Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Politicizing the Sacred: Religious Architecture in the Konkan

This essay is jointly written by Smita Dalvi and Mustansir Dalvi.

It was first published in Take on Art, Volume IV, Issue 13, January 2014. The central theme of this special issue was 'Sacred', guest edited by Nancy Adajania.

All photographs (c) the authors. All rights reserved.

Politicizing the Sacred: Religious Architecture in the Konkan   

For the most part, the cultural geography of the Konkan belt of India’s western coast has been a palimpsest of sub-communities marked by a congruence of cultural practices, sharing food habits, ways of dressing, surnames, attitudes and most significantly a language, Marathi, in common. This cosmopolitan self-similarity is equally manifest in the ways of building, craft practices developed over time, out of the use of local materials, and responding to the tropical monsoon climate. While the several different communities in the Konkan followed their own socio-religious practices, the physical manifestation of the public realm rarely indicated difference. The shared expression of physical presence was largely similar in shape and scale, resulting in various iterations, smaller or larger, of modest buildings in brick, timber and laterite stone in a low-rise domestic scale.

Bhagvati Devi Temple complex at Dhamapur – aesthetics of timber
Deulwadi- a prominent chowk in Uran surrounded by shops and temples

The sacred architecture of the Konkan too for the most part, followed a non-monumental yet urbane scale. These spaces were functional, built quite like the domestic homes that their worshippers lived in and were self-similar irrespective of religious affiliation. This domestic scale, both of homes and religious places, wove together into a built fabric that made the towns of the Konkan small centres of urbanity, all the way from Panvel to the south-east of Bombay down the Konkan coast to Goa. Elsewhere, we have referred to this as a state of ‘unselfconscious cosmopolitanism’, which quietly echoed their other practices, like food, appearance and ritual. Spaces for reverence were spaces for functional practices, not for sub-community image-building. The Konkani identity subsumed all others, and the interchangeability of practice was common across religions.

Friday Mosque at Vijaydurg – non-monumental, domestic scale

Bene Israel Synagogue at Revdanda- Shrine with sloped roof, nestling in the neighbourhood

Such unselfconscious cosmopolitanism in the Konkan evolved over the last three centuries and manifested itself in the ways of living. Every community, whether the Brahmins, the Kolis, the Jains, the Bohras, the Parsis, the Bene Israel (the native Jews of the Konkan) used language and ritual interchangeably, and even internalised cultural signification. A charming, poignant example of this trait is seen on a tombstone in a Bene Israeli cemetery in Panvel, which has been inscribed with a verse in Marathi from a wife to her departed husband. She compares her husband with ‘Ek-vachani Ram’ (Lord Rama, who was always true to his word) and also with the purity of ‘Gangajal’ (holy water of the Ganges). The wife, Ruby-Bai Chincholkar, seeks God’s blessing to get the same husband, Benjamin, for the next seven lifetimes. This example is not an isolated one, and similar syncretism is visible in the traditions of the other communities too, such as the Konkani Muslims referring to their deceased elders as ‘Kailaswasi’ (residing in their heavenly abode, that is Kailash, traditionally a Shaivite usage).

When the attributes of identity, such as religion or caste, are mapped on those of geography and language, we get a matrix of sub-cultures. Such a theory explains the concept of culture as constituting various overlapping circles of commonalities, allowing for distinctiveness as well as assimilation; this process, in turn, provides locations for syncretism, which blurs boundaries. Geography itself cannot be fixed in terms of physical boundaries: the cultural geography of one region will overlap with those of surrounding regions. It is in this condition of blurred boundaries that we may situate the comfortable coexistence of the communities in the Konkan.

This comfortable syncretism forms the binding glue that holds the community together. It is embedded in the structures created by these communities, from abodes to places of worship. Public life and the public aspect of buildings emerged over several generations of unchanging existence and became concretized. All these sacred buildings looked similar from the outside. To seek specific religious signification, one had to go within, to spot the specific accoutrements of religion and ritual. Temples, mosques, dargahs, derasars, agiaries and synagogues all accommodate various acts of worship but modestly eschew the demonstrations of communal identity. We describe this Konkani architecture as ‘non-monumental, non-iconic, at once contemplative, urbane and self-similar.’ To a certain extent this was also because the religious sites were built privately, by those in wealth rather than by those in power.  Some temples, for example were built for private worship, and were sited close to the large wadas that were once a significant typology of the built landscape.

