s who had come over for dinner, we began discussing how homesick we had gotten during the winter break, and how she (Ava), like me, was unable to return to her home country of Brazil while her friends and family back home were living through an extremely violent and unsafe time in the country’s history. She had to cancel her trip home because of some issues she had been having with her F-1 visa here - she was afraid that she wouldn’t be let back into the country if she chose to leave. We both commented briefly on the ridiculousness of a system that disregards individuals and treats the masses as one broad group - and then were interrupted by my roommate who was wondering if we would like to lighten up the mood - and so we did. A few days later, I was working on my concept for a new prompt given to us in Studio, and I remembered the conversation I had. I was circling around the idea that even though I had been made to give up my Indian Citizenship, I still considered myself to be Indian - more specifically, what does it mean to belong to a country or a place? What does it mean to be told that one no longer belongs? Is that even something that can be done? I decided to continue my conversation with Ava, and in doing so we discovered something rather significant - both of us based our feelings of belonging on similar things - objects, interactions, and experiences. Objects ranging from a sour candy that is locally available in the small town she grew up in, to the coca-cola rip-off brand Thums Up that I grew up drinking in Delhi became the centerpoint of our discussion. At the same time, I happened to be re-reading one of my favourite books - The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk - in which the protagonist acquires his forbidden lover’s childhood home and in it creates a museum of objects and artefacts that outlined and defined their ever-suffering relationship. “Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space”, writes Pamuk, as he beautifully displays the power of an object. The power to hold countless memories and evoke a never ending series of emotions. My project, , looked to explore this aspect from a different standpoint. “What makes you feel like you belong to your country?” I asked, in a google form that I circulated to a wide range of people to begin the project. “Your answer could span from an object (a candy you grew up eating, or a street food you cannot imagine living without, etc.), an activity (a dance form, a traditional practice, a festival, etc.), people (your family, friends, etc.), memories of a particular space (a monument, public park, holiday destination, etc.), to anything else you might think of that makes you feel like you belong to your country/countries of nationality, including your passport, or other official documents.” - a note that I included underneath the main question. I got an extremely wide range of responses to the form that I sent out - the project proposed to convert these answers and display them in a curated digital museum setting - to create an online gallery of the incredible array of answers I had received - Some had listed food items, some sent youtube playlists, while some just decided that they wanted to write what they were feeling. The second half of this project was abruptly halted by the Covid situation that was developing in Providence at the time, and so I was only able to treat it as an idea that I could perhaps develop further later when I had the resources to do so. I have compiled some of the answers from the survey and you can see them here (will be linked).
On February 24, President Donald Trump visited India - which is enough of an alarming piece of news in itself, let alone the fact that the visit took place in the face of a global pandemic that had broken by then, but the seriousness of which had not been publicly acknowledged yet by either country. In the backdrop of this glamorous visit - highlighted with expensive celebrations and a stadium audience that oohed and aahed at every breath of air the visiting Primary let out - there were several State-sanctioned crimes taking place in the country’s capital. Though the exact numbers are difficult to source, a number of (mostly muslim) people were killed or brutally injured in a series of communal riots that broke out in various parts of New Delhi that week. A majority of the country’s leading newspapers, however, almost uniformly dedicated their front pages to celebrate Trump’s arrival - often entirely ignoring the incredible violent actions being carried out in the city. This led to another question that has driven my practice for a while now - Is there a way to combat bias in journalism?
