With Sudarshan Dheer’s passing, India’s graphic design industry loses a man who helped shape its definition
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say Sudarshan Dheer pioneered graphic design in India. Recognizable to this day, his logos for Kissan, Titan and Hindustan Petroleum are iconic and have stood the test of time. His rigorous criteria for what was acceptable in the conceptualization, composition and execution of designs set new standards in the industry.
His list of clients reads like an A to Z of giants spanning industries. From Aakar Art Gallery to BILT-Ballapur Industries Ltd., Delhi to Cement Corporation of Gujarat Ltd to Dinodia Photo Library, Essar Group, and continuing all the way down to ICICI Bank, IDBI Bank, K Raheja Corp, Strand Book Stall, Titan Industries Ltd, Tribhuvandas Bhimji Zaveri, and Zenith Tin Works Pvt. Ltd.
His legacy is contained in his work, something his daughter, Ar. Gauri Dutta Roy has, among all his other work and ideas, preserved in a file of Dheer’s rules on branding. He formulated these guidelines along with an extensive questionnaire which he put to the companies that wished him to design for them. These form the treasure trove of literature in his office, which Dutta has not had the heart to remove, yet, from his office. Among these are shelves of Korean and Japanese art books; cultures that left a deep impact upon him.
Sudarshan Dheer was keen to have Indian graphic design find its place and be recognized on the world stage. Towards this, he compiled The World of Symbols/Logos & Trademarks – India, a book of logos of India. Dutta Roy remembers that this was before the days of email and mobile phones, so letters were written to designers all over the country; responses arrived over the course of the year.
Ar. Gauri Dutta Roy once asked him why he had so many books. Dheer replied that it was his way of learning since he had not gone to a college to study design formally. He had run away to Mumbai from Kanpur at the age of 16; later, he did five years of fine arts at the Sir J J College Institute of Applied Art. Meanwhile, he worked part-time in an ad agency and designed film posters through a connection with a cousin who worked in Bollywood. Around the late 1950s, Dheer subscribed to the American Print Magazine and was impacted by the creation of an identity for companies such as IBM, CBS and 3M.
During his career, he worked with National Advertising and MCM before starting his own design studio Graphic Communication Concepts. His break came when Hindustan Petroleum wanted a new identity and threw the doors open to all graphic designers in the country by holding an all-India competition. Dheer was up against heavyweights like Hindustan Thompson Associates, Lintas and the National Institute of Design. All he had was a hired table and a landline that he had set up with the help of some friends at their studio. Three weeks and 50 hand-drawn story boards later, he had won over the jury and the prize.
His iconic logo for HP was only the first of a staggeringly tall career filled with rebranding exercises that he performed with the skill of a practiced surgeon. He did the corporate packaging for jam and ketchup behemoth Kissan, showing that a well-made graphic design had just as much selling power as photos of luscious, shiny fruit.
He designed the entire signage for headlining names such as DHL (Mumbai), EsselWorld Amusement Park (Mumbai), Mukand Limited (Mumbai), World Trade Centre (Mumbai) and Vashi Railway Station (Navi Mumbai).
Sudarshan Dheer did across-the-board design for companies from annual reports, to corporate literature and branding and soon attracted an international clientele that included Hide Craft (New York), Indogem Inc. (Belgium), Jewellex (New York), RosyBlue (Belgium).
Dheer was not a passive observer to design stimuli around him. His philosophy kept evolving and earned him more awards than any tribute can do justice to. During a visit to Expo ’70 in Japan in 1973, he met renowned Japanese designers Katzumi Masaru and Ikko Tanaka. He maintained a correspondence with Masaru who published his works Graphic Design Japan, a graphic design magazine.
Yet, there were many aspects to him that must be included in any attempt at painting a profile of him. A polymath, he pursued completion in everything he did. Being an early riser and a spiritualist, he channeled his energy into learning new things all the time.
While he was not the typical parent, Dheer was a hands-on parent in a very different way. He attended lectures by J Krishnamurti (among others) at St Xaviers College and took his daughters with him. Other than that, his two daughters were free to follow their own path. Dheer experimented and practiced alternative healing therapies like Reiki, urine therapy and past life regression. Yet, he had an active socio-cultural life too. His Sunday mornings with friends watching classics from all over the world were a learning experience for Dutta Roy. He learned some Bengali and knew Urdu too since he was from Punjab. Dutta Roy remembers his tremendous drive and energy to make the most of his life; this will be his enduring legacy.