Sunday, July 17, 2016

Space Gulliver- in conversation with Sampurna Chattarji


Sampurna Chattarji, Promenade des Anglais, Nice, 2011
Space Gulliver- in conversation with Sampurna Chattarji

Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien is Sampurna Chattarji's 14th published book, out from Harper Collins in July 2015. That she is prolific needs no underlining- she has published, poetry, poetry in translation, novels, short stories and prose in translation amongst other things; and dealing with them all would require more than this one conversation.

I sought to indulge her on her latest book of poems and prose poems, the complex but endlessly fascinating study of Space Gulliver, Chattarji’s outworlder Who Fell to Earth. Opening her eyes in this ‘alien’ situation, more than dealing with her Lilliputian/Gaian inhabitants, Gulliver considers her state of being. She speaks to herself in layered verse, and contemplative prose, as her physical being speaks to her too. It is Chattarji’s musing on our own condition, seen through a sensuality not of this world that reflects back on us, we the poor occupants of this lovely planet.

This body/object finds its counterpart in a building as object- the Canterbury Cathedral, in whose vicinity Chattarji spent several weeks in a residency. The cathedral’s spire casts a long shadow in her book, mingling with her chronicles of Gulliver that together create a palimpsest of materiality, bone and stone, leaving us as a flaneur traversing terrain, terrior and terror in equal measure.

I am very pleased that Sampurna graciously accepted my invitation to this interview, and in a freewheeling email exchange talked about Gulliver, but also about the writing of poetry, the experience of a residency and the interior world of the writer.


MUSTANSIR DALVI
Tell us about the million strings that tie Space Gulliver to earth. I get a feeling that she arrives, not tabula rasa, but with a weight that she uses to make sense of earth, and yet, like wearing thick, soda-water glasses this gets in the way. Do you see her that way?

SAMPURNA CHATTARJI
As a person who wears the kind of “thick, soda-water glasses” (slightly glamourized by a titanium frame!) you mention, I could hotly deny everything you say! Instead let me address the question, first by thanking you for intuiting this strange, loaded weightlessness that Space Gulliver carries with her into the world that is my book.

You are right, even though her arrival feels like a bolt from the blue, she does not arrive “tabula rasa”, it is not the shock of the first time – it is, as the first of the Space Gulliver poems states, a “return”. There is some degree of irony (I hope!) in the lines:

Space Gulliver returns
Space conqueror, she

The fact that she has come back to earth can be seen both literally and figuratively. It’s a jolt, and as the book progresses, a gradual acclimatisation to earth conditions, a re-learning of things she once knew and had (maybe) forgotten.

Having said all that, I must also add that there is another story to this return. As you know, I had written 6 poems inspired by a piece of artwork by Swiss artist Judith Albert. At that point in time, 6 poems seemed enough. Space Gulliver the character had come into my life and gone, and I didn’t miss her.
by Judith Albert, from Journal fuer Kunst, Sex und Mathematik

It’s only when I arrived at the University of Kent on a cold (snow still on the ground) February morning in 2012, and found myself ensconced in the room that was to be my home for the next 3 months that Space Gulliver (SG) popped into my head and refused to go away. I was, technically, supposed to be writing another kind of book (which I hope will get written another time, in another place). I tried shooing SG away, but she hung on. And I must confess (I can now confess!) that I hung on to her too. This may sound a bit pitiful, like a lonely child clinging to an “imaginary friend” but after the initial startlement, even a little annoyance at her reappearance, I was glad to have her around.

As I found my feet in those unfamiliar surroundings, as I began re-learning the student life, the shared-kitchen life, the temporarily single-againlife, it felt comforting to know that someone from my past life was with me in this sometimes disorienting new present. Of course if you’d asked me then, I may have had different answers, or none at all. But with the intervention of time I can see more clearly how this was a symbiotic relationship. She was not ‘me’ – but she was ‘mine’. I knew her once, I hadn’t paid much attention to her then, now that she was back, I could make her speak to me, reveal herself, I could invent histories for her, I could transfer emotional predicaments on to her, I could make her my alter-ego, my twin, my co-pilgrim. Does that sound too fanciful?

