“India is a land of opportunity … Our country requires more designers and design educators to address its needs”

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PanIIT Fellowship Awardees
Q&A with Prof Udaya Dharmalingham

Prof Udaya Dharmalingham is the Head of the Department of Design at IIT Guwahati. The Department of Design was set up with a vision to enkindle some of the brightest technical minds of the country with a passion for innovation in technology driven by a firm understanding, appreciation and celebration of design. The department offers an M.Des. degree, a B.Des. degree (one of the first undergraduate level degree of its kind in an Indian Institute of Technology) and a PhD degree in Design. The department envisions to produce successful graduates who will be capable of leading the changing scenarios of today and tomorrow through thought, innovation and values. In an interview with the Indian Eye, Prof Dharmalingham spoke about his life journey and achievements. Excerpts: 

How would you describe your journey from childhood to designing the Indian rupee symbol?

I am from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. I studied in a boarding school, La Chatelaine Residential Junior College, Chennai right from my Ist to XIIth standard. Those twelve years were the most wonderful years of my life. I would say my days in La Chatelaine laid the foundation of my art and design career. I did my B.Arch from School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University and Master’s M.Des and PhD from Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay. While at IIT Bombay is when I designed the Indian rupee symbol at that time, I was nearly completing my PhD thesis.

Please describe your path from the India rupee symbol design to date.

Immediately after the Indian rupee symbol design, I joined IIT Guwahati as an Assistant Professor in Department of Design. After 10 years at IIT Guwahati, I am now an Associate Professor and Head of department and continue to learn. Apart from teaching, I have worked on several consultancy projects primarily on identity design. Initiated several activities within the department and institute.

I have supervised several Masters and Bachelors Thesis projects most of these students are absorbed in the industry with some pursuing higher studies. Three research scholars have completed their PhD under my supervision and are well placed as a faculty member in IIT and NIFT.

You can say that I am a full time academic with a serious inclination towards consulting work and application-oriented research.

What role has the IIT (or IITs) played in your professional journey? 

IIT has indeed played a huge role in my professional journey. The exposure and awareness that I received opened my mind into the world of design. It would be fair to say that a lot of standing and recognition that I have today would not have been possible without the IIT Brand. IIT was a combination of lot of new experiences for me. India is a diverse country with each state could easily be country in itself. IIT brings all of India together in a vibrant environment where every individual benefit from its diversity.

Could you share your current work focus, objectives and aspirations?

At present my administrative role as Head of Department takes a lot of my time. It is a new and teaching exposure as I come from a research background.  I am interested and would like to research/work in design education, design and leadership, regional and local design. I am very passionate about my work and I see research as my main frontier. Currently, I am trying to sharpen my teaching and research skills along with few consultancy works.

Do you see yourself as an academic for life or do you see industrial consultancy / funded research being more and more important?

I always wanted to get into academics as in teaching, to nurture young minds, motivate and inspire them. On the other hand, design being an application-oriented field, working on consultancy and industry funded research projects are important, this keeps you abreast with the profession.  Going forward, with India rapidly emerging as a Global Hub for research and international PhD students, I see new frontiers opening up for me.

What is your advice to Indians with a scientific bend towards taking up research? Do you think a PhD is a better education to chase rather than say an MBA for many of the IIM aspirants? 

If one has to get into research, she/he needs to be really interested in to it. Getting into a PhD program just for the sake of it may not help both the individual as well as the society. The good news is that career prospects for those interested are better than ever before. Finally, as the world becomes one borderless marketplace – mobility of skills, teleworking and remote servicing – are all very real

Why did you decide to stay in India? You would have had lots of opportunities overseas given your celebrity status.

Firstly, I don’t see myself as a celebrity neither I wish to. I am just another aspiring designer and educator like many of them in our country. I don’t have to say much on this nevertheless India is a land of opportunity. I believe our country requires more designers and design educators to address its needs. Not to say that people outside the country are not doing much, I prefer to be in the context.

Having said that travelling abroad will indeed enrich my awareness and understanding on different aspects of life and profession. I do look forward to such opportunities as and when it comes but for short durations. But India is the country I will continue to call home. The world of course is our playground.

Can you compare and contrast IIT, Guwahati with IIT Bombay, given that you have spent substantial time in both.

Life within both the campuses are more or less the same but I should say Guwahati campus has beautiful landscape and scenery comparatively. Being away from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai is indeed desirable for a creative person.

Can you compare and contrast Guwahati with Mumbai as cities to live in?

Mumbai is a fast-paced city whereas Guwahati is just the opposite. Both have their pros and cons. It is a very personal decision.

Any message in particular for IIT alumni around the world?

Be yourself.

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