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Designs on the Sky

Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellow Prathima Muniyappa uses the transformative power of design to empower marginalized indigenous communities, through technologies and designs enabled by space.

Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellow Prathima Muniyappa’s career graph as a designer has been a “rather unconventional journey.”

“Despite my formal training as a designer,” she says, “my trajectory has led me to design museums, and work on the conservation of historic structures; as an anthropologist with indigenous communities; as an artist; and now in the realm of space exploration and social justice using designs enabled by space,” she says.

Muniyappa graduated from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, in exhibition design. After a year as a Young India fellow, she felt the need to delve deeper into conservation, “not simply from a technical perspective to learn how to preserve stone, brick, wood and mortar, but to begin to understand the underlying nuances behind the materiality of heritage.”

Hence, she decided to join the master in design studies program in critical conservation at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, under a Fulbright-Nehru scholarship. “While most other conservation programs have a great deal of technical emphasis on conservation science, this program moves past outdated dialectics like past-future, ancient-modern, permanence-obsolescence and progress-tradition, and uses heritage as a fulcrum within which to regard issues of power, identity and social justice,” says Muniyappa.

Through her master’s program, which emphasized inclusion and sustainability, Muniyappa gained theoretical and technical knowledge to augment her practice. She feels that heritage conservation should have a multidisciplinary approach. “The discipline should create linkages in a broader socioeconomic fabric by generating livelihood and creating community stewardship in a sustainable and equitable manner to augment cultural memory.”

After completion of her master’s program at Harvard University, Muniyappa began her second master’s, in media arts & sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. “I am a researcher at the Space Enabled research group, whose mission is to use technologies and designs enabled by space to address issues of social justice in Earth’s complex systems,” says Muniyappa. With the skill and experience she acquires here, Muniyappa will work to build bridges with indigenous communities and try “to give voice to entities that are rarely heard through an imbalance of identity politics, be it the rivers or ecosystems or ancestors speaking through dead languages that none but whales can hear.”

Muniyappa shares that it was a “nomadic childhood, rootless as the spring breeze,” which cemented her fascination for indigenous traditions. “It sowed the seeds for an inquiry into the hyphenated relationship identity shares with place, to create culture.”

She has traveled to remote regions of the world, from cloud forests to arid deserts, to live and learn with indigenous tribes. “Such cosmologies and practices have become the inspiration for my work as a designer and conservationist.” She insists that while investigating traditional indigenous knowledge, practices and folkways, her design research assumes complete synergy between the constructed categories of “nature” and “culture.” It could be investigating the skill of muslin weaving in Bangladesh or the practice of maintaining sacred groves as a model of stewardship for forests in India. Sacred groves are a traditional form of community-based conservation for sites that enshrine a cultural or spiritual significance.

About her experience as a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar Muniyappa says, “It’s been an extraordinary experience. Without this support, I don’t think I would have been able to pursue this extremely specialized course. It has given me opportunities to meet scholars I had always admired, learn from them, and also to travel widely across the world for my field work. For me, it’s been truly life-changing.”

Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.