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Question: Is there something in your childhood that influenced you to be a Designer?
Sudarshan Dheer: “It was right from my school days, say about the seventh standard, that I was fascinated by painting. I used to go to a painter who came from Lahore. I used to just sit and admire his paintings. Not only that, I used to also stare at cinema posters and banners for hours and wonder in awe. Meanwhile, as I was in Kanpur, I would go to this painter after my school and learn drawing. My father was a jeweler, so I used to also see how they would draw the designs of their jewellery, and I think it was like this that an instinctive element about the arts crept in. At the painter's shop that I visited, I watched signboards and portraits being painted for several years. When I was in 9th standard, I started taking orders for cinema banners used mainly to decorate cinema halls. And at that time, I still remember, it paid me just about 12 and a half annas per square foot. After that, as I completed matriculation, I had put together some specimens of my work. I took those and, on some pretext, came to Mumbai. Here, I went to Sir J.J. School of Art, showed them what I had been doing for the past few years. They admitted me straight away to the second year. That is where I saved a year. And so it all began.”
Question: How would you describe your journey into the profession?
Sudarshan Dheer: “Another thing was that due to shortage of funds, I could not afford to stay anywhere in Mumbai apart from the students’ hostel at J.J. So, in a way, I had joined J.J. School actually to stay in the hostel. I used to attend morning classes from 8 to 10 a.m. and from 10 a.m., I used to work all day at Brilliant studio in Dadar. I made show cards and movie art there. In those days, there was no color, only black and white. We used to hand colour things and make cards by hand, by cut paste techniques, etc. But I got fed up with that. Somehow, one day, by a stroke of luck after seeing this advertisement, I met this gentleman by the name of Abbas Reshamwala in Bora bazaar. He used to paint and draw very well and get orders from Lintas to make food drawings for packaging. So, I joined him and painted advertising campaigns for Sathe biscuits, etc. He paid me well, and I got to learn a lot. In those times, there was no photography in the business so I used to draw everything with hand. One of my friends had some contacts in an advertising agency, and with the help of that, I went ahead and joined the National advertising agency. My salary hike was phenomenal, from 60 rupees at the painters’ shop to about 150 rupees at the agency. After that, I changed a few jobs and ultimately landed as an art director in Mass Communications and Marketing (MCM). During the day, I used to work, and in the mornings, I continued to study at the J.J. School of Art. After finishing my graduate studies in painting, I joined the course in commercial arts for another five years, primarily to keep my accommodation at the students’ hostel in Bandra. So for nine years, I went on studying and working simultaneously.”
(“During the day I used to work, and in the mornings continued to study at the J.J. School of Art” )
Question: How and when did you establish your own set up?
Sudarshan Dheer: “While I was in the advertising Agencies, my evenings or my Saturdays used to be spent in readings. I was interested mainly in the design magazine from New York called the Print Magazine. This was around the late 1950s when a burst of graphic design came up. Big designers such as Paul Rand influenced me. New identities like IBM, CBS, 3M shaped up worldwide. I used to admire all these works. I started subscribing to the magazine; I still have copies of it, bound and kept fondly. The kind of terminology and concepts that were emerging during those days are now a reality and still hold good. They still inspire me. If one looks at it, most of these trends that took birth in America flourished in other parts of the world, say for instance, in Japan. Especially, expo 70 was an explosion in graphic design, and many new designers came up. I happened to visit Japan in 1973, where I met quite a few graphic designers. I got the opportunity to show my works to designers such as Katzumi Masaru and Ikko Tanaka, who were revolutionary designers in Japan at the time. Mr. Masaru also published some of my works in the design magazine- Graphic Design Japan. So that was like an international beginning for me, and the people back home began to recognize me. Even while I was at the advertising agency, I would do a bit of corporate identity work with clients. But I realized that doing this kind of work in an advertising agency where work was primarily carried out by meeting deadlines was unprofitable. I figured that if I take six months for a corporate identity project, it is not at all profitable to the agency, as there are ten other departments dependant on the art department. The agency cannot really afford such time for each project. Time and speed were of utmost importance to the agency, from their economic structure point of view. Hence I decided to start off on my own and decided to take up corporate identity jobs. I started up my own setup in 1974.”