The word ‘pilgrim’ seems appropriate given that I was in Canterbury! I hadn’t thought of myself as a pilgrim before I landed there, nor even while I was there. But now, back home, I wonder if that’s what she and I were? Companions on a pilgrimage into the unknown. Not the entirely unknown – rather a half-familiar place now made strange only by the fact of considering oneself a more permanent resident, rather than someone simply passing through. My earlier visits to that part of the world had always been a week or ten days at the most. Three months felt like an eternity – at least in the beginning – and the idea of surviving it in the company of an intrepid traveller such as Space Gulliver was one that pleased, enchanted and comforted me.

But for all this intimacy with this ‘alien’ – to answer to the tail-end of your question – I never visualised her! A Scottish theatre-person who works with children asked me (at one of my Kolkata readings) – “How big is Space Gulliver?” and I was stumped! I had never thought of her in such concrete terms. Though I did not hesitate to accumulate concrete details around her, I had not seen her in my mind’s eye – merely sensed her. I knew her gender, I knew she loved walking, I knew she could see in the dark, could inhabit any number of modes of travel and apparel from boxes to bodysuits, knew she loved walking, knew the exact colour of her walking shoes (purple!),  knew she had a practitioner’s interest in language, knew even which books she liked (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe being one) – but I did not know what she looked like, nor how big (or little) she was. Flipping through the poems now, I see I have made her fluctuate – she can become small as a “tiny sweet orange”, as big as a giant in her “seven league boots” – but I haven’t conveyed any specific physical characteristics. Perhaps I want the reader to imagine her the way they will?


DALVI
How complicit is she, who fell to earth, with this alien planet. Does she descend with her eyes open or was she surprised to find herself in the New World?

CHATTARJI
Oh, I wish I knew! Let me return to the poems for clues. In the beginning she is frightened:
That chest of carved and polished wood lies within her reach
But she will not touch it
She is a visitor now
And earthly things disturb her
Materialize
All around her with their unflinching edges their resolute past
Even the drapes on the walls
And the intricately carved bedspread on which she
Lies
Frighten her with their ornate proximity their embroidery
That speaks of pain
Staking its territory as needles stab fabric in a million hands

Ordinary objects seem hostile to her, indeed almost terrify her. She, who is “no longer terrified of vastness” seems to shrink inside what is probably a normal comfortable well-appointed human habitation, as if everything in it were an assault. She recognises things because she has lived here before, but the time away has unlearned and undone her, and that fear seems to suggest that she came back before she was ready.

So maybe it’s not surprise that accompanies her back, but rather befuddlement – where am I, why am I here. Like waking from a trance. It’s almost as if, having “conquered space”, having become “Laughably used to having Brahmand around her” she has forgotten how to live on this planet anymore, what to do with her limbs, her gaze, how to fit herself into the circumscribed room, how to get used to being on the ground looking up at the sky instead of the other way around, how to deal with this new scale. It’s a kind of “space-sickness”, maybe.

On the question of her complicity: as the book progresses, doesn’t she lose her terror and become more and more complicit in the ways of this world? From being a kind of stowaway in a room on this strange mother-ship who imagines a “great benign-ness” watching her, who talks to ladybirds and hides from young people with “glittery skins/ And flyway hair” – she begins engaging with the world that initially terrified her, and she falls in love! How devastating for her! She is no stranger to this “amoral tech heaven” where:
devices need to be paired
Before they can speak to each other
Before this act so close to intercourse can take place
Him entering her phone directly
but she is rattled and unnerved by contact, is she not? See the lines:
To her who has lived without human contact for aeons
Stretching her fingers apart to see him better
Feels like the most intimate contact
As if she has really touched his hair
His neck his waist
Instead of merely the soft skin 
Of the device that nestles at his hip
Or at his ear
Accepting his mouth
Just as her straining eyes must accept that 
On some days 
The mid-morning moon that strikes her with its 
Deranged light
Is really the sun
And the mid-afternoon half-moon in a sky of no dimension
Is really the moon
And that the horizon is capable of receding
The way her body recedes
After half a bottle of red
Into a farness comforting in its extremity

