Vikas Satwalekar: Colour personified

“Call me Vikas” – that’s how I will always remember him. One of India’s leading designers, creator of several landmark identities and logos like Mother Dairy, TISS* and HLL, chief designer and project head of some of India’s best exhibitions and expositions like the Discovery of India** at Nehru Centre, Mumbai, handsome, charismatic, generous, extremely well mannered, suave, well read, always eager to learn and share, and, most importantly, a brilliant and beloved educator – the one and only Vikas Satwalekar.

This post is about his positivity and never-give-up spirit, it is not about the heart wrenching vacuum he left behind last June when Covid took him away. For Vikas, there can only be continuity, love, admiration and immense learning.

In this post, I will narrate my meetings with Vikas and learning from him. Every little conversation with him, where I would ask endless questions and he would answer patiently, has been so enriching. I learnt from him how to hold one’s head high without losing one’s footing firmly on the ground or wavering from the final goal of sharing knowledge in a dynamic manner. It was a special educational rapport where he treated me with the utmost respect as a professional and yet was always kind to my queries as a teacher would to a student – he really didn’t need to but that’s Vikas for you πŸ™‚

I was introduced to Vikas in August 2002, when I had been appointed by NID, Ahmedabad, (National Institute of Design) as a Researcher and Content Editor for its museum design projects. The main two museum projects I was involved in were design of India’s first Museum of Money – The Monetary Museum for the Reserve Bank of India, Mumbai – and preparation of modernisation plan for the Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata. My project head was Suranjana Satwalekar and Siddhartha Ghosh respectively. I knew of Vikas as Principal Designer, former Director of NID, and, much later, as Suranjana’s husband – not the other way round with Suranjana as Vikas’s wife. I have an unusual and cherished relationship primarily with Suranjana, and through her with Vikas. I met Vikas separately only twice, first at their Mumbai house and second while teaching at a private design institute in Dehradun in September 2019.

Let me start with NID in 2002 – nearly two decades back – when I was asked by Suranjana and Siddhartha to call them by their names. It was apparently the norm there and I was not permitted to call them Mam or Sir – took me a few weeks from not calling them anything to finally managing to call them by their names. I knew Vikas as a well dressed gentleman with grey hair and beard as I had been introduced to him as “this is Vikas”. His smile, deep bass voice and his way of throwing his head back and laugh like a child was very endearing. I gathered he was a very senior designer and faculty but I didn’t realise that he is the former Executive Director of NID of two terms. Gradually learnt that also. So I ensured I maintained a safe distance from him, out of respect. I still didn’t know he was Suranjana’s husband! Little did I know the adventure that lay next.

Once, I was alone in the Exhibition Design office when he came looking for Suranjana, my project head. I told him that she’s not around but gone home for lunch. He was a bit surprised and then told me to inform her when she returned that he was looking for her. I thought she might have run into some trouble so told him with my brightest smile that I would definitely do so. Then he asked me to tell her “Vikas” was here, I smiled and said “yes”. Then, the bomb dropped. He said, “what will you tell her?” and I promptly replied, “You were looking for her, Sir” and with his hand on the handle of the glass door, he turned back to his left, and gave a smile and said “it’s Vikas” – “call me Vikas”. That’s when I knew a BIG adventure loomed ahead. I told this to some of my colleagues and learnt he was Suranjana’s husband – no wonder he was surprised when I had said she had gone home for lunch (they stayed on campus). I cringed at the thought of passing on his message 😦