("The kind of terminology and concepts that were emerging during the 1950's are now a reality and still hold good. They still inspire me." )
Question: What would you describe as your first most successful project?
Sudarshan Dheer: “The HP project competition was my first huge break. It was one of the first projects that came up during the time when I was starting off on my own. There was an All India competition, which included big names such as Hindustan Thompson Associates, Lintas and the National Institute of Design, etc. It was the time when oil was first discovered in Bombay high, and the company, Hindustan Petroleum, was looking for a new identity after it became an indigenous company. I had hired a table and a telephone connection opposite handloom house, and with the help of a few J.J. School pass-outs, who had a small studio near my ‘table’ where I sat, I worked towards the competition. We worked for about 2-3 weeks. At the competition, the PowerPoint slideshow presentation was a rage during that time and all agencies participating presented their work like that. But I clearly stated, I had a primitive style of presentation! I told the jury to excuse my English too and said I should answer any queries they had about my concept. I was literally a one-man army. I tried my best to hence convert all my negatives into positives. I presented 50 hand-drawn boards of my concepts, and after having struck a comfort level with the competition jury panelists, it was a smooth ride. I did not even have a studio at that time. After I won the competition, I got exposure, and people came to know me. Gradually I started getting more clients, mostly on the basis of word of mouth publicity. Most of my clients after that were architects.”
Sudarshan Dheer: Every project for me has been a new learning. Even today, it happens. And I have always tried not to work on the same path. Most of the learning I got was from interacting with the client. Whenever I interact with the client, the questions they ask me to become a learning experience for me, learning about how to go about the project. Learning how to be convinced about what I am doing. I have always tried to have that conviction for the design from within. It should not be that the designer is offering a justification for whatever the design is for the heck of it. Everywhere in life, there is a duality. Within us, there is a duality. But ultimately, it is important to make that decision. One might make 50 concepts, but invariably one will reach a stage where you have to make a decision between a couple of them. In life, in relationships, in design everywhere. What will make a design tick? There is no answer to that question. Very often, it has happened that I have made certain recommendations to the client, and the client likes some other concept. Then I work around the pros and cons of the concepts. I believe graphic design is no rocket science or fluke, it's pure, simple logic, but the voice of the logic needs to come from within. ‘If it has to work, it’ll work; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t”. Especially for a designer, the duality becomes very important. A point comes where you have to listen to your intuition. And the sooner it comes, the better. One has to discover the oneness that binds everything together. It's more important in design as it helps one to get into the design, the process.
(“Every project for me has been a new learning” )
Question: Some other moments you would like to share with us, some other endeavours towards design?
Sudarshan Dheer: I got the opportunity from time to time, to travel around the world and attend conferences. I have always wanted to show what has been happening in India on the design front. One of the design magazines in Korea had published some of mine. They proposed to me, if I collect works of some 30-40 designers in India, then they would devote an entire issue to Indian design. This was about in the late 1980s. I thought it would be a great way to showcase design in India to people outside, so I started working towards it. It took me about 6-8 months to collect work from various designers in India. I took a gamut of people, those advertising, print media, typographers, artists, graphic designers, architects, and product designers. I sent the works across to Korea, and a publication was carried out featuring famous names from the Indian design scene. So this was a sort of beginning, after which I started compiling all my works together and later on came up with my book - Symbols, Logos and Trademarks.
Interviewed by Shruti Agarwal, Chetan Shastri. M Des students of IDC, IIT Bombay at his office, Graphic Communication Concepts, Colaba, Mumbai, October 1st, 2007
(“I have always wanted to show what has been happening in India on the design front” )