At first, the only enterprise that interested her was “observation” and in this pursuit the horizon was her accomplice:
Space Gulliver prefers the complicity of the horizon
In this enterprise called ‘seeing’

She was comfortable with that complicity, it was neutral and perhaps even ‘scientific’ enough to leave her unscathed. But when human contact occurs she is pulled right in, and her relationship with her surroundings, and her apprehension of herself as an “alien presence” changes radically, to the point where she cannot quite demarcate the boundaries between herself and the “others”. She, who has wanted to obliterate location, finds that “Place has encroached her”. Towards the end of the book, you can see how the comfort of belonging, of having made friends with the seemingly-hostile environment and its inhabitants starts stifling her and she wants to move on, wants to “Abandon this ‘she’”, wants
a ship to sail away in
Leaving ‘her’ behind
To grow worms


DALVI
"How many ways can you approach the same Cathedral"? Let us count (a few) ways. This is Canterbury, isn't it? Can you describe the experience of visiting the Cathedral and its impact on you?

CHATTARJI
Oh yes, very much Canterbury. As you know both the Cathedral poems and the prose Journal entries are clearly Canterburyan!
Canterbury Cathedral

I had visited the Cathedral in 2011, the year before my residency. I had visited it like a tourist, albeit a literary tourist, marking the spot of Thomas á Becket’s murder and remembering the play (Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral). Having studied Chaucer in college it was only natural that I should go and see a (really kitschy) version of Canterbury Tales, complete with odours and atmosphere!And take photos of the gates that the pilgrims must have walked through, wandered through the lodgings, taking more photos. Both the Cathedral and the medieval town were fragments of literature that I was somehow magically walking through, gliding through. It was both surreal and also strangely superficial, if you know what I mean. My interaction with the place was so on the surface, despite prior knowledge, despite a strange tug – my first experience of it was almost frivolous. I’m reminded of a game we used to play as children where we had to run and touch a wall and come racing back. That’s how I approached the city and the Cathedral; I touched and raced away, flushed with the sheer mindless triumph of it.

But in 2012, everything changed. First, I was perched on top of the hill, on a very modern campus, looking down on this very ancient city. And the best thing about my room on the edge of the University campus was that I had a clear view (on clear days that is) of the spires of the Cathedral. I cannot begin to explain or even understand how important that view became to me during my stay.  The Cathedral was how I oriented myself. It was like my true-north! I needed co-ordinates to locate and anchor me in this new geography and the Cathedral was my key co-ordinate. I grew fond of it, I admired it (in the night especially), I perhaps even spoke to it from my room!

And when I went down into town, I found I could save myself from being lost (in the early days) simply by trying to see where the Cathedral was. It was everywhere! Which could be maddening, but it was not, at least not to me. My relationship to the Edifice that was THE Cathedral had changed. I could still admire its beauty, but I could also ignore it. After all, I lived here. I could visit any time (or not). That freed me from reverence (not that I recall being reverent on my first visit either!) and I felt able to enter it normally, casually.

I remember one Sunday literally racing down the hill to arrive in time for the Sunday service because my friend (who is a fabulous singer, and whose choir had been narrowly beaten in an all-Kent choir competition, unfairly I thought!) had told me that the famous Canterbury Choir whose conductor was the key judge at the competition would be singing that Sunday! I wasn’t late, and I have to admit, the choir was fantastic. The acoustics of the Cathedral are so glorious, I felt kind of transported – and this without any religious leanings whatsoever! The only experience that outshone this one was hearing the choir sing in Christ Church, Oxford just before Easter that same year.

