Amardeep Behl is the founder of the iconic exhibition and museum design company, Design Habit.
They have been known for decades for having designed the most unparalleled projects in India. And beyond it all Amardeep has been a Mentor for an endless number of designers, architects who have gone on to build their own studios and companies.
He has run a living vibrant institution which has generated design thinking and execution for a contemporary India with its own design language rooted in Indian reality.
The Festival of India in the USSR took place over 1987 and 1988.
‘Gandhi : An Indian Revolution’ was part of this exhibition, opening in Moscow on Gandhi’s birth anniversary and travelling to the site of the largest and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare in which the Germans were routed in the Battle of Stalingrad leading to the end of World War II, now known as to Volgograd, to Novosibirsk and Irkutsk in Siberia in winter.
Amardeep and his team created a Travelling Exhibition which used the architecture he had occupied throughout his life to share Gandhi’s persona. They also used verses from the Bhagavad-Gita, a book he constantly read, as the philosophical anchor to the narrative they had designed.
In 1989 they designed the Nehru And The Making Of Modern India exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They used huge heights of up to 60 feet to put up scaffolding as a metaphor to show a nation under construction and upon which they mounted the exhibition. The floor plan as the layout of a mandala, depicted our ancient civilisation.
The central area had the four pertinent questions Nehru put to the nation in his seminal work, ‘Discovery of India’. These led to four non-linear galleries on ancient India, India’s struggle for freedom, India now, and the modern India represented through poetry, art and creative writing. Hand-woven fabrics, offering a tactile experience, hung from the scaffolding and they acted as metaphors for the old and new country striving for an equitable balance.
The late Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, inaugurated the exhibition.
In 1990-91 the IGNCA, through the genius of Dr Kapila Vatsyayan ,an eminent scholar and historian, organised a series of events which featured major exhibitions along with associated seminars and symposiums, and cultural activities based on fundamental themes such as Khaam-on Space, Aakar-on Form, Kaal-on Time, and Prakriti-on the five elements of nature, the latter two designed by Amardeep and his team. They were located at the Matighar in IGNCA complex in New Delhi.
Kaal was an exhibition designed after extensive research of eight primary civilisations in the world after looking at how they responded to the notion of time. They juxtaposed this with tribal communities and their relationship to the passage of days, as well as to modern science, and the concept of time in art, sculpture and poetry.
They did Trade Fair Shows from 1997 onward where his company literally pioneered the process of bringing show and thematic aspects into trade fairs in India at that time, automation, programmed lights and sound and used that experience to build the The India Pavillion in World Expo at Aichi Prefecture, Japan in 2005 to Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum at Anandpur Sahib, Punjab to commemorate the Tercentenary year of the Birth of the Khalsa in 1999, completed the first phase in 2011 and whose second phase was finished in 2016.
They have worked on the Chinmaya Mission Museum in Mumbai and DARSHAN, a Multimedia Narrative Museum in Pune.
They have also done Production Design for Films, creating conceptual spaces as in ‘Dance of the Wind’ and ‘Samsara’, both Indo-German productions, and had to deliver to the exacting standards of German films like ‘Shadows of Time’ where production design was planned and executed to the T.
‘Partition’, a Canadian production, required them to build a village from scratch to be set in a 1947 scene. They did that, successfully ageing the sets and props and providing an authentic look and feel to the film. In ‘Parched’, an American production, they also built a village with a dance hall which featured as an important element in the film.
Amardeep Behl has been passionately involved in finding expression and deeper meaning in working with space by merging various media like architecture, graphic design, industrial design, and audio-visual and digital multimedia, into a common language to be able to create emotive, storytelling experiences. Finding and creating an Indian expression of design strongly rooted in its culture and traditions yet eminently applicable in these contemporary times is his work in progress.
Having specialized in Exhibition Design at the Department Of Visual Communication of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, Amar and his firm Design Habit’s area of professional practice has been in this design domain of visual communication and expressions in space.
His 33 years of experience has led Amar to consciously develop a new language of design that makes the spaces he works in, into narrative spaces. The storytelling seamlessly integrates a wide palette of design means, techniques, media, theatrical sets, and audio-visual avenues to create emotional and immersive visitor experiences.
