History, Today I Learned

A design consideration

The renowned American designer Charles Eames and his wife Ray Eames were once asked by the premier politician of a friendly country to evaluate the effect of Western technology, specifically design, on their culture. There was also the question of how the fledgling state could benefit from the Eames’s input.

The Eameses, true to their mode of working, went all in. In their report, submitted one year later, they went to great lengths to explain how true design is intuitive and yet evolutionary. As an example, Charles talked about the thinking that might go into designing a simple vessel that one might use to carry water.

  •  The optimum amount of liquid to be fetched, carried, poured and stored in a prescribed set of circumstances.
  • The size and strength and gender of the hands (if hands) that would manipulate it.
  • The way it is to be transported—head, hip, hand, basket or cart.
  • The balance, the center of gravity, when empty, when full; its balance when rotated for pouring.
  • The fluid dynamics of the problem, not only when pouring but when filling and cleaning, and under the complicated motions of  head carrying—slow and fast.
  • Its sculpture as it fits the palm of the hand, the curve of the hip.
  • Its sculpture as complement to the rhythmic motion of walking or a static post at the well.
  • The relation of opening to volume in terms of storage uses—and objects other than liquid.
  • The size of the opening and inner contour in terms of cleaning.
  • The texture inside and out in terms of cleaning and feeling.
  • Heat transfer—can it be grasped if the liquid is hot?
  • How pleasant does it feel, eyes closed, eyes open?
  • How pleasant does it sound, when it strikes another vessel, is set down on ground or stone, empty or full—or being poured  into?
  • What is the possible material?
  • What is its cost in terms of working?
  • What is its cost in terms of ultimate service?
  • What kind of an investment does the material provide as product, as salvage?
  • How will the material affect the contents, etc., etc.?
  • How will it look as the sun reflects off its surface?
  • How does it feel to possess it, to sell it, to give it?

The country in question is India, of course, and this object under consideration is a lota, that traditional metal water vessel used across the subcontinent. In their report, they wrote:

Of all the objects we have seen and admired during our visit to India, the Lota, that simple vessel of everyday use, stands out as perhaps the greatest, the most beautiful.

The Eames Report was submitted to Pt Nehru and his cabinet in 1958, and in 1961, the National Institute of Design was founded in Ahmedabad, as an autonomous institute devoted to research, service and training in industrial design and visual communication. It now has five campuses across India, and is still going strong.

An interest in mid-century design had me reading about the Eames’ lives, specifically via the book The Eames Primer, written by Eames Demetrios, one of Ray and Charles’ grandchildren. The India episode came up as I flipped through the pages at a bookstore, and made me realize I had no idea that the couple were that closely entwined with the history of modern Indian design, specifically with NID, even though I have known and even worked with friends who were graduates from the institute.

While I did think of getting a classic Eames recliner when it showed up in Costco, of all places, the Herman Miller price-tag is a little too daunting for me at the moment. Seriously, if it is a toss-up between a chair and an entry-level Sandman page, you know I would pick the page.

But I could not resist picking up a knock-off Eames recliner from a local vintage furniture shop earlier this year. Turns out there were a lot of customers gnashing their teeth between the time I paid and the chair got delivered home.

History, Today I Learned

From writing to printing

Picture of the Ellesmere Chaucer, a vellum manuscript written between 1400-1405, from the Huntington Library, LA.

Every time someone comes to you and says that New Technology X is evil and will bring the end of worlds, consider this:

The monk Johannes Trithemius, who lived around the late 1400s, wrote this in his essay In Praise of  Scribes:

Scriptures on parchment can persist a thousand years, but…the printed book is a thing of paper and in a short time will decay entirely; printed texts will be deficient in spelling and appearance. Posterity will judge the manuscript book superior to the printed book. Handwriting is a spiritual act, a form of religious devotion that putting blocks into a press will never be.

Martin Luther, the German theologian and reformer, said this about the fledgling printing industry:

The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this form of writing.”

Ironically, this was the same printing industry that led to his work being disseminated beyond his wildest dreams.


“In former times pupils at school had to take down so much long-hand that boys wrote rapidly but with difficulty, constantly on the lookout for symbols and abbreviations to save time…nowadays the art of printing has led to the situation that some scholars do not write down anything at all.”

Luther, Erasmus, and Trithemius, and Socrates, and countless pundits throughout the ages have focused on the same points: new technology disrespects tradition and generational history; those who disrespect tradition are coarser, have lesser levels of education and therefore, a decreased standard of existence.

Photograph: The Gutenberg Bible, taken at the Huntington Library, Los Angeles.

Manuscripts persisted after Gutenberg’s invention. People did not suddenly throw away pens and start pressing type against paper. The two technologies continued side by side for decades, and in fact, the first printed books used laborious, inefficient processes to mimic the look of familiar books. Illustrations were added by hand to a printed book, in different colors, as were rubrications, margins, and standard guidelines that were included in scribal manuscripts. The first print font was also an imitation of a manuscript, being developed by craftsmen hired by Gutenberg. Each of the upper and lowercase letters, symbols and punctuation marks – 290 in all – were painstakingly carved so that they would resemble the ink-drawn versions of the letters scribes were producing with pens.

