Living objects

Exhibition for Grand Hornu

India is a complex and diverse country with many different realities. It is diverse not only in terms of culture, religion and language, but also class, caste and economic ability. It is a land of inherent contradictions where sacred and secular have equal space;  modernity and tradition co-exist ; spirituality and commerce are not necessarily in conflict. The extreme elite and the absolute poor live side by side with a vast range of an aspiring middle class in between. In some parts of cities, smaller towns and villages, way of life can be indelibly old; a parallel world untouched by modernity. Celebrating the plurality of Indian culture and material environment, designers Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien have selected a  series of everyday Indian objects from markets, shops and family from New Delhi to Trivandrum. Many objects are part of Doshi Levien’s personal collection, others have been acquired by them for Grand Hornu Images. ‘Living Objects’ is not a factual inventory, instead it is an invitation to explore India’s material culture, values and customs through the chosen objects and the sophisticated daily rituals associated with their use.


Living Objects exhibition was part of the Europalia Festival of India 2013 in Belgium. The collection of objects now reside with Doshi Levien and Grand Hornu.

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India has many customs and rituals that are rooted in cultural traditions and religious beliefs. Daily tasks are usually performed with a rhythmic reverence and poetic order that transforms these everyday functional activities into sensual rituals. According to Hindu philosophy there is wisdom in actions performed with care and selfless devotion. Hence every task can be performed as an offering to the divine. This underlying philosophy is the basis of many daily rituals and partly explains the relationship Indian people have with the objects used to perform humble daily tasks. The objects selected are varied in their materiality and aesthetic, reflecting the inherent plurality of contemporary Indian life. They are ostentatious and austere, secular and sacred, industrially produced and hand crafted, celebratory and utilitarian. However varied and eclectic, the selection is not ‘Kitsch’, exotic or nostalgic, qualities usually associated with Indian things. Instead the exhibition consists of contemporary and honest everyday objects readily found in India. Anonymous and ordinary, the real value of these objects lies in their use in one of many daily Indian rituals for religious offerings, making things, writing, bathing, dressing, cleaning, cooking or sharing meals.

India is one of the very few countries in the world where hand craftsmanship is a viable method of volume production for mass consumption. Making by hand is a thriving and often only means for many people to earn a livelihood. In busy markets in cities and towns it is usual to see rows of small open fronted workshops making tools used by other tradesmen; scissors, hammers, gardeners tools, hand bound notebooks and many other tools. These workshops are often a micro industry of one or two people. Since making is so accessible, Indian people are used to having objects, clothes and interior furniture and fittings custom made for them. For example, in the morning one could go to their trusted scissor maker on  a street with 30 other scissor makers and select a design one wanted and collect a fresh custom made pair in the evening! Many Indian makers have a loyal customer base and equally people have their favourite, trusted workshops and makers they always give their custom to. Buying and commissioning objects as a result is as much a human and social transaction as it is a commercial one. There is strong evidence of the human hand and spirit in these objects.