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In Conversation with Chetan Shastri, An Alumni of Royal College of Art, London; IDC IIT-Bombay; and NID Ahmedabad

At the National Institute of Design, Chetan Shastri chose to study Exhibition Design, something he discovered he is passionate about. Even after graduating from IIT Bombay as a communication designer and working on dream projects with firms like OSIAN’s, Tata Elxsi Ltd. and TI Cycles of India, and designing the Indian Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival 2013, he decided to go back to school one more time — to do an MA in History of Design at the Royal College of Art in London in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum on a full-tuition scholarship.

Read on to learn more about his thoughts on his incredible journey, what it’s like to go back to school after years as a professional, the trials and tribulations as a foreign student in the UK and his views on history of Indian art and design.

1.Tell us a little about yourself: What are you doing currently? What was your undergraduate and graduate degree in; and, from where? What motivated you to come to RCA? Did you consider other places that offered a similar programme?

I currently work as a design consultant at Transport Design Consultancy (TDC), London. I have been working with them since September 2014 and initially started as a freelance design consultant. I have also recently completed an MA in History of Design, jointly run by the Royal College of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. I was awarded the New Bonita Trust and Gardner Fund scholarships towards my studies at the RCA/V&A.

After graduating from the National Institute of Design as an Exhibition and Space designer in 2006, I completed my first MA in Visual communication from the prestigious IIT-Bombay in 2009. From 2009 to 2014, I was working in India on various projects relating to exhibition, signage, graphic, publication and retail design.

Almost all my work is in public spaces and projects include designing the India Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival 2013 and the Bangalore Metro Signage system, amongst others. Before moving to London I was heading the Retail design team at TI Cycles in Chennai, which has 900+ stores across India.

It was while working at TI Cycles that I applied to the RCA in London. Studying at the RCA had always been a dream — not only because it is one of the world’s top design colleges, but also because my mother had studied printmaking there in the early 1980s.

2. Why did you choose this particular and offbeat/unconventional field — History of Design? Why did you choose to go for second Master’s in Design after having worked in the same field for long? In what way does it feel different after the switch? How was your experience at RCA different from what you expected it to be?

I came across the History of Design (HOD) course, while surfing the internet for relevant programmes. This course is jointly offered by the RCA in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Like the RCA, the V&A too has a unique reputation as one of the world’s greatest museums. I did not specifically want to pursue HOD but I thought of it as an adventure. I was lucky to get this opportunity because I wanted to work in museums, wanted to study at the RCA and also wanted to travel in Europe.

I had already studied at the two top design institutes of India where work was more hands on, but this programme was more research oriented. As a practising designer, I did not have the skills that are crucial to the making of history, research, curation or criticism. I had no understanding of research methodologies and no ready pool of previously digested literature, which I could have drawn upon. In the beginning, I did not really know what to expect and gradually it turned out to be an altogether very enriching experience for me. And I had access to some of the best libraries and archives, which made my research extremely enjoyable.

HOD students had occasional classes in the RCA building but the majority of our seminars were held at the V&A. We were researching or writing most of the time, but our tutors made sure that we had sufficient exposure to museums, objects, archives and professionals. The course and being in London has also afforded me many opportunities to travel to Europe and see different cities. Travelling is something that I have really enjoyed over the past few years.

3. Tell us about your thesis project at RCA. What made you to pick this topic?

Due to my interest in South Asian histories I was primarily mentored by Dr. Christine Guth who has a deep understanding of South and Southeast Asian cultures. In the HOD course, students are required to produce three main pieces of writing. My first essay, was the study of a snake charmer’s wind instrument belonging to the V&A collections. It was a gift to a British officer many years ago by a snake charmer. My second essay looked at the origin and histories of ‘cyberspace’. In my third and final piece of writing, I studied the Nehru Gallery, which is the main gallery of Indian art at the V&A Museum. I was surprised to see that V&A has archived over 60,000 objects of Indian origin! The Nehru Gallery interested me immensely because it provides insights on Britain’s political relationship with India. During the 300 years of Raj, the British collected objects and kept meticulous records — about the people, cultures, geographies, objects and industries in “Hindoostan”. These historic records and objects initially served the purpose of keeping informed civil servants headed to India, British students of design, scholars and merchants. These objects and sources which really do not exist anywhere else in the world provide uniquely original insights on the long-forgotten histories of Indian design and material culture. A copy of my dissertation is now in the archives of the National Art Library, V&A.

While at the V&A, I voluntarily assisted Curator Nick Barnard by researching the captions and catalogue entries for a special exhibit of musical instruments from the Indian subcontinent that has been displayed in the Nehru Gallery.

4. You were awarded two scholarships, namely the New Bonita Trust and Gardner Fund Scholarships. How did you make your application stand out, given that a lot of students apply for these scholarships.

I applied and got the scholarship which was sponsored by the New Bonita Trust and I am very grateful to them for their generous funding. This scholarship was for only one Indian individual to study History of Design at the V&A and it was a full-tuition scholarship. When they interviewed me, they could sense that I was passionate about museums, design and history. Mr. Antony Howard, Managing Director of the London-based firm Transport Design Consultancy (TDC), with whom I had previously worked, wrote me a stellar recommendation in support of my application for the MA course at the RCA.

5. What is the right way to contact the research faculty in the concerned field at RCA? Are there any reliable and updated sources to read about their latest research work which can help prospective students to make the choice?

I think the best place to start is the RCA website. There are also open days at RCA and a lot of people come all the way from India to see the College on these days. It is a good idea to do that. Alternately, you can talk to the faculty and students over the internet and ask them questions. On the website, you can find the names and the email addresses, so you can write to the professors. You can also find biographical information on the professors and faculty in general; and, a list of their individual publications online, which may help you to select your area of specialisation. .

6. Any interview advice that an applicant should keep in mind while applying for RCA?

There is a good mix of British students and foreigners at the RCA. Since it is one of the top design universities in the world, it attracts the best talent. I would like to believe that if a person is really passionate about something and works hard to master their talent there is no reason why this will not show through in their personality, CV or portfolio. I also feel it is advisable to apply to more than one college, university and scholarship. This way you will have more to choose from and will not get disheartened if your first choice doesn’t work out.

7. You are working with Transport Design Consultancy? How has your experience been so far? Why did you choose Transport Design Consultancy?

Transport Design Consultancy is a 10-year-old firm. The managing director, Mr. Antony Howard, has many years of experience in design for transportation. TDC has done a lot of very prominent work on metro and transport systems around the world. I had worked with TDC in 2010 on the Bangalore Metro wayfinding project. I also did freelance work for TDC up to 20 hours per week while I was studying at the RCA/V&A. My colleagues at TDC have been friendly, welcoming and made me feel at home — it was natural that I would like to continue working with them. Luckily for me they were happy to accept me as a part of their team.

8. What advice do you have for students who intend to get into design?

I really do not have any advice on the matter because I believe that creative people must make their own rules and should feel free to challenge convention. I do wish them luck in their chosen field and I hope that they find joy and satisfaction in the work that they do.

9. What’s next for you after RCA?

I am now working full-time at TDC, and would like to continue doing so over the next few years. I hope that I will get the chance to work on many exciting projects here. I am still passionate about working for museums. When I graduated from RCA/ V&A, I would have liked to work as a curator in the V&A’s South Asian Department but as I am not a British citizen, I think, I do not stand a good chance of being considered for such a position. Eventually, when I have little more experience, I would like to go back to India to work as a design consultant and or maybe teach design.