Suranjana returned and I told her that “Sir” had been searching for her – she scoffed at me through the smoke screen she was always enveloped in and said “who’s that?” so I said “errrrr ….Mr Satwalekar” and she said “Oh, I didn’t know my father-in-law is here!!!” For a slow learner like me who takes endless time to piece together info, this was scary! What, but Vikas is her husband!!! But I had to keep at it as Suranjana was not letting me go (those of you who have been through similar situations with her would know my predicament – she’s not someone who would let go so easily) – so this time I elaborated that the senior gentleman with a grey beard who comes for our meetings was looking for her. Even my slow brain gave me the signal that I was dead meat by then and was slowly being stewed upon. She then said, “What’s his name ya?” and I stammered and said “Vikas” and thought it’s all over but no, I was told by Suranjana to put this name in a proper sentence and tell her. So with my dying breath, I managed to utter “Vikas was looking for you” – I then promptly died at that spot!!!!!! No one came to save me, but the whole Exhibition Design department soon learnt of this (I’m sure no one was around when these two incidents happened) and all my colleagues and students there would snigger and giggle till eternity.

Oh what an NID it was those 2+ years when I worked there, first with museum projects for nearly two years, then with Graphic Design department for a few months and finally as a Final Editorial team member with the prestigious ‘Handmade in India’ book project with Aditi and MP Ranjan. While walking down, what is now known as Design Street, I have been lucky to hear Vikas’ booming laugh from one side and then hear Ranjan laugh out loud with his eyes twinkling with mischief from another side!

It was Vikas’ birthday in 2003 and I had missed its celebration with cake cutting in our office as I had been out for lunch. I felt so embarrassed that I had not wished him that I decided to go to his office and wish him. But I tried twice and he wasn’t there so I thought of going to his house and wishing. I actually went and got some flowers for him, rang their doorbell, thankfully he opened the door and I gave him the flowers and managed to wish him “Happy Birthday Vikas, sorry I wasn’t around when the cake was cut” – he thanked me a lot and I still faintly remember him replying “Oh, so you didn’t get the cake!” – how nice of him! My boss’s husband who was so senior a person, the former ED, actually thought of that. Next morning, I found a big envelope on my table with “Thank you” written on it, I opened it and this beautiful card inside, with a thank-you note by Vikas. It had a reproduction of a painting by eminent artist Madhav Satwalekar, Vikas’s father. How thoughtful of him and what a lovely gesture! But that’s how Vikas has always been, thanking people for the tiniest thing they ever did and making them feel so important. That was an immense learning from him for me, always express gratitude for even the smallest gesture. I have framed that card and put it up wherever I stay (but right now it’s lying packed somewhere so I am sadly unable to share it).

These are photographs from a New Year card which I had received earlier that year from the Satwalekars. Suranjana insisted on calling me ‘Paulomi’ for some reason πŸ™‚

The next few incidents are from much later. I bumped into Suranjana and Vikas during an exhibition at NGMA, Mumbai, in 2011 and then at dinner at an art historian’s house in 2014. During this dinner, we were animatedly discussing museums (I had by now worked on some museum design and modernisation projects and been a Senior Curator at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum) and Vikas mentioned how museums in India are finally thinking about the most important component – the visitor. It reminded me how during those two museum projects at NID visitor satisfaction had been their core concern.

I first visited the Satwalekar house in Mumbai in 2017, by then I had been writing a blog for two years, finished consulting on the Bihar Museum and returned to teaching after nearly 15 years. My first job was as a faculty at NIFT Gandhinagar and NID had happened after that but teaching in private design schools from July 2016 was very new to me and I needed guidance from Suranjana. Between 2002 and 2016, the world of education had undergone a massive change with students having quick ways of fact-checking what was taught, boundaries had broken and the faculty was more cautious of faltering, newer media like digital presentations, videos, audios and technology had taken over. I was amazed at how much was expected from the faculty and how fascinating it had all become. Since I had been busy working for and in museums, I had missed out on all this and now needed to sharpen my skills and who better than Suranjana to guide?