Typically, these communities remained unchanged, even backward for a large part of their existence. Change, as is inevitable, came to the Konkan, and when it did it was fast and irreversible. Since the time of economic liberalization, and the schisms created by the events of the early 1990s, the dismantling of the cosmopolitan ideal has been rapid. One can see a correlation between the rise in affluence and its concurrent rise in aspiration, pan-Indian influences and global imperatives of homogenization. A major outcome has been the need to define and assert a distinct and non-interchangeable religious identity through material signification.

In the case of the religious architecture of the Konkan, this can be seen in a dissatisfaction with buildings that are undifferentiated on the exterior. The imperative of competitive religious valorisation, as well as the influx of wealth, are expressed in the desire for the monumental. These new factors of cultural and political aspiration are articulated through the reconstruction of existing sacred sites in bigger and taller avatars. This process results in strange manifestations of religious architecture that have no precedent in the history of the region’s architecture. The ‘tamir’ of mosques and the ‘jirnoddhar’ of temples has led to the dismantling of pre-existing domestic-scaled buildings, and their replacement by shikharas, minarets or domes, which vaguely mimic generic Hindu, or Muslim, or Jain architectural forms.

Virupaksha Temple at Panvel- urbane and sophisticated, originally located along a chowk

Virupaksha Temple at Panvel after jirnoddhar - an altered scale aspiring to monumental

This new monumental is achieved, inevitably, through the use of modern material technology such as reinforced cement concrete (RCC). The edifices of concrete, plaster and paint that are thus produced have no connection with the local traditions of craft and expertise. What they express is a larger-than-life semantic, quite without aesthetic precedent, where big is big for its own sake. This vulgarization of the original aesthetics of the religious place mirrors the replacement of a once low-rise domestic urban scale by an emergent high-rise concrete jungle.

Hanuman Temple in Panvel- after jirnoddhar of the original brick and timber shrine- concrete shikhara and arches- an aesthetics without precedent

Addition to a timber mosque in Panvel -  a concrete and plaster gateway designed to mimic a tomb with un- proportionate minarets and dome

The urbane cohesiveness that once bound communities together has frayed, with social identity taking a backseat to card-carrying religious membership in full display. The irony here is that this change is emanating from the community itself. The attitude here is not self-reflexive, but mainly aspirational. The community is at ease with these changes and considers them to be a demonstrable scaling up of their standards of life. What has become irrevocable is the transformed image of the city. The skylines now clearly identify these new changes as religious landmarks that are visibly different from one another.

The dismantling of the older, formerly self-similar religious structures, replaced by an aspirational hypermodernity of symbols, in fact, signals the de-cosmopolitanization of the small towns of the Konkan. The new praxis politicizes the sacred by creating dominant signifiers in the skyline, under-pinning the fragmentation of identities forged on difference and otherness.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Luc Durand: Making Architecture in Interesting Times

Luc Durand, a Canadian Architect who worked in India between 1959 and 1962 participated in an extraordinarily experimental phase of Indian Modern when 'anything was possible'. His later well-known work include the Quebec Pavilion in the 1967 Quebec Expo and the Games Village for 1976 Montreal Olympics.

First published in DOMUS India (vol 1, issue 9) in August 2012 as
 "Making Architecture in Interesting Times"
     by Smita Dalvi
Luc Durand on the site of 1961 Delhi Industrial fair
Source: DOMUS India
Luc Durand (b.1929) is the Canadian architect of such landmark buildings as the Quebec pavilion (1967) and Montreal Olympic Village (1976). He is a little known figure in India- familiar only to architects now in their seventies- a memory was long buried until recently. This year, Durand chose to return to Delhi- a city in which he spent three years between 1959 and 1962 as a young man, where he was an active participant in an energetic phase of its architectural discourse. His work was celebrated recently in his home country with a retrospective exhibition of a career in architecture spanning 60 years- including his years in India. This retrospective, the exhibits, his visit to Delhi and his conversations here not only re-kindled memories of the older generation but also opened up a new perspective on a very interesting   phase of our country’s architectural development.

In the post-war, post-colonial world of the fifties people and ideas travelled across the seas without much hindrance. The citizens of the Commonwealth were free to travel and live in India without needing visa or permits. That’s how Luc Durand, who apprenticed under Jack Vicajee Bertoli in Geneva, arrived in Delhi. The firm had received commissions to design and execute Air India booking offices and Durand was in charge of this project. He set up office in New Delhi with eight graduates from the Delhi University. Durand not only oversaw the booking offices, but stayed on to work on several more projects. His Delhi experience shaped his future work in Canada and his work left an intangible imprint on the evolving architectural discourse in Delhi at that time.

