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Putting Indian Modernism in Perspective, Miki Desai

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #20

What I’m going to try to do today is to work with the idea of the ‘cultural’ and then go over to what has happened in the last fifty or sixty years in terms of modern architecture in India. Drawing a perspective is not a very easy task and -it can be drawn from many viewpoints. One of the viewpoints I have taken today is how people build in terms of practice and what forces transform the architecture of the place. India has a heavy weight of the past that it carries within its civilization;, the kind of historic sites that we have like the Buddhist monasteries of Khambhalida near Rajkot and Ashoka’s Edict, Junagadh, etc. in Gujarat are rather unknown and well known sites respectively. These examples bear witness to the way history has been recorded into architecture. (1)
Cultural history, if we ignore the idea of where it stands or located, poses a huge problem and thus I’d like to look at what and where they exist today, like in the rural vernacular architecture of the country -the idea of storage and processing of food, and the making or use of fabric mark an imprint. Even today in the booming economy of India one finds scenarios like these where traditional crafts are going on in the way they have for a long time – like in thise houses of Kutch. It is the one of the types that can be found from Gujarat (Kutchh) region of India. Similarly, from neighborhood plans of two communities in Bhuj City, Gujarat we can see the idea of organic growth and urban segregation based on community, caste or occupation. (2)
What has happened over a period is that the way people made things in vernacular architecture became more sophisticated. The whole accent on what is socially or culturally very dear to us is emphasized in elements like the door, the entry; the notion of welcome and its symbolism.
Across the regions, The architecture of India has also been affected by the various books of VastuShastra – and the prime diagram, the Vastupurush Mandala which puts has the void or the empty space in the centre. The entire building emerges in response to celestial directions around it and finds its organization. If we look at various regions in the country there are many examples of this, like houses in Himachal Pradesh in the north and even in Kerala, down south. Especially, Kerala has predominantly wooden architecture whereas houses in Himachal Pradesh use wood and stone to design ingenious earthquake resistant construction. Religion has always played a role in the making of architecture throughout the country and this even continues in modern times. Temple architecture and its making of geometric shapes contained by volumes was a very important preoccupation.
In the desert of Jaisalmer there is an entirely new way of building in which small courtyards become vital compared to the larger ones in Kerala. In Jaipur during the reign of Jaisingh, certain observatories like the Jantar Mantar were built. Around the same time as this, in the Sultanate period, different Indo-Islamic Gujarati style of architecture was followed, to make mosques and the other buildings. Meanwhile, the Hindu architecture which preceded Islamic architecture in Gujarat showed a lot of Jain and Hindu influences within the urban settlements like Ahmedabad.

If we review the events that have shaped modern architecture, we come upon a sudden break. Modernism, as is always proposed, didn’t take into account cultural aspects and perceived architecture in a more universal fashion. Events from 1850 to now show that a lot of things have happened stylistically, in the processes of making of architecture. During the colonial era, we have a few programs that came up in cities like Bombay such as railway stations, collectorates, post offices, clock towers, colonial vernacular villas and apartments The Bombay architect Claude Batley’s work in Gujarat speaks a lot about how a certain kind of Indianized architectural vocabulary can be embedded within western type of architecture.
Initial phases of modernism such as the Bengal and the Baroda Schools of Art and their initiatives, the Modern Review, is where modernism grew, also influenced by the philosophy of Bauhaus. At that time in 1922 and works of Kandinsky and others had come to India in a Bauhaus exhibition. In Ahmedabad and other places there is a whole mish mash in the way art and architecture were looked at. One of the things that Tagore explored was the question of Indian identity, both in art and architecture. Nandalal Bose from Shantiniketan talked about Indian decorative art, Indo deco style, making murals in the way an Indian would make with Indian or Hindu themes.
And then came the movement for Indian freedom from British rule. At that time, the kind of architecture that was predominant was Tagore’s houses in Shantiniketan and other villas in Gujarat. The Freedom Movement was a very important socio cultural and political force that started changing things and for the first time men and women took up the cause together in a non-violent way, propagating the idea of freedom. These ideas then spilled over into the architecture of India. By then Delhi as a national capital was already in place. On the eve of independence there is a building constructed in 1947 by Claude Batley where he deals with the notion of an Indianized image and responds to climate and culture to provide spaces. At the same time, Surendranath Kar, an artist who believed in Indian decorative art makes these floor diagrams in the Sarabhai retreat in Ahmedabad. Concurrently there are wonderful experiments in the making of pure art deco work in Mumbai. At the same time, Banaras Hindu University was designed based on the concept and motif-making of Hindu Indianized architecture.

Even Claude Batley useds Indian motifs like the stupa window while making a modern building for the Bank of India.
A great building that came from France and that was assembled in Jamnagar was a solarium (for skin diseases and tuberculosis treatment with the heelp of sun-rays) that pivoteds 360 degrees on its own axis. Everything inside the building pivots including the filters and chairs move or rotate in response to the sun movement whilesith the entire building resting on one pivot. At the same time Claude Batley takes the idea of the rotation of a square to make a temple and uses the concept to make the Ahmedabad Town Hall.

