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Storied designer contemplates life of retirement, but is still full of energy

The designer of Delhiā€™s first discotheque, Sethi, has always followed his heart and refuses to be typecast. He tells Saba Siddiqui that education should consist of everything from dance to architecture

SABA SIDDIQUI  19th Jun 2011

Rajeev Sethi has a number of varied artistic interests

t was perhaps in keeping with the idealism of the times when way back in the 1960s leading designer, scenographer and promoter of South Asian cultural heritage Rajeev Sethi dreamt of an India where unknown, impoverished artists wielding reeds, brushes and looms would have as much economic stake in the future as those manipulating the world from their high tables of finance.

I walk into his office half a century later and find myself in a veritable art museum. Modular tile frescoes with gods, Bihar's Sikki dowry baskets, hand-spun curtains and earth-coloured leather-puppets from Andhra Pradesh vie with art pieces from across the globe. Clad in a khadi kurta-pajama and a cream and orange stole, Sethi greets me warmly and ushers me into a room full of people queuing up for lunch. He asks me to pick the first plate. "Our office has lunch together. And whoever comes here during lunchtime eats with us. The guest picks up the first plate and the rest follow," explains Sethi.

Later, when we settle down for an informal chat, the 62-year-old designer begins on a despondent note: "This article should be on how to say goodbye. I have worked all my life, with all kinds of people across the world. But now I need to sign off and hand this over to someone...Though there is no dearth of people with aspirations, my question is where are they?"

Sethi was born on May 24, 1949 in Delhi. Both his parents fought in the freedom struggle and were even jailed. Sethi's mother Krishna Sethi was a member of Delhi's first Legislative Assembly and his father Kishorilal Sethi was a businessman and a poet. Sethi grew up with four elder sisters in a house full of women. Kishorilal was actively involved in politics, and that's how Sethi became friends with Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi when he was only a boy.

But despite his political connections, Sethi has never voted in his life. "Politics has become a very opportunist game. Politicians are our representatives, but they are nothing that I'd want them to be. In fact, I have always felt that there should be an option in the electronic voting machine which says I am not in agreement with my representative and I choose not to vote," he adds.

Sethi has always followed his heart and refuses to be typecast by his work. He designed Delhi's first discotheque, that swinging spot of the '60s, Cellar. Before that, while he was in Modern School, he fused Flamenco dance with Kathak for a school show. He also instituted a Servants Children Society with the help of his Principal M.N. Kapoor, where he and his friends taught the children of employees of the school in the extra-curricular period.

Sethi insists that education should consist of everything: dance, art, music, architecture. "There should be a connection, where the eye whispers into the ear, nose tells the mouth. But now the curriculum is so specialised that the multi-dimensional growth is ignored."

Sethi opted for History at St. Stephens College where he started the first inter-collegiate cultural society, Styme. After college, in the late '60s, he got a scholarship to study graphic art in Paris. He trained under printmaker Stanley William Hayter in Atelier 17, and then the American designers Charles and Ray Eames. He then worked in the studio of French designer Pierre Cardin.

Cardin later sent him to India to organise a contemporary Indian design show in France. "When I came to India, I realised the art here has become a replica of Western designs and I wasn't happy about it," Sethi says. He returned to India in 1972 and was mentored by eminent Gandhians Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar. Sethi set up Dehati Kala Kendra in Rohtak, Haryana, working on an integrated rural development model in the fields of crafts, rural museums and education.

"We were developing the Kendra for the Government of Haryana and during that time I worked with playwright and friend Habib Tanveer. He used to work in the field of folk entertainment and I acted in two of his plays too. In Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, I played Lord Darlington," he laughs.

fter Kendra shut down, Sethi started the performing art co-operative called Bhule Bisre, demanding shelter, better fees and employment for street artists. On the international front, he was involved with the World Population Council of the UN and held exhibitions on habitat, population and human settlement in several countries. But it was the Festivals of India, UK, in the '80s and early '90s, under Jayakar's watchful eye, that gave Sethi the space to work on mega-cultural exchanges. In 1986, Sethi hosted the Apna Utsav in New Delhi where 6,000 artists from across India performed.

In 1995, Sethi set up Asian Heritage Foundation (AHF), a non profit organisation which works towards the development of art and craft in South Asia. As an initiative of AHF, Jiyo!, a craft empowerment programme was set up last year. The brand name is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's blessing, 'Amar Jiyo', in a letter written to Jawaharlal Nehru. Befittingly, its logo is based on the Mahatma's handwriting. In one year, Jiyo! set up organisations along the politically-disturbed Red Corridor spanning from Andhra Pradesh to Bihar. In these villages, skilled artisans are trained to produce luxury products to be sold in the cities and towns.

"This is not even the tip of the iceberg. We will now move to the artisans in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Orissa and will also launch Jani and Jiva. Jani will offer a reasonable range of products for the youth, including, footwear, clothes and even food. Jiva will retail products made by the rural people for rural market. We will help them produce tiles, harnesses, even soaps for their personal consumption, using crop produce and locally made goods. Why should they buy goods made by big companies, when they can make it themselves?" argues Sethi.

Presently, Sethi is also working on the new Terminal 2 at the Mumbai International Airport. "I am trying to make the airport experience memorable, to the point that people don't mind missing their planes. There will be art from across India, spanning diverse regions and religions. This project will also generate employment. About 1,500 people will be working on a single wall stretching over 1.2 kilometres," he says.

Thirty years after the 1982 Festival of India, Sethi will direct 200 artists at the South Bank festival called Alchemy in 2012. This eleven-day cultural journey will bring out the rich and vibrant relationship between the UK, India and South Asian culture.

On a personal front, Sethi lives in a quaint bungalow in Niti Bagh with his adopted boy and his wife. "A young boy who was a bonded labourer came to my mother with my mother's maid. I adopted him. He fell in love with a girl who too was a bonded labourer and now this is my family. I got a readymade family without having to clean nappies. They stay with me and do much more than I did for my mother," he says, adding, "Though he does not get to inherit all of this, he is looked after very well."

Sethi pauses for a rare moment before summing up, "You know, I have told you things I have never told anyone and now I am a little embarrassed." With retirement looming in the horizon, it is perhaps time to polish trophies and relive the past in a memoir.

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