The fifties characterized the birth of a nation state nurtured by Nehruvian ideals of modernity. Young architects were sent to Harvard and MIT on government scholarships and returned home to practice. Le Corbusier was invited to plan the new capital for Punjab. The Chandigarh Project with its audacious designs of the capitol complex had in its construction the involvement of many young Indian architects and engineers whose own later work bore the stamp of the Chandigarh experience. Durand knew Pierre Jenneret and visited him several times to witness the construction of the buildings in Chandigarh. His photographs of those times formed an interesting document of the times when displayed in his retrospective.

Durand was born to a French Canadian father, who was an unlettered and modest construction laborer, who through hard work, set up a family construction enterprise and got his children educated. Durand joined the École des beaux-arts de Montréal to study architecture, which closed down as the students rebelled against mindlessly copying Paris buildings. In 1951, he went to the School of Architecture, University of Geneva to continue his studies under Eugène Beaudoin and received a cutting edge modernist education, besides going on field trips all over Europe.

Durand arrived in Delhi at the age of 30. The airline booking office project took a few months. Despite this, he stayed on for three years before returning to Canada. During this time he made diverse designs- private houses, apartments, cinemas, furniture, fabric, rugs, painting, and even urban planning. The most important among his works were 18 temporary pavilions on the Exhibition ground (that is today’s Pragati Maidan) for the Indian Agricultural & Industrial Fair in 1961.
Air India Pavilion for Delhi Industrial Fair 1961
Source: DOMUS India
These fairs were held to showcase  the industrial progress and production prowess of the new nation state. The pavilions had to be innovative and reflective of the new energy of an independent nation. Durand’s response was to freely experiment with new materials like concrete and steel. The result was creating structures that were not attempted before. “Exhibitions are fun,” he says, “they are meant to be seen and for that you need to be different. What we gain from exhibitions are new ways of expression.” His pavilion for the State Trading Corporation was ‘especially daring, a four-inch thick shell dome, tapered elegantly to three points on a confined triangular site. Sinuous gray stone walls wove exterior and interior spaces together, guiding visitors along paths of precast slabs set in white stone pebbles. The outer walls flowed into the interior spaces of the pavilion.’ The other notable design was the Martin Burn Pavilion with a metallic space frame roof supported by only two boxed columns. ‘The roof seemed to levitate above the building. Illuminated at night, the pavilion dissolved into a web of glowing triangular forms, celebrating the new electrical power of Nehru’s India’.
Martin Burn Pavilion under construction
Source: DOMUS India
The experiments in exhibition pavilion design hugely influenced his work in Canada after his return. Durand came of age, in a manner of speaking, when he won the competition for the Quebec Pavilion in the Quebec Expo of 1967. This was the most influential exposition ever, with landmark works like Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome and Moshe Safdie’s Habitat. Durand’s work was worthy of this exalted company. His steel and glass pavilion both harked back to the Martin Burn pavilion and drew acclaim and comparison with Mies van der Rohe.
Quebec Pavilion
Source: http://www.canadiandesignresource.ca/expo-67/quebec-pavilion/

His next important challenge was the athlete’s village for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. For this landmark building, Durand put to use ideas he had worked on for an unrealized hotel project in Agra. He incorporated ideas from social housing, a subject of lifelong concern. For Durand, the Indian approach to design and architecture complemented his formal education. The Montreal Games Village was to house 10,000 athletes. Here, he transformed the truncated pyramids of the unbuilt Agra hotel into multi-storied stacks of rooms with circulation on both sides without an inside corridor. One side functioned as a street and the other was a variation facing the garden. This allowed through ventilation and made the streets open and visible. Later, of course, the complex would be utilized as housing. Durand wanted to create a village like atmosphere. He knew how villages worked and was convinced that it was possible to recreate them in a city. According to him, a slum is a village, poor perhaps but with community areas and where all services are organized in a network. That is what he sought to evoke in the Olympic village- a secure, calm, functional and interconnected environment.
Games Village at Montreal
Source: Wikipedia
During his visit to India earlier this year, in a conversation at the Max Muller Bhavan, Delhi, Durand summarized what he learnt from India: The first learning was the use of models as a common language between the architect, contractor and labour. As plans are abstract, the model works better as a working drawing. In his office, he had a model maker who was also a cabinet maker and together they made experimental models with teak, plaster and wire. The second learning was an awareness of different work ethics- the manner of getting the building works done instead of being tied to a standard contract. The Final learning was to keep a positive attitude always towards difficult situations. For Durand, constraints brought out resourceful and artistic creations.