So thanks to my being a resident in Canterbury (or rather above it!) the Cathedral changed for me – from tourist attraction to familiar landmark to ethereal song – a movement that in a sense “vanishes” the structure away in almost exactly the way the fog would, or the night, once the Cathedral lights were switched off:
At midnight 
The cathedral 
Disappears



PS: In 2015, I found myself taking a young Welsh poet friend around Canterbury! How strange: there I was, an Indian poet playing tour guide to a Welsh poet, after 3 years the geography of the city and the Cathedral still so familiar to me, it felt like home.


DALVI
May we read your book separately (the Cathedral poems and the Gulliver Poems) or as part of the same occupied space.

CHATTARJI
I think you could, of course, read the 3 kinds of pieces separately, but I think they work best when read as part of the same occupied space (and dare I add – in the sequence in which they are presented). They are all of a piece! I like your use of the word “occupied”! That’s exactly it – the same space occupied in 3 different ways, in 3 different modes – creating and perhaps replicating my own 3-dimensional anchoring to what had once felt like surface alone, smooth and glassy, impossible to get a grip on.


DALVI
Let us into the secret of your conception of Gulliver. 

CHATTARJI
You know your question makes me think about her lost/home planet, wondering where it was, what it was like. Almost like thinking of a lost book, the book that tells us where she was and who she was before she returned to Earth, the book I might one day even write (or not!).

When I wrote this book, with the subtitle: Chronicles of an Alien, I was finding out more and more about SG every day, with every new poem. In the initial SG sextet, she was clearly some sort of explorer, keen, hungry for words as much as for what the words provided: food, pickle, chalk; she was a pattern-seeker, a person equipped with naming words but not always able to fit the name to the object it signified:
There are many beings here, roaming the ether.
Are they real? Is that a parking meter? A lamp post?
Is this what it means, to travel?

Always a bit off-kilter, but never thrown. When she came back for this book, I didn’t think at all of her previous avatar. She was all-new, and mysterious to me. She was oddly disembodied – an idea that was the outline of the body that I would have to flesh out as I went along. The idea of having lived so long in another atmosphere, in an outer space too remote to contemplate, dependent on all manner of machinery, very sophisticated machinery that enabled her to breathe, eat, travel at the speed of light, all of it was taken for granted, like a knowledge that I shared in common with whoever might read her, eventually. All the science-fiction that we share like a collective memory. That’s what I was drawing on, and that freed me up to focus on her here-and-now, her landing and her learning to love where she has landed. I realise now – you’ve turned me into a detective, sleuthing through my own book! – that there is some sort of secret coercion in her past: a “They” that seems slightly sinister:
They never taught them to breathe
There were machines that did that
For them
Space Gulliver could hold that
Against them
Against herself
Who took her away

This reminds me a bit of the “they” in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We. A manipulative “they” who “took her away” – no doubt for her own good, perhaps with her own complicity, a “they” who made her dependent, made her powerful, made her very veryspeedy! Is that why she escaped? Giving up the adrenaline of speed for the grinding slowness of another gravity? Giving up a comforting airlessness and having to learn to breathe on her own again?
The slowness of it flabbergasts her
For days she buckled under 
Over-oxygenation of lungs

Having to cope with more primitive modes of transport, which rob her of her spatial sense:
Perhaps it appears far to her who has abandoned the great machines
That lent her speed and cannot travel anymore as the crow flies
For her to measure where she is how far from where she was
She will need instruments that torture 
Needles that point dials that encompass gauges that fill 
With secrets she is saving for the time she will read her own memoir


DALVI
Gulliver exists in a phenomenological reality that is turgid, sticky; the gravity of earth is certainly heavier than her lost/home planet, her being even more grave as the gravity pulls her to possible reconciliations.

