Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Raga India: Architecture in the Time of Euphoria

May, 2007

Introduction to the Architectural Design special volume, “Made in India,” 2007.


The Empty Bottle

In a setting of an allegorical pickle factory – the pickle or chutney is a virulent postmodern trope and decisively Indian – Saleem Sinai marinates another story of national and autobiographical destiny in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Rushdie’s alter ego both refigures the present and prefigures the upcoming India in clairvoyant pickle jars. There are thirty bottles on the factory shelf. Twenty-nine bottles are full, and each one makes up each chapter/episode of the tumultuous and fabulous history of India after its independence in 1947. The thirtieth bottle is empty, waiting to be filled and written in.  What will the next vessel contain?


Vrtra’s Ghost

The Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad, that houses the work of the irrepressible artist M.F. Husain, was built in 1994 as a collaborative project between the artist and the architect Balkrishna Doshi. Dug cave-like into the earth, blurring the edge of building and landscape, the undulating structure of the Gufa has the unmistakable physiognomy of a terrestrial creature with its vertebras, ligaments and eyes (Husain also painted a black serpent on the wall). The Gufa is also Doshi’s counter-homage to Corbusier’s paean to the right angle. With every square foot, including the floor and columns, warping every other way and not offering a horizontal plane of repose, the Gufa is a perceptual tour de force. It marks a departure towards suppressed depths of the unconscious, as it were, from the rational, technocratic modality represented by crystalline and cubic forms, upraised in the sun. The uncanny resurrection at the Gufa also coincides with India’s increasing embrace of the fabulous and meta-rational.


Vritra lay very dead, and not unlike Vastupurusa upon whose dead and dismembered body a new episode and edifice might rise. Vritra, a terrestrial dragon, held on to the waters of the world, as the story goes, until the celestial and luminous Indra (“smasher of enclosures”) arrived to destroy the ninety-nine fortresses of Vritra, kill the dragon, and release imprisoned rivers. On the destroyed ramparts and ligaments of a telluric structure arose a brave, new world. And in Ahmedabad, a catatonic creature is resurrected by an inconoclast artist and a mystical architect as a terrestrial architecture arising mysteriously and ominously from the ground.


From Raga to Ragas

“August in Bombay: a month of festivals, the month of Krishna’s birthday and Coconut Day; and this year – fourteen  hours to go, thirteen, twelve – there was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will – except in a dream we all agreed to dream; it was a mass fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat, and would periodically need the sanctification and renewal which can only be provided by rituals of blood.  India, the new myth – a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivaled only by two other mighty fantasies: money and God.”  [Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, 1980]


The pan-Indian edifice for whose mythical soul a French-Swiss architect wrote an urban epic at the foot-hills of the Himalayas, and which ironically has now been usurped by a (Hindu) religious right, exhibits multiple fissures. The tryst with destiny, as Nehru scheduled, gives away to a hundred trysts, and a million destinies. Architects now hesitate to talk of an Indian value as a debate rages between an essentialist and differentiated positions. A quasi-nationalist articulation of an “Indianism” was premised in most work even until the late 1980s; the Bhopal State Assembly by Charles Correa is the last operatic assemblage of that vision. In the context of Bangalore, an epicenter of new tensions, this time between a Malgudian anonymity and rapacious globalism, Prem Chandavarkar proposes (in his essay in the volume, “The Background in Bangalore: Architecture and Critical Resistance in a New Modernity”) the palpability and specificity of places in lieu of a singular spatiality of the nation, and a critical post-nationalist practice that now must adopt a triple resistance – to both Indianism and globalism, and at the same time not appear or be “backward.”


Sundarnagar, a Place called Elsewhere

Urbanism is the Achilles’ heel in the rush for euphoria. An avalanche of houses, malls, IT campuses, and condominiums mark the architectural landscape in market-driven India, yet there is little attention to how the individual creations come together as a social and spatial matrix amongst themselves and with the existent. Ramesh Biswas writes that a paradigmatic thinking in architectural urbanism is needed for this unprecedented urban phenomenon (in his essay in the volume, “One Space, Many Worlds”), notwithstanding forms of media, broadcast and cinematic urbanism. The urban utopia of Chandigarh that was criticized for its alienating features has been superseded by a greater phantasmagoria: of a Gurgaon in Delhi or Hirandani in Mumbai which are at best exclusive places in relation to the larger context, or more questionably, in Gayatri Spivak’s rephrasing of global capital behavior, “secessionist.”