As a young foreigner practicing in Delhi, although he did not need permits to live or work, he still faced hard times, especially for building permissions without paying a bribe. “It is possible to build with vision, determination and association with right people.” He became a close friend of Habib Rahman who had recently returned from studying at MIT under Walter Gropius and was creating his own brand of regional modernism. Rahman commissioned him to paint a mural in the lobby of the Sheila theatre, the first cinema hall with a 70mm screen. This vibrant abstract composition in yellow, blue and red still adorns the lobby, preserved intact.
Mural in the lobby of Sheila Theatre, Delhi
Source: http://sukanyarahman.com/tag/shiela-theatre/

Durand also remembered those people that influenced his work. From John Bissel, founder of Fab India, with whom he shared an apartment in Delhi, he learnt about the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and value of cottage industries. He designed textiles, rugs and furniture for this chain of stores set up to popularize locally made Indian fabrics. Another influential figure was Patwant Singh, an aesthete who brought out a magazine called “Design”, one of the rare magazines ever published in the country dedicated to an informed debate on architecture and design. Durand acknowledges that Singh’s critical comments helped to improve his practice, he even designed his house in Delhi. At the time, Patwant Singh was a rallying figure for young Delhi architects and wielded influence in shaping opinions and mentoring a critical attitude in them.

Luc Durand also delved in planning- he worked out schemes for master plans of Delhi and Calcutta and for civic centers in parts of Delhi. None of which materialized but they did help shape his own theories in Urban Planning, reflected later in his many proposals for Montreal. He was even involved in making two documentary film series produced by Canadian National film Board- ‘Urbanose’ and ‘Urba 2000’, now regarded as milestones in social documentary. These films, on shaping the urban fabric of our everyday lives, focused on social housing, an important issue at the time.

As the late fifties spilled into the sixties, Delhi’s architecture grew in optimism, in a spirit of experimentation and enormous confidence. There was a shift away from making references to the past, whether Mughal or Colonial. New materials made new expressions possible- the plasticity of concrete, the strength of steel combined with the knowledge of new structural systems; these were seized upon to shape a distinct Indian Modern. Many significant buildings of Delhi built at that time are remarkable for their unabashed modernism and use of concrete, particularly J. K. Chowdhury’s IIT (1961), Shivnath Prasad’s Akbar Bhavan(1969) and Sri Ram centre (1966-72), Rajinder Kumar’s Inter State bus Terminal (1971)and P.N. Mathur’s Chanakya cinema(1969).

Here, Luc Durand’s experimental legacy is important as his pavilions for the industrial fair were pioneering and trend setting. Today, Luc Durand’s pavilions are long gone-as they were meant to be temporary. His legacy is the abiding spirit of this heady period. He was here in New Delhi at a juncture when it was a fertile ground for new ideas. Later architects like Raj Rewal were personally influenced by Durand. Rewal’s own pavilions (1972) on the grounds of Pragati Maidan are remarkable for structural innovations, and a testimony to the precedent set by Durand. Rewal himself describes the phase as  heroic, imbued with a feeling that anything was possible.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Mosques of the Malabar: A Tradition in Timber

Mosques of the Malabar: a tradition in timber
by Smita Dalvi

First published in ‘Architecture, Time, Space and People’, a journal published by the Council of Architecture, India. [Vol 6 Issue 1] in January 2006.

I. Many Spaces
In the heart of Kozhikode (Calicut) lies a Muslim quarter called Kuttichira, home to the Mappila community. Centered on the sacred Kuttichira tank, you encounter several mosques, all traditionally built in timber.

Here is the Mishkaal Palli, the largest with roofs at four levels. It sits in close association with the tank. Not very far is the Jamaat Palli, the Friday mosque, on the other side of the tank. Smaller in size and at awkward angle to the narrow street, it proclaims an exact orientation to Mecca. Its front porch is marked by a heavily carved gable; matched by an exquisite timber ceiling, with floral, geometric and calligraphic motifs. It has two light wells, one over the ablution tank and another inside the prayer hall. The forms of the light wells remind us of the tight courtyards of the domestic Nallakettu with roof overhangs sloping down from all four sides.

Jamaat Palli

Further down the same street is the Muchhandi Palli, one among the oldest mosques. Here too are ornately carved ceilings and gables. Its mimbar is famous for epigraphical inscriptions attesting to its unique history. It is fronted by a small chowk where the street widens out before merging with other narrow lanes. During Ramzan, this outdoor space is covered with plastic and bamboo canopies. Ramzan is special in Kuttichira.  The evenings come alive when men, women and children turn out on the streets to break their fasts with savories sold in little shops.