CHATTARJI
The words that you use to describe her phenomenological reality – “turgid” and “sticky” – how apt they are, and how wonderful that’s what it comes across as. Because it is turgid and sticky, the clutch of this organic world, at least in the early days of her arrival. Oh, and about her “being grave”. How right you are! In the beginning she is very grave, isn’t she? And then she begins to lighten up, loosen up, make jokes (even if the joke is sometimes on herself) – I liked seeing that happen.

I must also share two key influences: one is Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and the other is a science-fiction novel I adore: Walter Tevis’s Man Who Fell to Earth, which was made into a film with David Bowie (who else!) in the role of the ‘alien’, who as we see becomes all-too human by the end of the story. This section clearly references Solaris:
Space Gulliver adrift
That was how they made them in the movies
Bodies like bubbles
They rarely mentioned metal
The thing that saved you
The sheets you had to rip through if you 
Wanted to touch someone from a dream
Bloodying yourself all over
Mirrors were always convex on that ship
And disrepair a condition of comfort
Huge fronds of weed
Sea that spoke
Every cauldron bubbling with tomorrow
Transport
Yourself
Isn’t that what they taught you in the schools
Where fabric was an essential lie
Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972)

Nicholas Roeg's The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)

My beloved alien comes from my fascination with a notion of space travel as inward, messy, traumatic even, a function of dream and nightmare, a place of comfort that doesn’t look or feel comfortable, that involves the flesh even while denying/disembodying the flesh. Damage as a necessary condition of any kind of significant journey.


DALVI
"Space Gulliver unbridles her horse
Escapes on the bare back of the runaway sentence
Someone close the door of the barn."

You seem to straddle the world of prose fiction and poetry seamlessly, riding runaway sentences bareback. Space Gulliver is your 14th book. Can you give us a bit of an insight into your working ways?

CHATTARJI
Thank you for the compliment! I like the idea of being a bareback rider!

Insight: hmmm...
I think the way in which I work doesn’t change whether I’m writing prose/fiction or poetry. The only thing that is different is the nature of the sheer physical commitment: the day-after-dayness of sitting at the desk that a novel for example demands. While I can write poetry in short sharp bursts. How not to flag, that’s the great challenge in writing fiction, how to stay invested in the characters and their predicaments. When I’m writing poetry, I focus like a laser – and there’s no scope for flagging!

Having said that, I wrote Space Gulliver – which is after all a sequence of poems – the way I’d write a novel! I wrote everyday – and the fact that I had 3 different entry points made it easier in a way, kept me buoyant and interested and committed.


DALVI
Returning to your time in Canterbury; how was your experience as a Resident Writer? Does the forced separation from a familiar environment invigorate the writing process, or is it a mixed blessing?

CHATTARJI
The day I arrived in Canterbury, my first reaction was: “Why on earth did I come?” It was a grey, grim day, and even the fairytale snow on the ground did little to lift my spirits! I even – I can now admit – cursed myself for thinking I needed to be on a Residency to write a book, having written all my previous (till then) 13 books sitting in my book-filled den at home in Thane!

But that gloom swiftly passed, and I found myself invigorated by the change. It wasn’t just that I was in a hyper-state of awareness, as if everything might be material to the writing, and in a way much of it was. I think an unfamiliar environment makes me look at everything, including the way I write, differently, and that was exactly what I needed.


DALVI
Were you reclusive during that time or garrulously social?

CHATTARJI
I was deeply fortunate to be at the University of Kent, attached to the School of English, which counts among its lecturers several very fine poets, creative and critical minds: David Herd, Nancy Gaffield, Jan Montefiore (since retired), Patricia Debney, Simon Smith, Caroline Rooney, Sarah Wood. I gave a reading, I conducted a workshop for the MFA Creative Students, I attended many poetry readings by visiting poets, was part of many conversations about poetry and writing, I was invited to read poems about the sea at the Turner Gallery at Margate, along with other Kent poets (teachers and students).

