The 'Desi' Designer
If indigenous design has to progress, designers are a must. In Rajesh Mirajker, we have, perhaps, the most promising talent. Gautam Sen profiles Mirajker and his work.
There are just these some people who can live their dreams - a handful only. For the others, there are all those excuses: a lack of opportunities, a lack of initiative - the wrong country, the lack of scope etc. But for those few who live their dreams, life must be a delightful existence. And those few who live their dreams, also make it to the big time.
Rajesh Mirajker is one such person. Like many of us, Rajesh is also an enthusiast, an automobilist. And like many of us, Rajesh has always been doodling away on scraps of paper. Doodling away pencil sketches of dream cars and dream bikes. Others like him, also doodled when they were in school, but grew up and took up careers as engineers, accountants, or doctors. Very few had the foresight or the perseverance to take up a career as a designer of automobiles. Of course, a decade ago, if you said you wanted to be an automobile designer, all the elders would have told you to dream your dreams elsewhere. Not in India, they would say. There was no scope and no hope for an indigenous industry to design its own vehicles. The concept was as crazy as having Malcolm Forbes as chief of the Soviet politburo.
So when Rajesh Mirajker wanted to fashion a career in design, he did face such doubting Thomases. But fortunately, he came from a family of enthusiasts — his father, especially, encouraged him to pursue a career in design. But how do you go about learning the abc of design?
In the early '80s, in India, there was only one design institute - the National Institute of Design (NID) at Ahmedabad. Rajesh applied for admission, and was selected. Interestingly enough, the sketches he showed, on application, were those of cars, and the examiners were most impressed as, till then, most students of NID were into fashion design, or the graphic arts, or industrial design. Nobody had ever evinced any interest in automobile design. And in that, Rajesh was different, and was a subject of much interest amongst the NID faculty. Thus it came to pass that when Rajesh had to choose a project at NID, the subject was automobiles.
The project had to be co-ordinated with a commercial organisation, the designing of a product for them. Rajesh decided to do a project for Standard Motors Products of India Ltd (SMPIL). One reason was that SMPIL was from his hometown, Madras; the other, that SMPIL was most enthusiastic about the project.
SMPIL, at that time, was going ahead with the production of the Standard 2000. And it was also producing the Standard 20. A light commercial vehicle, the Standard 20, produced in reasonable numbers, had been the mainstay for SMPIL through the '70s and into the '80s. But the pinch of competition from the new Japanese-collaborated LCV manufacturers was being felt. Thus SMPIL realised the need to modernise and update its existing range of vehicles.
Rajesh Mirajker was given a clear-cut brief. He had to redesign the LCV to rival the Indo-Japanese models in style, comfort and ergonomics. It also had to appeal to the driver. Hence it was necessary to design a vehicle that would be semi-forward in its seating - to provide some amount of protection to the driver and other occupants - and, at the same time, as space-efficient as possible.
Additionally, the design brief clearly spelt that while the windscreen could be a one-piece curved glass, the side-windows had to be flat, and the design modular enough to be converted into a van or a bus. Additionally, the vehicle had to be made available in cowl-and-chassis form, and a variety of wheelbase lengths. The result of this demanding brief was the Ranger, the illustrations of which are on page 43.
The other brief Mirajker received was to design a vehicle that would use the mechanicals available with SMPIL - a multi-purpose van (MPV). Seeing the success of the Maruti van, it offered considerable scope for a vehicle that would be a people-carrier, that would find a slot between a large family-car and a light commercial vehicle, with a variety of applications between the categories.
The vehicle also had to suit different purposes with variations in the body-panel configurations, the suspension, the engine, and a choice of two payloads. The use of mechanical aggregates that were already in production in the design details, were geared towards production economy. Rajesh's proposal, the Lenca, answers all these requirements in design. It is functional, simple, and yet aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, none of these designs went very far. Beyond detailed drawings and layouts, the only thing Rajesh did was to build one-eighth scale models of both these concepts. The Ranger did undergo some wind-tunnel testing in its scale-model form, but that was it. SMPIL's financial position being what it was, the company could not progress any further. And Rajesh's project remained a project on paper.
Subsequent to his completing his course at NID, Rajesh, with his impressive portfolio consisting of the proposals for SMPIL and various renditions and illustrations, approached many other major auto manufacturers in India.
Bajaj Auto Ltd asked for, and was given various styling proposals, but nothing much came of that either. The first company that reacted positively to Rajesh's designs was Ashok Leyland. It was planning a vehicle for the eight-ton category to rival Telco's 608, and needed a design that would be more modern and smarter than that of Telco's.
The various styling themes proposed by Rajesh were examined and evaluated by the Ashok Leyland management. In time, the styling themes were narrowed down to, essentially, two rather straightforward ideas - one of which was finally decided upon. The vehicle, the Chital, evolved from renditions to detailed drawings, thereupon to scale models, and then to a mock-up which eventually progressed to the prototype stage.
Ashok Leyland are readying the Chital for production now. I sighted a bus version of it at the ARAI, Pune, a couple of months ago. Though the design looked good on paper, in reality, it hasn't come through that well. But then, it must have been a pre-production version as it lacked detail finish.
In the meantime, Rajesh, who had also been approaching other companies, was approached by Hindustan Motors' earth-moving division, which has been developing earth-movers and dumpers which are poised to enter the international market. The company had been sorting the vehicles' competent mechanicals with its own R&D, but it lacked expertise in styling, and so, turned to Mirajker for just that.
In the international market, shapes are very important and modern and aesthetic designs, a must. Currently, Rajesh is working on that, on a retainership with Hindustan Motors. Additionally, Hindustan Motors have also sounded him out on other projects. Perhaps for their car range...
Rajesh, working for Telco, has also been involved in the redesigning of the interior of the Tata 407. It is quite possible that he will be involved in other Telco designs, too, in the near future.
But at present, Rajesh has his hands more than full, and cannot contemplate taking on any more projects. His designs, as you can see, are very functional and practical; his detailing very fine, with superb renditions. Additionally, his understanding of automobile engineering, by way of chassis design, suspension and engine design, is comparable to that of any engineer's. Though his designs may come in for criticism by way of aesthetics, his concepts can easily be concretised. His influences are essentially German as he is a fan of the German school of design, essentially that of Porsche. And the influences show in his designs. According to Rajesh, the best design ever, is that of the original Porsche 911. But what we would like to know is what Butzi Porsche thinks of Rajesh's designs? We think they are great.