Popular Hindi films provide a vicarious view of this new translocation. The setting of the 2003 film Mein Prem Ki Diwani Hoon is a fictional town called Sundarnagar, or the city beautiful. It is a place of bourgeois opulence, of resplendent houses populated by patriarchs and purveyors of tradition. The lawns to the houses are wide, and the driveways regal, while the riot-free, languorous town harbors manicured parks (obviously water supply is not a problem), quaint telephone booths (no sign of the ubiquitous ISD-NSW-Local), and lush outdoor spaces for cavorting (no vestige of the pulsating mob either). In the film, Sundarnagar is depicted as a town in India, but the fact of the matter is the entire film is shot in New Zealand. The Indian city of Sundarnagar may be fictive, but it is depicted in a real place, and that place is elsewhere, and that is the fixation in the Hindi-Bollywood imagination: the relentless flight towards elsewhere.


This flight is embedded and encoded in multiple realms, from the “song-site” numbers in Bollywood filmic productions to new building configurations. This presents a juxtaposition of the place here and now and a place elsewhere, the messy city and a dream topography, where the former is of a native and the latter of a transnational provenance. The places from elsewhere in the “song-sites,” which are real and actual, become fictive in the Hindi film narrative because the places are not named, or located with precision; they are literally framed to be “foreign,” to be elsewhere. What makes Mein Prem Ki Diwani Hoon striking is that it takes the elsewhere of the “song-site” to the entire film. The longing for elsewhere – or for that matter, the desire to secede – is increasingly being embodied in new building configurations that are radically altering the urban landscape.


Despite the exhilarating lightness of arbitrariness, the relentless dissolution of geography, and the adoption of mimicry as an economic policy (Meenakshi in Mangalore presenting herself as Monica to a housewife in Minneapolis), many architects return to the intractable and redemptive theme of architecture’s specificity in the geology of places. The critical question still – whether it is for Bijoy Jain in the humid swamps of Bombay, Prem Chandavarkar in a temperate and verdant Bangalore, or Rafiq Azam in the terracotta terrain of Dhaka – is “where is architecture” and not “what is architecture.”


House Works

Housing is out, houses are in. If one allows for some more divine apparitions, gods are now in small things, in residences, shops, and small campuses, and in the their meticulous crafting, where the condensed poetics and tectonics negotiate the pendulum of the inevitable here-ness and the tantalizing elsewhere.


Since the 1960s, housing was a major domain of the Indian architectural enterprise that reflected a communitarian concern of the post-Corbusian/Nehruvian period. The emerging economy and radical shift in the lives of the middle class have now opened up new desires for articulating the house. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk writes that the way to understand the people who have been part of the transformation in the astounding expansion of the middle class of India and China is to see “their private lives reflected in novels.”  In India, a vast part of that transformational imaginary is being narrated through the house, from opulent havelis and fictive “farmhouses,” to elegant constructions of Bijoy Jain, Rahul Mehrotra, and others, and delectably delirious propositions of Michael Sorkin.


The once dialogical continuum of house/home with the world is being refashioned according to the emergent “secessionist” tendency to Home versus World. It is also in the context where the public building recedes in the social horizon, on the one hand, and unprecedented atomization proliferates socially, on the other hand, house/home is now a major site of the architectural exegesis in India.  Whether it is merely another object in the consumerist cosmos (K.K. Birla, of the famous industrialist family, points out that what was once a symbol of attainment, the brick house, first shifted to the motor scooter, and to the car now), and whether it retains the gravitas of dwelling, remains unclear, but projects presented in this issue return to the house as an embodiment of situation and materiality.