Hydross Palli
In contrast, the Hydross Palli is modest in size and fits snugly into the urban fabric, with a front verandah as an intermediary space. After taking a round in Kuttichira, your explorations will lead you to the ancient Thali temple, with many architectural precedents for what you saw earlier.

All these mosques display the craft of construction in timber. Typical curved wooden screens light and ventilate the upper rooms.  Gables are reserved for special attention with intricately carved details painted blue, green and yellow.  The shapes of wooden pillars and brackets and the nail-less joinery of rafters all bear testimony to an age-old expertise.

II. Trade along the Malabar
The architecture of Islam in Kerala is generally ignored in books on Indo-Islamic architecture. Islam arrived on the Malabar Coast five centuries before its political domination in northern India. It almost certainly had early converts here before anywhere outside Arabia. This is not surprising, considering the proximity of the two coastlines and existing trade links from pre-Islamic times. A short detour from Kuttichira is Beypore on the coast, where today’s shipyards are still busy building dhows commissioned by Arabs from the Gulf. Watching them at work, one gains an understanding into centuries old connections. Arab merchants traded Indian spice with other parts of the known world. A number of them set up households in the Malabar as well, and it is through them that Islam’s message reached India.[1]   According to legend, Malik-ibn-Dinar, a contemporary of the prophet Muhammad was amongst the earliest of the converted to land at Crangannur (Cannanore) along with his family. They presented themselves in the court of Cheraman Perumal, a Chera king, in AD642-643 or Hijri 22.[2]  Malik-ibn-Dinar built the first mosque there. This was followed by eleven more along the coast. [3]  These mosques are some of the oldest to be established, not only in India but also in the Islamic world. It is interesting to compare this with the story of Mar Thom: St. Thomas, one of Christ’s apostles, who according to legend, arrived on Kerala’s shores in AD52 and established a church.

Islam spread in Kerala through migration from Arabia and the gradual conversion of native populations. By the twelfth century AD, there were at least ten major settlements of Muslims distributed from Kollam (Quilon) in the south to Mangalore in the north. From around this time, the Zamorins ruled Calicut, where Arab merchants shipped pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and ginger. Each settlement developed with a mosque as its center.[4]   Mosque building in Kerala reached its zenith between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries- the period of Arab supremacy in maritime trade with the Malabar.[5]

III. A Culture of Influences
The many traditional mosques in Kerala are different from those in the imperial and provincial Indo-Islamic styles throughout the sub-continent. Religious architecture in Kerala emerged from domestic traditions and mosques were no exception. Like Kerala’s timber temples, both take from an architecture evolved from local climate, materials, culture and traditions of craft. In traditional dwellings like Nalakettus and Ekasalas, the concerns of torrential rain and the need for ventilation found expression in remarkable roof and wall elements, executed in abundantly available timber. Local artisans well versed with the craft constructed mosques under instructions of Muslim religious heads.  Their requirements were functional and simple. The existing models for places of worship were temple gateways (gopura) or theatre halls (koothambalam), and these were adapted for the new religion.
Gopura of Thali Temple in Kozhikode

 IV. Tradition in Timber
A traditional mosque in the Malabar comprises of a large prayer hall with a mihrab on the western wall and enclosed verandahs on the sides that serve as spillover space. A front verandah facing the street becomes a transition space that often leads to a front hall preceding the main prayer hall. An ablution tank is accommodated on one side. The entire structure is raised on a tall plinth/base, similar to the adhisthana of a temple. The walls are made of laterite. The tiled roof is at multiple levels, accommodating subsidiary spaces with elaborately carved gables. On occasion, the mosque is placed within an enclosure, accessed by gateways akin to Gopuras.

The structural system for the halls is of timber posts, beams and brackets. Often the columns are square or octagonal as in mandapa pillars. The roof is often covered with sheets of copper, incorporating finials in the ridge, borrowing form the temple stupi. Nakhudas or ship builders sculpted the mimbars in many mosques, representing the very best skills in woodcarving.
Detail of Odathi Palli in Thalassery
Most of the notable mosques are in northern Kerala, on the Malabar coast, in Kozhikode, Thalassery and Kasargod. Several similar examples can also be found in the Mallapuram  area. The mosque at Thazhathangdy, Kottayam is an example from south Kerala. If the mosques in Kuttichira are modelled on the domestic architecture of the Malabar and that of the temple gopuras, the Odathipalli at Thalassery is based on the kuthambalam. It rises on a striking adhisthana and its copper sheeted roof is adorned with exquisitely carved stupis. The mosque has gateways on the east and south and has carved interiors in wood. In Kasargod, one of the best-preserved mosques is that of Malik Dinar. Its clearly delineated storeys are like a large town house with a front porch. Its prayer hall is constructed with heavy sections of timber resting on wide pillars with rich surface carving. The mihrab is further screened from the hall as if to create an inner sanctum.
Palli at Thazhathangady, Kottayam
Many of the oldest established mosques are still extant today, albeit, with repairs and remodelling, as is the way with wooden buildings. They display a form of religious architecture that is non-monumental. They fit snugly into the urban fabric instead of towering above it. Other than functionally determined forms, they show no need to proclaim a religious identity. This architecture was the need of religion, but the product was of local culture and context. This pattern can be seen in other parts of the western coast, especially in Konkan where religious architecture of different faiths display a similar non-monumentality and a common language based on aesthetics of timber.

