India Modern

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India Modern: Traditional Forms and Contemporary Design, Herbert Ypma, book reviewHerbert Ypma is a design guru and the man behind the popular ‘Hip Hotel’ guides. If Herbert says it’s hip, the world listens to this arbiter of fashion. Herbert was born in the Netherlands which is pretty ironic given how rubbish Dutch hotels tend to be but fortunately for the world of fashionable accommodation, his family moved to New York when he was six years old. I have a bunch of his hotel guides though I must confess I don’t really use them very much tending to find them attractive eye candy rather than usable guides. So strong is his association with the hotel trade that I was quite surprised when I realised that he had edited this book, Indiamodern – Traditional Forms and Contemporary Design which is published by Phaidon.

I don’t recall where I got this book from as I unearthed it in the spare bedroom whilst trying to straighten the room up before visitors came. I’m fairly certain that given my determined pursuit of book bargains that I won’t have paid the full whack of £19.99 for it and I certainly won’t have bought it because Herbert Ypma put it together because I didn’t realise. We go to India on holiday most years and when I’m not in India I am generally thinking about India, planning where to go next and sometimes just indulging in looking at picture books like this one. ‘Indiamodern’ is a gloriously indulgent visual feast of images that remind me of the country that I love.

It’s first and foremost a book of images interspersed with the old fairly insubstantial commentary by Ypma or rather more interesting quotations from famous (or not so famous) people. But the words are secondary to the pictures. Some of the shots are outstanding and make me sigh jealously at the thought that my own photos will never come close to being as good but surprisingly I consider that rather a lot of the images are not really substantially better than my own pictures. Ypma himself is not the photographer – he worked with a team of what the introduction describes as ‘talented photographers'; some more talented than others, clearly. I am of course utterly green with envy that someone got paid to trot around India with a bunch of photographers taking pictures – now why don’t I get opportunities like that?

I’m not entirely sure why the book is called Indiamodern as very few of the pictures are overtly modern in tone and many are distinctly historic. I’m also not sure what Ypma is really trying to achieve with this project – other than a big, bright, visually indulgent coffee table book. If that’s really all there is to it, then let it stand on that merit as a successful volume. But somehow I think there’s supposed to be more to this than just nice pictures. There is a sort of explanation given in the quotation on the inner cover from the great architect Le Corbusier, famous outside India for many reasons but within India as the architect of the city of Chandigarh, loved by its inhabitants and derided by the British as ‘India’s answer to Milton Keynes’.

Here’s the quote:

“ To be modern is not a fashion, it is a state. It is necessary to understand history, and he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, that which is and that which will be.”

So on that basis you can easily justify a book full of fairly random images of past and present and call it ‘modern’.

Ypma’s photographers take the kind of pictures that I take – but generally of course they do them much better than I do. They capture images of windows and doors, scenes shot through screens and framed by doorways. They play with light and shadow and crop familiar images in unusual ways. They pick out the colours of turbans and robes set against drab backgrounds. They capture faces in a way that I will never be able to because I’m still just a tourist who travels in fear of giving offence. But still I struggle with the theme.

The quality of the paper is high – it’s thick paper that lets the colours sing out of the page. In just under 250 pages we get seven chapters, some more coherent than others. It seems as if Ypma laid out all his favourite photos and then tried to think of a way to group them together. The opening chapter is perhaps the most muddled and is called ‘A Rich Reservoir’. This includes some of the historic sources of design inspiration such as the Indian love of mathematics (an Indian famously invented zero – dontcha know!), the Islamic influence of the Moghul invaders, the early development of Indian modernism and the influence of colonialism – Dutch, Portugues and British in particular. See what I mean? A bit of a mish mash.

In the second chapter Ypma is on comfortable ground. It’s entitled ‘Splendid Ruins’ and focuses on two of India’s famous heritage hotels – the Neemrana Fort Palace Hotel and the Udaipur Lake House. From the sublime to the ridiculous and we flip from 5 star splendour in chapter two to local mud architecture in chapter three – ‘Indigenous Skills’. Chapter 4 ‘ A Natural Sense of Colour’ gives Ypma’s photographers free reign to run around taking pictures of turbans, doors and windows, especially in the blue city of Jodphur.

Chapter Five is called ‘Cultural Ingredients’ and takes us off in an unusual direction, that of textiles with beautiful atmospheric photos of cloth. It sounds crazy but it works. Chapter six is called ‘Ornate Order’ and is a mishmash of random images that don’t work for me at all. The photographers get carried away shooting scenes through carved screens – never easy to get the focus right on those as I know only too well.

Finally in Chapter Seven after more than 200 pages Ypma seems to be making his point. This is called ‘Form Follows Culture’ and contains photos of modern buildings that he believes are inspired by the traditions shown in the preceding chapers. One of these is – bizarrely – the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi and another is the Jawahar Kala Kendra Museum in Jaipur which was inspired by the astrological designs of Marharajah Jai Singh II. Finally in the cheesiest of style the book plays out with three sunsets which are instantly recognisably Indian silhouettes.

What I like about the book is that I only have to open to covers to be reminded why I love India. I love that the photographers capture the visual delights without being dragged down by the smells, the filth and the decay whilst showing an honest image that nothing is perfect and unblemished. What I don’t like is the pretence that there’s a theme and a thread running through the book. My advice would be to look at the pictures and enjoy them and not to look for too much more than that. Only when you start to read do you realise that it’s actually rather a shallow compilation of thoughts and quotations that don’t tell us anything like as much as the pictures can.

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India Modern: Traditional Forms and Contemporary Design
by Herbert Ypma

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Written by koshkha