Reincarnating the Courtyard and the Pavilion

The Orchard House outside Ahmedabad by Rahul Mehrotra recalls both the courtyard paradigm of hot-dry climates and a reactive interiority that may stem from the raucous urbanism of Indian cities (Mehrotra explains that his architectural vocabulary hinges on the reading of his city of practice, Bombay). The interiority is defined by the reification of preponderantly long and solid walls.  While courtyard houses are by nature exclusionary (socially and visually), the redemption is in the itinerary, in the arrival and passage through the various articulated thresholds into the ecstatic focus of the house: the open-to-sky court.


An obverse of that model is the pavilion where the inner court gives away to a canopy, and the predominantly solid wall dematerializes into perforations, membranes, lattices and jalis. Much of the architecture of Bijoy Jain (Studio Mumbai Architects) is a delightful celebration of the pavilion, approximating the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa’s consideration of the house-as-a-garden in the hot-humid milieu. Whether in tactile-rich wooden slats (Jamshyd House in Alibag near Bombay), or a diaphanous luminous screen (the Reading Room addition to his house in Alibag), Jain’s architecture amplifies the phenomenal and spatial continuum between the house and landscape in a moisture saturated environment. However, such singular typologies are not always possible as one confronts inevitable complexities, either programmatic or urban. Samira Rathod, in her Mariwala House (also, in Alibag) creates a horizontal symphony through an ensemble of disparate pieces that are tactile, colorful and voluble. Mathew and Ghosh, for their studio and residence on a small lot in Bangalore, produce a compacted bricolage of diverse pieces as an urban essay. In their attempt to reconfigure the contemporary urban box, in a context where a purity or unity is no longer possible, the architectural body is composed of fragmentations and a patchwork of memories and events. Rafiq Azam, in Dhaka, rearranges the conventional location of building, garden and landscape, and in doing so boldly devises a house of landscape layers even within the city. Many of these works share a material and expressive language with a trans-Asian tropical modernity, practiced by architects as Bedmar and Shi, Kerry Hill or Chan Soo Khian.


A transformation is also happening where architects fear to tread – rural houses or dwellings of the economically disadvantaged, both of which constitute a significant number in South Asia. Adnan Morshed, in a sort of subaltern narrative, traces the anthropological metamorphosis of rural dwellings touched by the Grameen Bank housing program. He argues that even as architects are largely uninvolved in affecting homes in such areas, a quiet revolution is happening to those “timeless” villages, something that needs to be incorporated into the story of Indian and South Asian architecture, especially as the axis of contention in the new economy is increasingly between the city and village.


Gandhi in Exile

“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness - and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.”  [Arundhati Roy, 2003]


Our architecture?


I was not wholly surprised, on a visit a year ago, to see Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha (Nagpur) rather desolate like a residue of an abandoned village. A few Japanese tourists sat down for a lesson in the charka, while giggling couples from the neighboring areas roamed the yards in oblivious frivolity. If the charka is an emblem of sustainability – and Gandhi is to be credited for that much fashionable architectural term now – it is now as alien as Buddha’s dharma-chakra. I was more surprised to find the name of the venerable Ivan Illich on a dusty, monotyped pamphlet on Gandhi’s house. Written in 1978, as an ethical and sociological explanation of the emblematic bapukuti, the pamphlet predicted the challenges of the coming decades, on the onrush of accumulation and consumption that “shining and incredible” India now revel in. Both Nehru and Gandhi represented modernist self-reflectivity, but while Nehru professed what was then an internationalist position, Gandhi appeared parochially nationalist. The matter has flipped now. If Nehru is the modernist of the industrial-socialist makeover much discredited now, Gandhi’s experiments with himself align with the radical modernist project of transfiguration: through the ascetic body in the minimalist space. I have often speculated how Gandhi would be sitting on the floor of the sparse Farnsworth House, and I see him rather at home there especially if it is an autumn month in Chicago, the trees not yet bare right outside the large plate glass walls. The once national is now the irrefutable international, but in his own ashram he is ironically absent.


A far cry from Illich’s prognosis, an accelerated consumerism proceeds at warp speed (pun intended) that throws caution to the wind and revels in the febrile architectural outpour India has ever seen. What to make of this all?


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