The true effect of the printed book was felt in its economics. Slowly but relentlessly, the centuries-old profession of traditional bookmaking was rendered obsolete, with monks and guildsmen losing a centuries-long monopoly.

But the printing press also created new professional possibilities for those who had good handwriting. Instead of writing a few commissioned books a year, scribes began to teach penmanship to others through tutoring classes, which gained popularity throughout Europe. The profession of secretary also arose, as the age of exploration and new lands brought about more business and bureaucracy — and consequently, more documentation. Ironically, these writing masters published printed books to disseminate their lessons; this led to further fortunes.

In conclusion, isn’t this generational hubris, to think that the new supplanting the old is an attack on our culture and moral fiber and everything good that we know and cherish? I am not saying that everything that is new is better. But I believe that we as a species have figured out how to filter the short-sighted wins and favor the long-term. Not all of us may know or respect history, but history don’t need your respect, bitch.

On that note: goodbye, 2017.

Ideas and quotes taken from an excellent book called The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek.


The Age of Wrath

Abraham Eraly has written some of my favorite books on Indian history, specifically his works on the Mughal Empire (‘Emperors of the Peacock Throne’ and The Mughal World). I picked up The Age of Wrath recently, which is about the period of medieval Indian history that begins with the onset of the first Muslim rulers of Northern India, referred to as the Delhi Sultanate. The book however goes beyond merely talking about the rulers of Delhi – it also covers the Bahmani Sultanate in the Deccan, as well as the Hindu rulers of the Vijayanagar empire down South.

Like always, a good history book informs one about the present by defogging the past. Reading this book, in particular, was an eye-opening exercise because the facts that Eraly presents are at complete odds with the gilded, agenda-oriented history that I had been fed about that time period through textbooks and popular fiction.

One would have expected that the Turkish invasion would awaken India from its slumber and stimulate it to transform itself to meet the Turkish challenge. But what happened was the opposite of this: instead of responding to the challenge of Islam, Hindu society curled up tighter into itself. The aggressive presence of Turks in India made virtually no difference in the life and culture of most Indians. Nor did the contact with Hindus make any notable difference in the life and culture of most Muslims. Their civilisations were totally unlike each other in every respect to have any major influence on each other.

Hindu Civilization was in an awful state of degeneration in early medieval times, especially when compared with its marvellous effulgence in the preceding age. This decline affected all facets of Indian civilisation. Culture putrefied. The caste system straitjacketed society, thereby hampering human enterprise and thwarting social progress. Commercial economy collapsed, and India gradually subsided into a stagnant, barely self-sustaining agrarian economy. Towns decayed; many of them were deserted, and they turned into crumbling relics. Instead of the urban sophistication that had characterised the classical Indian civilisation, now, in the early medieval period, crude rusticity characterised it. There was no more any creative energy in Indian civilisation. ‘I can only compare their mathematical and astronomical literature, as far as I know it, to a mixture … of pearls and dung, or of costly crystals and common pebbles,’ comments Al-Biruni.

Besides all this, Turks, as aggressors swooping down from the cool Afghan mountains, had irresistible kinetic energy, while Indians were mostly plains people leading a sedentary life in an enervating climate, and their posture, as defenders, was generally static. Psychologically too Indians were at a disadvantage, as they suffered from the victim syndrome, and were often sluggish in battle, unlike the spirited Turks. Moreover, the fatalistic value system of Indians inculcated in them a generally defeatist attitude. In some cases Indians were also demoralised by astrological predictions that the Turkish conquest of India was inevitable. In contrast, Turks were energised by religious fervour, confident in their faith that they were invincible as the soldiers of their god.

Among my favorite chapters is the one on Ala-ud-din Khilji. This particular sultan is known in Indian history textbooks for one thing and one thing alone – his lust for a Hindu man’s wife. The lady in question is a queen named Padmini, a lady renowned for her beauty and kept in a zenana away from prying eyes by her husband, the Rajput ruler Ratan Singh, who ruled Chittor. Apparently the sultan made a formal request to her husband to allow him a glimpse of her face. This was a breach of propriety that could lead to war, but the mutually amicable solution was that Khilji was allowed to see Padmini indirectly, her face reflected in a mirror. The story goes that the sultan was so taken aback by Padmini’s beauty that he fainted outright. Upon returning to his camp, he put Ratan Singh under arrest, demanding that the queen be delivered to him, and it was only due to the bravery of two of the raja’s chieftains (and a bit of cross-dressing trickery that spices up every good story of abduction and deceit) that the captive made his escape. The story ends badly for the people of Chittor, including the beautiful queen. Ala-ud-din’s army attacked the fort, and the men rushed forth to kill or be killed, presumably to the tune of Mo’s Kamikaze, while the women preferred to kill themselves by jumping into a sacrificial fire.

This story has been the cornerstone of a lot of assumptions about the motivations of the Muslim rulers of the time. But as Eraly writes, this particular anecdote is a work of fiction.