During one such long chat after lunch with her, Vikas returned from somewhere and offered me some exotic chips he had bought. When I politely declined, he ripped open the packet and insisted I taste them. I was immediately transported back to my times at NID from nearly two decades back when Vikas and Suranjana would discover something new and share with us in the team. I was touched that he still continues to do so. When the Uber driver couldn’t locate their house for my return, Vikas got very angry and shouted at Suranjana to scold the driver and she replied that she was already talking to him and giving right directions. I felt so much at-home, being pampered and taken care of. For some reason still unknown to me, Suranjana and Siddhartha (Ghosh) had treated me like their adopted child ❀ And, Vikas, Suranjana’s husband, behaved similarly. Filled my heart with warmth always to be treated like that. I still could barely speak in front of Vikas, even after so many years. Once more, when I visited them in 2018, he was alone and while waiting for Suranjana to return he showed me a beautiful book on Gandhi and explained its design and layout in 15 minutes! Never waste an opportunity to share and educate. It’s not easy but Vikas made things seem easy!

Suddenly in 2019, I received a request from a private design institute in Dehradun, to teach their first Liberal Arts course for their Foundation batch of 220 students! They mentioned that Vikas was consulting them and had recommended my name along with someone else’s, hence, the institute was contacting me. I was overjoyed and immediately accepted the offer. When I asked Suranjana for some tips, she said “go claim it”… she had earlier told me that she was happy that in most of my courses I was taking students to museums or heritage sites for exploration. With these in mind, I went to discover a new horizon.

For the first time, at Dehradun, in September 2019, for a week over breakfast, lunch and dinner I would meet Vikas and discuss with him about teaching design. I had never spoken with him regarding this before and hearing his wisdom and experiences meant a lot. During my 2.5 years of work at NID while sitting in various offices, I had quietly observed Suranjana – Vikas Satwalekar, Aditi – MP Ranjan, Neelam Iyer – Siddhartha Ghosh, along with Pradeep Choksi, SM Shah, Jadliwala interact with their students, it taught me to navigate the world of design education. Imparting the highest quality education to their students formed the core of their life and Vikas reiterated this at Dehradun.

I invited him over to review the first week of the course and he was absolutely delighted at the work and direct responses of the students. I had been teaching them to research and analyse from history the objects that made for iconic design and Vikas suggested that why were they not learning something more modern and going back in time instead, I said that I was planning to do that for the next batch from next week. He was happy to hear that. Whenever I have seen Vikas so happy, he would be surrounded by students. In his 70s, he did not intimidate these 18 year olds and they argued and laughed together πŸ™‚

There’s a small story behind this yellow shirt Vikas is wearing here πŸ™‚ he’s known for his love for yellow. At his farewell at NID in 2003, his last batch of Graphic Design students had gifted him a bright yellow Tshirt with “Jolly” stamped on it (he used that word a LOT). What a farewell that was, when Vikas had said “I’ll do something I always wanted to do” and started unbuttoning his shirt. There was a collective gasp at the NID Auditorium and then he took off his shirt and revealed the Tshirt he had been gifted. There had been quite a huge sensation! Now, in 2019 when he was wearing this yellow shirt, some of his former students now teaching at this design institute started teasing him about it. He said he could wear it as Suranjana was not around else she wouldn’t allow it as she didn’t like it. We all laughed and I messaged a photo of him wearing it to Suranjana adding that he liked my students’ work (believe it, there was no other intention). Next day over lunch someone asked him about Suranjana and he gestured towards me and said that “I have to be careful, else Suranjana comes to know what I have said about her, from that girl.” We all laughed so so much and he went on to elaborate how scared he was of her! Such craziness it was!!! So much to learn from the bond of this duo – Suranjana and Vikas.

This photograph is from a meeting at that same Dehradun institute where Vikas mentioned – “we have to learn to think digitally” – while advising about new courses and curricula. Coming from a man in his 70s who did not have any social media accounts it meant a lot – he did not want to do away with the older methods of teaching but just would have liked to incorporate them into the contemporary communication media. It was a long meeting and we had discovered the chips they served was quite good and somehow I managed to grab a few packets from the guy who was serving us tea. When I gave a small such packet to Vikas, he laughed and thanked me profusely adding “how resourceful”.