V. Engineered Symbols take over Traditions
In recent times, the traditional architectural features of the old mosques are in the process of being replaced. The use of arches, domes and minarets are projected as the only legitimate symbols of Islamic culture. A lot of this comes from a visual vocabulary specific to new mosques fuelled by a rising affluence- built in modern materials disregarding local sensibilities. Newly constructed mosques display a larger than life language without concern for the classical proportions of the very same elements. A mosque on the outskirts of Kuttichira is a typical example of this trend. Similar structures are coming up all over Kerala, modifying or mutilating old mosques built in the traditional fashion.
A new Mosque on the periphery of Kuttichira
It would be interesting to study this phenomenon from a socio-economic viewpoint: are the cultural forces that once determined the form of traditional mosques no longer operative? A community’s aspirations expressed in an assertive distinct identity other than one accepted over the centuries has political and economic causes. Architectural choices made by communities of the Malabar are significant, as they point to a rapidly transforming social structure in the light of urbanization and globalization.


 1. H. Sarkar in ‘Monuments of Kerala’ published by the ASI in 1992 refers to the flourishing ports of the Chera country having maritime activity with Arabia and China.

 2. This legend is corroborated by Dr. G.S. Khwaja of the Archeological Survey of India, in his paper at the 24th epigraphical congress in Thrissur. His research is based on an epigraph found on a wooden lintel in the mosque at Kasargod.

 3. T. P. Kutiyammu in  ‘Splendours of Kerala’, Marg Publications, 1979, has listed these early mosques. Even though mosques exist on these sites today, none of them has retained its original form or size.

 4. H. Sarkar in ‘Monuments of Kerala’ refers to the accounts by Arab travelers in 9th and 10th century.

 5.  Dr. G.S. Khwaja. Epigraphical data is recorded from the tombstones with dates, inscriptions of gifts and donations on mosques, and of renovations of mosques.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bold Contributions: A Review of Charles Correa's RIBA Exhibition

Bold Contributions
A recent exhibition of Charles Correa's works at the RIBA headquarters in London, with a provocative title, displays how his work follows the trajectory of the Indian nation state and addresses its quest for roots, identity and relevance; it brings once again into discussion the programme for an 'Indian' architecture.
First published in DOMUS India vol 2, issue 11 in October 2013

“Charles Correa India’s Greatest Architect”- is what the banners proclaim in the lobby of the RIBA head quarters in London. The same lobby also sports a wall of fame inscribing the names of the luminaries from across the world who are winners of the RIBA Gold Medal- the only name from India being that of Charles Correa. The grand staircase with gleaming details also sports these banners and guides the visitors from several countries to this iconic Art Deco building to a delightful exhibition of his works.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) recently paid tribute to Charles Correa in a retrospective of his lifetime’s work to coincide with, and to celebrate, the creation of the Correa archives to which this acclaimed Indian architect has bequeathed approximately 6000 items consisting of drawings, models, photographs and films. This forms the largest single gift to RIBA by a non-British architect. The archive will provide invaluable aid to students and researchers into Correa’s professional career which began in 1958 when he set up his practice in Bombay upon returning from America where he was educated. This period parallels India’s socio-political changes of the late fifties and early sixties, a period of internal churning in the new nation state. In his interview with Angela Brady, the President of RIBA, Correa describes the period as one of hope imbued with a feeling that everything was going to change in a new future.

The exhibition at RIBA, curated from the Correa archive by Irena Murray and designed by David Adjaye, appears lavishly mounted as audaciously named. The exhibition design takes cues from the architectural designs and seeks to reflect them in arrangements of plinths and pedestals using vibrant primary colours lending to a celebratory feel. Spread over two gallery spaces, it consists of large sized drawings, photographs, texts, recorded interviews on LCD screens, sketches and models- some of which are on display for the first time. The projects are organised thematically around the principal concerns in Correa’s work- the ‘ritualistic pathway’, the ‘empty centre’, open to sky spaces or ‘non-building’ and an overarching principle of ‘architecture as metaphor’- “...and that Man, since the beginning of time, has always used the most inert materials like stone and brick and wood to express the invisibilia that move him”. 