While speaking about Methaven’s project Eurasia, Vinca Kruk said “We’re not interested in revealing that technology is manipulative, because we already know that,” and as much as I understand that standpoint, I feel like it fails to take the audience into account. I began to think about the use of news media to propagate opinions and mobilize the masses in India - and how a majority of the country has remained true to the innocent belief that anything that they see on the television or printed in the newspaper is accurate. They have never come across the concept of fake news, and due to their lack of diversity in sources of information, have never found a reason to doubt what they are told via these platforms. My project Is an exploration of the use of imagery to influence readers by highlighting ‘favorable news’. Favorable to whom? The highest bidder; or in most cases, the Government. Hito Steyerl, in Art and Contemporary Critical Practice, says, “There is a standard set of formal expressions that are used in traditional journalism. And some of them are really necessary, like fact-checking. But my conviction is that, now more than ever, real life is much stranger than any fiction one could imagine.” I believe that this is a time to build on these expressions. The purpose of What’s on your front page? was to analyze the front pages of a wide range of mainstream Indian newspapers, the day after major violent/unjust/anti-secular activities were carried out by the Government and its allies. I then further dissected each of the front pages by removing all of the text from each image, and measured the area on the page that each image had been given. The results, even in my prototyping/proof of concept stage were staggering - with one of the country’s widest reaching newspapers allocating 45% of their front page to an advertisement for a clothing brand the day after gruesome communal riots took place all over the country. This project was put on the back-burner so I could focus on one main project during the first half of the semester, and has remained there since, due to the circumstances we find ourselves in. The bias in Indian media will always remain a pertinent issue, and one that is important to me - and so I definitely plan on revisiting this idea to take it forward.
On March 12, we received an email from the President of RISD, telling us that classes would shift online after spring break, which was to begin in a week or so from then. On March 14, we received another email about college shutting immediately - asking us to clear out our studios and vacate the campus within twenty four hours. The strange abruptness of the situation hit everybody really hard as we scrambled to pack our entire school-life into boxes with a time-bomb hanging over our heads. From here on many people left Providence to return home, and some of us set up temporary studio spaces at home and prepared for the long haul. I believe I spent more than ninety percent of my spring break staring out of my window, attempting to understand what was to come.
School re-opened in April, with classes having shifted online for the rest of the semester. The first couple of weeks went by in a daze of watching press conferences and breaking news, staying in touch with worried friends and family members from all corners of the world, thinking about all the people suffering so profusely in just the first few months of this pandemic, and somehow managing to occasionally focus on some forms of self-care.
At this point, I would like to quickly refresh the fact that I was made to ‘surrender’ my Indian citizenship in 2019 - a move that I never thought would be of much significance, as I would always have the option to return to the country as a foreign national - it was just a matter of accepting this new title. Or so I thought. International borders were closed rapidly following the outbreak of the virus, and though India took a long time to act and shut its borders for good; they were quick to close borders for non-indian citizens. These restrictions are in place as I write this, and will continue to be, indefinitely - as a result of which, I was locked out in a way, immediately, and I still don’t know when I will be able to return to India and see my family and friends next. In an article published by The Atlantic, speaking about citizenship and the treatment of those who wish to move across borders, James Bridle said that “In a climate of pervasive nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia, and ever-building resentment toward those who move, it’s tempting to think that doing so would become more difficult. But alongside the rise of populist, identitarian movements across the globe, identity itself is being virtualized, too. It no longer needs to be tied to place or nation to function in the global marketplace.” The introduction of concepts like virtual citizenship, that allow (wealthy) people to buy citizenship in various countries, makes me think about the whole system of borders and citizenship as a construct. Hannah Arendt called citizenship “the right to have rights.” How is it that a piece of paper can determine where I do or do not have rights? How do these invisible lines that divide the earth have the power to keep me from the comfort of my family in the midst of a global pandemic? How do they stop my mother to travel from her home to my grandmother’s home to take care of her when she’s in desperate need of support?