I was drawn into the community in a way that was as hospitable as it was instructive. I learnt a lot! I made friends for life. And I was so happy that the first launch of Space Gulliver in summer 2015 was at the University! It felt so apt, and this was all because of the lasting associations that were forged way back in 2012. Canterbury gave me my second poetry-family (the first being right here, in Bombay!) –and I feel great love and gratitude to have such richness in my life.

So, I was neither utterly reclusive nor wildly sociable! I think I struck a good balance, and I am rather pleased I did, knowing my own tendency to sometimes get carried away!


(interview with Sampurna Chattarji, July 2016)
© Mustansir Dalvi, 2016, all rights reserved.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

On Charles Correa's Passing: A Lament for Bombay

It is a year now since Charles Correa left us, and the city feels his loss with every revised policy for densification, over-urbanisation and the commissioning of redundant infrastructure. I am posting a paean to the architect that I wrote last year. It was published, in a slightly different form in the Economic & Political Weekly VOL - L NO. 28, JULY 11, 2015.

On Correa's Passing: A Lament for Bombay

An urban architect who was a friend of the residents of the city and the environment, Charles Correa was more than a builder of sustainable houses and offices. He was a quintessential Bombaywallah, one who put forward eminently sensible solutions to some of the problems of his favourite city. Sadly, most of them did not materialise and the problems continue unabated.


Charles Correa was a shaper of the public realm. Remembered and revered for his several striking and iconic buildings, his ideas, both through writing and design, through built, un-built and speculative work foreground the community, the civic and importantly, the inclusive. As a true-blue Bombaywallah, a lot of Correa's attention was focused on his hometown, but there are few interventions that allow us to identify Bombay as Correa's city. Even today, Kanchenjunga is the apartment building we associate best with Correa. In Bombay, he was proselytiser, activist (sometime filmmaker), academic and architect, but above all, he was Citizen Correa. His vision of the city was both broad and specific. He saw patterns and possibilities before most others, especially the government, did. And offered solutions freely. That few of these were actually taken is something that all its citizens must be held to account for. Therein, in Correa's passing, lies this lament for Bombay.

Charles Correa set up his practice in Bombay in 1958, returning from MIT after a Master’s Degree. His thesis, interestingly, was presented in the form of an animated film called 'You and your Neighbourhood'. He brought his concerns into his practice from the very outset. His early work can be seen in the context of the early post-independence years, where along with a few other practitioners like Habib Rahman and Balkrishna Doshi, an expressive internationalism defined the optimism of a Nation State. Public spaces like International Pavilions in the country's capital brought him in touch with the government as client, and this relationship continued right until the turn of the millennium, but with varying degrees of success. His design for the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya in Ahmedabad (1958) is one of the finest examples of civic buildings that represent independent India.

At the same time, Correa built several houses that allowed him to explore the contexts and specificities of site and climate. Buildings in Ahmedabad led to his developing a template for what he called the 'Tube House' (1961) - a small open plan, two level, row house prototype that created comfort conditions within using passive means- where the design itself allowed for ventilating the house. This was built as an exploration of low income housing for the Gujarat Housing Board. This design is significant it became the fountainhead for alternatives in Ahmedabad, Kota, Lima, Bangalore, Bombay and New Bombay, and for all scales of housing, from housing the poor to housing the very well-off (as in the Sonmarg and the Kanchanjunga Apartments).

Correa's housing designs play out like the variations of a jazz soloist, riffing on a central theme, wandering away and returning, working and reworking ideas. The central theme was inevitably, the interface between the building and its beyond, the quietness of the interior space and the bustle of the public. In his housing designs, he always had place for the raucousness and unwieldiness of a city, of an old city like Bombay, set in its ways.

Even in his more upmarket housing, his buildings never turn away from the city; instead they embrace it, look upon it and take it in. The famous corner balconies of Kanchanjunga allow 270* panoramic views of the city. Their double heights are intended to give the impression of being outside, as in an al-fresco space, one with the urbanity around, capturing 'a piece of the sky'. The apartments corkscrewed around these balconies made the best of Bombay's meagre breezes, ventilating the rooms within. The tower became, according to Correa, 'a Tree of Life'. In later years, he would rue the addition of air-conditioners to the apartments for they were designed precisely to function without them.