The exhibition takes the viewers through a journey of Correa’s work from the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya- one of his earliest public projects to the most recent one- the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, and in between landmarks such as National Craft Museum in Delhi, Vidhan Bhavan and Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, IUCAA at Pune, British Council at Delhi and MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex among others are prominently displayed. This journey gives a glimpse into the evolution of this influential architect and his synthesis of the principles of modernism with the traditions and spirit of India to formalise a contemporary Indian modern which is rooted in its environment and patterns of living. This same cultural sensibility inspires built forms in locations outside India.

Charles Correa sees in his Lisbon project a culmination of his principal concerns in architecture. He says in an essay written for book accompanying the exhibition: 
“It is first of all about open-to-sky space and the metaphysical enlightenment it can evoke. Then it is about the ritualistic pathway leading diagonally across the site to where the Tagus River joins the Atlantic ocean- the point from which Vasco da Gama and others set out on their voyages of discovery. Then it is about the empty centre and its energy. And also the non-building- the three long curved walls that define the walkway are gestures towards landscaping than building. And lastly, this centre built for cutting edge research in science and medicine, is also architecture as metaphor, as a journey into the unknown, evoking those incredible voyages of more than 500 years ago”. 
 In fact, this project forms the highlight of the exhibition with its evocative photographs, drawings and models which are available for viewing in this manner for the first time.

There are quite a few surprises on display among so many otherwise familiar objects for an Indian observer. For example, a wooden model of the Hindustan Lever Pavilion put up for the 1961 industrial fair in Delhi- a little known work of Correa in which he experimented with shortcrete concrete shells to create forms that resembled crumpled paper. Similar impulse for structural experimentation with concrete shells was seen later in his Portuguese Church at Dadar, Mumbai built in the mid-seventies where he combined unconventional and daring forms with light to create sublime space. One does not hesitate to consider this church a major omission in the exhibition. Similarly, there is a large wooden block model of the Kanchanjunga Apartments which had a section of it carved in exquisite detail to reveal the intricate layering of spaces. The other interesting exhibit is a large model of the facade of the British Council in New Delhi which bears the famous tree mural by Howard Hodgkin, a British artist and forms a part of artist’s own archive.

The Hindustan Lever Pavilion, besides articulating a faceted space, shows Correa innovating funnel like openings for convective heat loss that, in modified forms, appeared in other experimental projects such as the Tube House and later housing projects such as the Ramakrishna House in Ahmedabad. Sensitivity to the patterns of living and an abiding concern with climate mitigation informs his housing projects ranging in scale from private houses to group housing. This becomes an ever-present credo in his designs which he terms as “form follows climate”- forming yet another theme in the exhibition.

Correa’s social concerns and belief in the cities of India are articulated in his report for National Commission on Urbanisation and an ‘Urban Manifesto’ which reflects his attitude towards the city and in them his hope for the future. They form a key component of the last section in the exhibition- ‘The City as a Synergy’ which is dedicated to his proposals, plans and study reports on urban issues and planning. The vision plan for Navi Mumbai- a counter magnet across the harbour of Mumbai; Hawkers and pavement proposal for D.N. Road and Flora Fountain in the heart of the historic Fort area; and Parel Mill Land proposal- regeneration of defunct industrial tract for affordable housing and public open spaces for recreation- they all have an underlying theme of utilising city’s own resources ingeniously, particularly that of space for its regeneration and continual viability.

It is here that the irony of the present hits you with a heavy hand as these proposals have either remained on paper as in the case of the hawkers proposal, or got totally subverted by vested interests as in the case of Parel Mill Lands. The exhibition does not tell you the story of the city’s loss in ignoring these pragmatic solutions.

The development of Navi Mumbai after more than three decades of the original proposal has almost no residual vision left in it- not unlike the Belapur Housing project situated within the new city itself and which forms a part of this exhibition. Today, this project on ground remains totally unrecognisable from its original design- not due to need based increments but greed and speculation. The drawings and photographs have preserved the pristine but are utterly oblivious of the realities of the present and have just become museum pieces.

Correa acknowledges his frustration over the mess in our cities in his interview with the RIBA president, just the same he holds out a hope for the future. He advises young students to be passionate about architecture and stresses the role of architecture school is in teaching principles and how to ask right questions and not the tricks of the trade.