Golconde House (1942) is a retreat for the followers of Shri aurobindo and the Mother in Pondicherry done by one of the greattest architects, Antonin Raymond (Francois Sammer and George Nakashima), whose work has always been celebrated in many parts of the world but theis building has remained unknown to most Indian students and architects for a very long time (3). The simplicity and directness of this work is something that is unparalleled. Golconde House can be summed up as Indianess with its ambience of spirituality and architectural sobriety both ushering and pointing towards modern times. Within modern times it is an epitome of how to translate what is the core idea of Indian architecture.
At the same time in South India, the Dravidian architecture and the idea of southern symbolism is brought up in Vidhan Soudha, Assembly of the State, Karnataka. In 1954, around same time as the Vidhan Soudha, Achyut Kanvinde designed an international style building (ATIRA, Ahmedabad) that spoke for itself in terms of its simplicity and directness. This is also the time when Le Corbusier arrived in India. So, we have these two almost polar, ‘trying to be modern identities’ – modernism ala mode Le Corbusier in the mode of Brutalism as one; and the other one is different in the international style while at the same time the regionalist traditional mode is operative.
Four fine works of Le Corbusier in Ahmedabad were built in this time. Mill Owners Association (1954) being one (4); and the second building which encapsulated most of the ideas of Le Corbusier was Shodhan Villa, a house for a mill owner. This house hasve many ideas that he wanted to work with for a long time and was exercised here. At the same time in 1957, Ahmedabad gets another building by Le Corbusier, the Sanskar Kendra which is a prototype; one in Tokyo, one in Ahmedabad, one in Chandigarh. Sarabhai House remain represent one more of his ideas. Another great architect Gira Sarabhai has built an extension to this house which is influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. There was a proposal to build another villa by Le Corbusier but it remained un-built since it was rejected by the client.
Achyut Kanvinde’s work also has great influence on the Indian architect of the time. His houses had a great charm and though he built for wealthy people, he built very frugally. Around 1970s, three architects of India Hasmukh Patel, Achyut Kanvinde and Balkrishna Doshi built their own houses that are worth comparing. Another great architect Joseph Allen Stein has built the India International Center in Delhi which is one of the most culturally important buildings in the country. The Gandhi Memorial is a great project by Charles Correa. One can see that it carries forward the idea of simplicity and creates a place which does not shout at all, to suit the man and his philosophy. So if you look at the Gandhi memorial, it is a free flowing space for people to feel the atmosphere of austerity, peace and frugality and memory; the visitor is overwhelmed by a sense of respect and memorable experience. I have gone to this building many times and have observed that people become silent and start sitting in some places and start musing and looking at things almost aimlessly as though they are imbibing the spirituality of the place and of the great man after whom it was built.
Around similar times B V Doshi oversaw the making of the Indology Center in Ahmedabad.
Modernist education started in Ahmedabad in B.V.Doshi’s school in 1962 and it is that simplicity and rigor of modernism that has been in the curricula and pedagogy for us at CEPT.
The School of Architecture at CEPT (5), is the place where I teach and this place has also more or less shaped me. The informality and the idea of teacher-student relationships had been at the helm of affair of this place. The section of this building, which was designed by B.V. Doshi brought about a magical effect to it and its studios, generating a learning environment to foster creativity and freedom of exploration that leaves a lasting impression on the minds of all using it. In Louis Kahn’s IIM (Indian Institute of Management) the Louis Kahn plaza has somewhere this somber, monumental and quiet way of creating architecture and space. Balkrishna Doshi in his own house, designs the upper floor plan from which the whole plan emanates and the four areas with a cross govern the whole building, which then loosens up and creates places of value. Cultural regionalism is what B.V. Doshi starts exploring in buildings – like in the Hussain Doshi Gufa in 1992, and his own office Sangath in 1982; and before that Bangalore IIM in a different way.
Anant Raje, another great architect and student of Louis Kahn, designed a building that gained importance for its simplicity and its use value. The Ahmedabad Management Institute (6) by Bimal Patel is kept at the bare minimum like a railway train where there is a central aisle and rooms on both the sides. The central aisle carries all services and both sides there are rooms to use. At the same time, there are Brutalist experiments happening which are experimenting with the pure expression of form and expressed material like Prathma Blood Center by Gurjeet Singh Matharoo. Joseph Allen Stein has done a project in Delhi
– the Habitat Center (7) which is another take on Indian urban spaces and how they can be generated and used.
However, now the reality is that we are taking off into a new direction; and the questions are about what is the ideaology that is to be implemented after the modernist idiom and how we can use our own talents to make crafted buildings?’ So, society and culture through craft can therefore create ‘buildings of the nature’ like the Bridge House by Aniket Bhagwat near Baroda. The question that arises is whether modernism succeeded or can we talk about how to deal with modern buildings without the “ism”? That’s the kind of story which is unfolding.

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