Amardeep’s creative philosophy combines reason and intuition to elicit perceptive engagement at museums versus curating displays of collections.
Chronology and information become source material rather than determinants of how collections should be segregated. A unique conceptual thread ties the narrative structure, specific to the purpose of each exhibition.
The extraordinary sensorial experiences he orchestrates, transform rather than just inform, opening us to the wonders of our lives.
He creates inner dreamworld with its magic in a collective built space, with sound, light, effects using the oldest folk arts and crafts as well as the latest technology of communication, creating a communion space.
How a contemporary spiritual space should be.
Stimulating the mind, the rasas, the soul, the spirit, the togetherness of being in a cosmic and magnificent adventure of life.
Amardeep is not in awe of any other system of museum curation, but he absorbs all, and create his own language, rooted in this land.
His is a new language of the museum, that takes off more from the cinema , but the audience walks around, taking as much time as they want, to stand and stare.
As Amardeep explains in an interview :
“Museums as we know them traditionally were spaces where artifacts were displayed. Civilizations and culture were understood by seeing these artifacts. The British model, one also followed by the French and Portuguese, was to set up museums as collections of things they had gathered, ‘trophies’ picked up from all over the world – these were treated like treasures to keep secure. They went into hermetically sealed boxes for display. Curators and art historians were brought in and these were arranged according to specialization and very often, type of materials – bronze, stone, clay.
In India, we are a layered civilization with a 5000 year-old story. Just in the Gupta period (4th to 6th century CE), we would find enough data to bring together an integrated story. Yet, what we have is textiles, gold and art all put into separate categories.
At the National Museum for instance you find categories as Miniatures and Coins. This however, does not give a holistic or a true picture of those times.
The understanding of the context is not deep enough.
A museum should evoke the times of that period. If it did that, it would be breathtaking and it would tell immersive stories.
The future of museums is in bringing together collections for storytelling. It would examine origins – looking at a stone urn – where did it come from? Not put all the Buddhas together in one gallery! Even if you go to the Louvre, you see Mesopotamia in one wing, Europe in another. Collections are shown one after the other.
For an art historian it makes sense but as a visitor, my eyes get tired.
I recall the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (the Museum of Natural History) in Paris, where they have exhibits around plants and animals. They have sequenced it nicely; it is not compartmentalized and the displays are more evocative. Even in the V A though they have tried to create context from a scholarly and creative point of view; the language still has to turn around. The Holocaust Museum tells a clear story of the times. War Museums as well have galleries that show how the war unfolded and related stories.
But I have not seen museums in general tell stories comprehensively.
For instance, when I go into the V & A and see a magnificent throne from China or a painting from Rome, I come out with the feeling of wow. But a museum can do so much more than that. Museums have to become spatial experiences. There is the opportunity to take the audience so much further.
Comparing to cinema as it is the most profound and the best system we have evolved so far where the audience have agreed to sit in a captive space to have an experience of time and space: this creates an emotional impact. If we look at the Museum space, the audience is captive in a certain volume of space but here they have to walk around to go through the journey.
If I can work the volume to create an immersive experience of light and sound, then I can make the audience have a strong emotional experience. I see the Museum as a great opportunity to create an emotional experience. That has been my journey and I have tried to do it efficiently, purposefully and impact-fully.
I went to the Golden Temple and it is the most decorative, highly ornate and lavishly rich space– there is every color from golden embroidery to minute details. It was an amazing experience. I went and sat there and it was divinely spiritual and I felt – no wonder they call it Guru ka darbar.
It can happen everywhere – take a walk into the forest and you see the most amazing world filled with trees, birds, animals – all kinds of forms.
There is lots of everything but there is also quietude. One has to build this up. You need sound to achieve silence. I have tried to create that in the Khalsa Heritage Centre – there are many lavish experiences but there are also spaces that have an intense quiet, which feel infinite.
These are places of reflection where time takes over. People go away deeply touched.
We need to keep reinventing the paradigm of museum to go beyond the exhibit as places where communities gather. They are great platforms to assimilate, interact and engage with culture. They could have elements to heal people. They could be places of engagement that run all over the city, where families come, children come. Museums in the future should be program-driven and activity-oriented not just display of artifacts.”