The most important lesson regarding teaching which I heard from Vikas was when I questioned him how in less time, with limited scope of a curriculum, would I ensure that everyone in the large class of nearly 60 students got to learn equally – he thought and told me to address the “least common denominator”. He also said that if I didn’t know any answer then I should admit that to my students, look for the answer and reply them later.

There’s also one more day I can recollect when there was a review of the work of the solitary student of Fashion Design. She was terribly scared with her situation and Vikas was kindly leading her through it. He asked her about the co relation between cars and fashion and garments during the WW2 and she hadn’t quite made that connection. He turned around waiting for someone to answer him, luckily I could explain to her. And, Vikas turned to me and thanked me! Again, he really didn’t need to but he did πŸ™‚

These photographs are from a small lunch outing at Dehradun where Vikas was busy capturing everything. He ensured that everyone ordered what they wanted and no one felt left out. When I requested for a group photo, which I always do, he refused to come in the front saying that he wouldn’t like anyone to see his belly! He was trying to lose weight. We had many group photos as the enthusiastic waiter kept making us pose from multiple angles. It was an outing full of laughter, fun and positivity – an afternoon to remember forever.

I last saw Vikas at NID in October 2019 for a bit when we were both visiting the campus for Garba. He was in Ahmedabad for some work and dropped by one evening. At one point he was surrounded by some of his former students who had joined NID in the late 90s. I watched him look up to them from his chair and his eyes and face were filled up with such pride and glow! As the ED, Vikas had ensured that the students get the best exposure and talented faculty and professionals from across the world were invited to teach, and most of his students had rewarded him back by becoming stalwarts in their respective fields. Which means, as a leader and faculty for nearly five decades, he had succeeded in doing what he had set out to – address the least common denominator. When he saw me, he laughed out loud and remarked, “goodness, this girl is everywhere!” I will always remember that laugh – how could one ever forget it?

Yes, Vikas. I will definitely always watch out for what you have asked me to – the least common denominator. Thank you for everything, always ❀

I will leave you all with these two small videos (taken from my mobile) of Vikas talking about colour to some young aspiring designers at Dehradun. I had always heard of his colour classes at NID so when Prasun Chakravarty said that Vikas would review the classes he had just completed teaching, I requested him to call me for it. What a treat it was to hear Vikas – he loved colour and colour loved him back.

Hard to realise it’s not a year but a decade has started without Vikas!

Suranjana – thank you for fact checking!

*The current TISS logo was designed by Vikas for their 75th anniversary.

**The Discovery of India exposition was designed by NID in the late 80s and early 90s based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s book on the same name. It involved nearly all the NID faculty members, across multiple disciplines. You can see the large artwork by the eminent artist Suhas Bahulkar there. The textual content for the section ‘Impact of the West’ was written by renowned historian and author Mukul Kesavan. If you haven’t seen it, then do visit it asap: – it’s a fascinating walk through pages of such an important book.

All photos and videos taken by the blog author: Poulomi Das. One photograph of Vikas Satwalekar taken by K K Muralidharan, as mentioned. Kindly credit us before reuse.


8 thoughts on “Vikas Satwalekar: Colour personified

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  1. A moving tribute Paolomi. Did not get to meet Vikas, but certainly got acquainted through the warm memories you shared of him.
    Brings back my own memories of similar interactions with our dear profs at CEPT, Ahmedabad.
    May his soul rest in peace.


  2. Lovely letter, Poulomi! And you have such fond memories of your interactions with him, both educative and funny! The last two videos remind me of my first semester in the design school – god knows how many iterations it took me to achieve the colour swatches correct (or perhaps passable for the course πŸ˜„). His method of piecing swatches together from two different paper sheets is actually brilliant – it would certainly make the colour strip appear seamless, without shadows on the edges!


  3. This was such an informative blog, felt as if we were there with you. Never met Sir, but feel as though he has tought me throughout, with your anecdotes.


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