This story is told with many colourful frills in the bardic lore of Rajasthan, but there is no record of it at all in any contemporary chronicle. All that Barani says about Ala-ud-din’s Chitor campaign is that ‘the sultan then led forth an army and laid siege to Chitor, which he took in a short time and returned home.’ In fact, Amir Khusrav’s statement that after taking Chitor, the sultan ordered the ‘massacre of 30,000 Hindus,’ specifically excludes the possibility of jauhar having been performed there on this occasion.

The earliest textual reference to the Padmini episode is in Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s epic Hindi poem Padmavat. This was written in the mid-sixteenth century, nearly two and a half centuries after Ala-ud-din’s conquest of Chitor, and is therefore of doubtful credibility. Moreover, Padmavat is a romance and not a historical work. The story is also mentioned by a few later chroniclers, such as Abul Fazl and Ferishta, but they were obviously just repeating popular legends.

Instead, Eraly goes on to make a statement about Alauddin Khilji that startled me, because I had never expected such a thing.

Ala-ud-din was one of the most extraordinary rulers in Indian history, indeed in world history. He was a radical reformer, and was exceptionally successful in all that he did, though many of his reforms were several centuries ahead of his time.

He bases his theses on the works of historian Al-Barani, who lists ten major achievements of Ala-ud-din’s reign[ref]1/ Cheapness of all the necessities of life; 2/ invariable success in military campaigns; 3/ rout of the Mongols; 4/ maintenance of a large army at a small cost; 5/ political stability resulting from the suppression and prevention of rebellions; 6/ safety on roads in all directions; 7/ honest dealings of the bazaar people; 8/ erection and repair of mosques, minarets, and forts, and the excavation of tanks; 9/ the prevalence of ‘rectitude, truth, honesty, justice, and temperance in the hearts of Muslims in general during the last ten years of his reign’; and 10/ the flourishing of many learned and great men ‘without the patronage of the sultan.’ [/ref], brought about a strange combination of both luck and determination. Because this king –  like the other Muslim ruler who would rule from Delhi a few centuries later and be proclaimed ‘The Great’ – was possessed of a particular self-awareness and open-minded outlook that seemed to come of being illiterate.

For example, this was how the sultan dealt with insurgency in his territories. After several days of discussions with his councilors, he concluded that there were four basic causes that lead to rebellions: A sultan’s neglect of public affairs, wine parties held by nobles, alliances among military personnel and noblemen, and an excess of money. He also came up with solutions for each of these causes, the first being off the table because he was a compulsive workaholic. He started with an elaborate intelligence network across the empire to ensure that nothing transpired without the sultan knowing about it, especially in the houses of the emirs and the maliks. He prohibited wine-drinking and selling and prostitution, setting taverns on fire and confining prohibition violators first into prisons and then open pits. [ref]As was to be expected, these rules just increased clandestine consumption of alcohol, making people travel to the suburbs of Delhi to enjoy their drinks or smuggle in their spirits by a hundred different tricks and devices. Ala-ud-din had to eventually modify the rules to prohibit public drinking and parties only. Oh, India and its obsession with alcohol regulation![/ref]He increased taxes, but also paid attention to the corruption prevalent among the hereditary revenue collectors working under him; his solution was to withdraw their privileges and perks, and to punish violators harshly.[ref]This is what Eraly has to say about the state of corruption in medieval India.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the medieval Indian kingdoms was the universality of corruption in them, from the highest to the lowest level. Taking bribes was not a secret, devious act in India at this time, but was done openly, and was widely accepted as the normal and natural state of affairs by everyone. Provincial governors and other high government officials, even the sultan himself, were not above seeking recompense for doing favours, the only difference being that in their case the offerings they received were treated as presents, not bribes. And just as subordinates gave bribes to their superiors to win favours from them, superiors often gave bribes to their subordinates to secure their loyalty, except that these offerings were also called presents, not bribes. Loyalty was invariably on sale in medieval India.[/ref]

But make no mistake, Ala-ud-din was equally as bloodthirsty as any of his contemporaries, maybe even more. “He shed more innocent blood than ever any Pharaoh was guilty of,” in Barani’s own words. The reforms were rooted not in altruism, but in consolidating the power of his government. His market reforms to regulate prices of provisions – considered well ahead of their time – came about because of his goal of maintaining a standing army, as did his maintenance of food reserves, ensuring that his subjects never suffered on account of an unkind rainy season. His rule was a peculiar contradiction of sorts, in that his attempt at improving his administration showed his genuinely concern about the well-being of the poorer of his subjects, and in earning and maintaining the cooperation and loyalty of talented officers; and at the same time, he lived up to the expectations of the age by being ruthless towards rule-breakers and insurgents. In Eraly’s words, people on the whole led a better life under Ala-ud-din than under any other king of the Delhi Sultanate.

And this was one of my favorite experiences of reading this book – or indeed, any of Eraly’s books. He casts new light over a historical subject that I had a limited perspective about, and paints this picture of a complex ruler that managed to change things for the better in a relatively short span of time – 18 years or thereabouts.  A lucky man who was bad-tempered, obstinate, arrogant, and a complete disregard for brotherhood, religion or the rights of other men. I think about Ala-ud-din Khilji tonight, as I sit down to watch Season 4 of House of Cards.