All of these questions and the reality of finding myself in the position that I was in, was not a backdrop that was conducive to school work. To be entirely honest, I had (and to some extent continue to have) no motivation to continue working on projects while navigating through all of this - yet I had a lot of time on my hands. Time that I was spending sitting around and thinking - often about how unfair the world is, and how I couldn’t believe I did not even have the choice to return home - and so, I slowly slid, like a gelatinous amoeboid of some sort, from my bed to my work-table, opened notes, and started writing. “I am Indian because..” I wrote, almost as a prompt to myself, and then went on to compile an exhaustive list of all of the reasons that I could think of - ranging from the fact that I have Indian parents to my ability to maneuver around cattle that appear in the middle of a busy highway in India out of thin air. I slowly understood the similarity in this mode of inquiry to my Museum of Belonging questionnaire - I was asking myself (in a detailed manner), what makes me Indian? What I realized quickly is that I am so helplessly angry at the situation and all the logistical realities that I wake up to everyday that the only way I could even begin to come to terms with it is by laughing at myself - and perhaps having some other people join me in this laughter. And so, one of my studio projects for Spring was born out of this exercise - whatdoyoumeanimnotindian.cargo.site is a website that answers the question “What makes you Indian?” in the most exhaustive manner possible. It is an insight into my life in India, and also a way for me to reminisce about and feel connected to the people I love and around whom I feel at home.
Another one of my quarantine habits is to go on long walks by myself. I began by going on short socially-distanced-walks with one or two people, but eventually started to explore more of the city by myself. I walked to areas I hadn’t visited before, and tried not to repeat routes as much as I could. The walks were terrifying at first - seeing usually busy streets and large public spaces empty was extremely unsettling. Gradually, though, I began to notice smaller things - like the ‘temporary public library’ (a tiny bookshelf that somebody in a neighbouring street put outside their house to share books with others. And finally, after several weeks of walking around, I began to think through a ‘graphic design lens’ - every business that I walked past had now resorted to makeshift temporary signage (usually a sheet of paper) hung outside their door or shopfront to inform their customers about their new ‘quarantine setup’. I was initially fascinated by the small illustrations or symbols people had made to convey their irritation or urgency in the sign; but eventually started to notice the language used in them.
Arun Kumar, in Studying the Language of Protest, talks about how “..the words are not coming from a thesaurus or being pulled out of a dictionary. It is an expression of the inner workings of a mind that is not at ease with itself.” I often refer to his writings about protests in India through the years - and I am fascinated by the urgency that has the power to unite people. As I walked past more and more temporary signage in Providence, I decided to create an archive of the signs put up by small business owners in the wake of this pandemic. By creating this archive, I thought, I would be able to then study the language used in them. I was not entirely sure where the project was headed at the time, but I decided that that was okay. Gradually, I started to think about other cities and small businesses all over the world. They too must have been compelled to put out these urgent signs? Would they be using similar language? Similar paper? What else could I learn by putting all of this signage together? - all of these questions led to my second project for grad studio - effectiveimmediately - a website that archives signage from Providence, New Delhi, London, San Francisco, (list will keep growing as more images come in), compares them visually, and then analyzes their language and the common tropes that can be found across different cities and continents.
To say that I have taken a long and winding route to get to where I currently stand in my design journey would be an understatement. I have a tendency to be greatly affected by the ever developing world around me, and my work almost seamlessly shifts towards new realms and areas of interest while managing not to lose sight of the umbrella that my works lives under. I was always apprehensive about the notion that ‘(graphic) design can save the world’, and as a result of this apprehension, consciously kept myself from delving into making work for or about the world around me - yet over the last couple of years, I have started to see the potential in graphic design. Not to save the world, but to play it’s part and make any difference it can make.
Recently, with the events that transpired in India over the past year, I began to realize that the line that I had drawn in my head between my two areas of focus - nationality or belonging, and politics - was an imaginary one (much like the borders that create most of these issues). Through the course of the rest of my time here in Providence, I would like to work on my own understanding of the role that politics plays in concepts of nationality and belonging - I would like to subvert the concept of borders and work towards reimagining the systems that govern us - both literally and metaphorically. As Gregory Sholette said in an interview with Art21 Mag in 2011, “Work is a necessity. It defines us. I do not mean employment defines us, or your job defines us, or even “productive” work defines us (whatever that may be today). Rather simply the activity of being in the world requires us to exert a material force within it and sometimes against it (just as it in turn pushes against us).
Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you did, you now know essentially as much as I do about my own practice. I hope to be able to continue working towards it in the years to come.