This exhibition at RIBA perhaps for the first time presents Correa’s ouvre in a comprehensive manner. His work follows the trajectory of the Indian nation state and addresses its quest for roots, identity and relevance. At a time when developments in India has aroused interest outside, particularly for international practices to gain a foothold in the architectural scene, this exhibition has firmly put down the conceptual program for an ‘Indian’ architecture to which they can aspire or contribute with a new vision. For architectural community in India who is well aware of his landmark works, it gives an opportunity to view his thought process from the very beginning of his career to the present time all in one place for them to grasp the enormity of his contribution towards shaping of the Indian modern and to take a stock for themselves as to what kind of future vision they would endow upon it.

The title of the exhibition in its bold pronouncement is provocative. That Charles Correa is India’s greatest architect is arguable but the range of his work and the principles that are articulated across them are unarguably most influential among post-independence architects.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Fast Car Slow City

So, I am a car owner now. Does it mean good bye to the Last Train to Panvel? Nah!
Firstly, it's going to take some time to get used to this new fact, considering that I never wanted to own a car. I mean, who wants the hassle of maintaining a white elephant, worry about one ways, traffic jams, parking, break-downs etc. etc. Taking trains, taxis etc. is actually so much more convenient.  And I would rather spend my savings on travelling, seeing my country and the world and so many other nice things in life.

Alas! Public transport has become a scarce and difficult commodity in this city. It doesn't augur well for our urban future if privately owned transport becomes a necessity rather than a luxury.

I had posted this earlier on this blog. I am forced to state that New Bombay is not a great city. I hope it becomes at least a good city while I am still alive.

In the mean-time, a car and a driver has brought a much needed convenience. Hujband says: stop complaining, feel happy.


Sunday, August 29, 2010


YouTube is fabulous. It lets one actually see events about which one has only heard about and that too vaguely.

“I have a dream” for me was one such event I knew about but had no real idea of how it unfolded or what it consisted of. Then I saw this clipping on the YouTube, to be totally swept off my feet. This legendary speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr from the Lincoln Memorial is a masterpiece of  courage of its conviction and the manner of oratory. It arouses an indescribable feeling even 47 years later, knowing fully well about the impact it had on the American mindscapes then. I have since watched this video clipping many times and even used it for teaching in my Humanities class.

During the very first viewing, I found two things particularly striking. The first was that several of the volunteers of the civil rights movement seen on the dias with Dr. King were wearing Gandhi caps. Although Dr. King never met Gandhi, he acknowledged the influence of Gandhi’s ideas and methods of civil disobedience on the struggle of Black population in America (children of former slaves) for equal rights.

The other striking thing was to see so many white folks among the multitudes who had thronged the Mall in Washington DC to listen to Dr. King. Several of them had brought their kids along and can be seen as hoisting the little ones on their shoulders so that they can have a better view. This is very significant as the Civil Rights Movement was not just fought by the aggrieved but also supported by the civil society at large that stood for justice.

I could not help drawing parallels with the struggle for Dalit rights in our country. In many ways the lot of Dalits in Indian society was far worse that of the Blacks in America. The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes consist of appx. 24% of our population. They have been historically excluded from Indian society for centuries. The struggle for Independence brought their plight in the foreground because of leaders like Gandhi and Ambedkar. In the ensuing free republic, their plight was formally recognized and measures of alleviation incorporated. Yet, in the advantaged civil society of our country, it is rare to find any empathy for this group. We even use the term SC/ST as an expression of derision. How many of us will ever attend a rally in support of the rights of some other section of our own society, let alone sensitizing our children to their plight?

It is not enough to have rights enshrined in the constitution. They are meaningless if there is lack of justice on ground. A civil society is one where the majority in mainstream stands up for the demand of justice for the minorities and marginalized.

 I do not know whether we are there yet.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye 2009

2009 was a good year. I went on two maha yatras: Spain and France in May and Ladakh in September, besides going to Aurangabad and Lonar during the Diwali holidays. Academically, it has been a taking it easy year: No Conferences and no research papers, yet an enjoyable year on the whole. Also, started this blog which is just a collection of random notes, more for myself and less intended for any readership. Not that there is any. I happily bid adieu to 2009. For the coming year, for the first time in my life, I make some resolutions.

In random order of importance:

1. Not sleep till late on non-working days.
2. Exercise more and remain healthy.
3. Cook and clean more often.
4. Write at least one blog-post per week.
5. Be more tolerant of fools.
6. Not waste time on the net.
7. Be more organized.
8. Actually start keeping promises to friends about meeting up on Fridays.
9. Learn a new skill, language and software.
10. Be nice to people.

In short, I have decided to improve. Amen.