The public realm, as mentioned earlier, becomes central to Correa's architecture the poor. One of his proposals in the late '60s was a series of simple upraised platforms (or otlas) for organising hawking along the edge of D N Road in Bombay, lined on both sides with the classic covered arcades (an idea developed more than a century ago by Bartle Frere, the Head of Police in Bombay, to protect citizens from the harsh summer and hard monsoons). Correa's platforms gave pedestrians unrestrained access. Each platform had a water tap for washing the platforms at the end of the day and providing a clean place to sleep under the stars, as so many in Bombay still do. He was keenly aware of the difference between the pavement sleepers and the homeless- 'Migrants don't come to the city looking for housing. They come looking for work.' The sleepers were workers and employees of offices on D N Road. One immediately thinks of the Best Bakery tragedy in Bandra. There too, the people killed in the car Salman Khan was in were bakery workers, not the destitute or homeless. This simple proposal never came to fruition, nor did his later proposal for reorienting traffic at the Flora Fountain, creating an urban plaza for the public rather than a paid parking lot. Neither the traffic nor the issues with hawking have been addressed with any degree of resolution, forty years down the line.

In the early seventies, Correa made a series of designs for squatter housing in Bombay. He proposed twin units of two room houses organised in clusters with open to sky space and organisational centrality, all with their own small courtyards opening out into larger community spaces, creating a hierarchy of territories and common ownership. This design was the precursor of the Belapur Housing in New Bombay (1983), now regarded as a significant landmark in mass housing in India. Correa was clear about not recreating the sub-urban sprawl in this part of the new city, but rather making a concentrated cluster of low-rise land use. Correa laid out a set of guiding principles that governs this development- incrementally, open-to-sky spaces, equity, dis-aggregation, pluralism, malleability, participation and income generation, principles he called ‘non-negotiable’. The housing units would be 'packed close enough to provide the advantages of high density, yet separate enough to allow for individual identity and growth options'.

It is the elegant drawings and old photographs from the freshly built scheme that we still recall with some nostalgia. In reality however, after about thirty years, the Belapur project has transformed considerably from that which it was originally intended for. Meant to be social housing for artisans with modest resources, with a basic shelter, site and services, it was intended to grow with accretion as the families grew economically better off. Today, it is a bit of a curate’s egg. Parts of it show clear indicators of gentrification rather than community living and growing together. Several signs of upper middle class aspiration and comfort are visible. Built over and over-built, on occasion demolished and rebuilt, individual houses turn their backs to the sensitively planned open spaces as only Mumbai's cautious middle class can. Balconies are bricked up, terraces are harnessed as extra rooms, windows closed for air-conditioning and cars parked everywhere. Elsewhere, it does seem that the original homeowners have moved out and a newer lot with no affiliations to the original scheme have come in, displaying current post-liberalisation aspirations and entitlements. The appreciation that the neighbourhood was designed by one of India's finest architects is academic and probably more in the minds of visitors and students who keep landing up there and wondering if they have the right address.

Many of Correa’s guiding principles are seen in the planning of New Bombay (now Navi Mumbai). Intended to house two million people across the harbour on the mainland, it was designed (along with Pravina Mehta and Shirish Patel) as a series of nodes strung along a central transport corridor like a string of pearls. New Bombay offered well designed urban neighbourhoods for contemporary living across scales. Here clear plots and wide roads with infrastructure, well placed gardens and pedestrian paths form the highlights of each node. Several projects of mass and affordable housing were designed by architects like Kamu Iyer, Uttam Jain, Raj Reval, Hema Sankalia and Correa himself. Navi Mumbai did take about thirty years to come into its own. Execution struggled far behind planning, local trains took more than ten years to set up, and international airport is still in the works and the legislative and executive branches of Bombay never shifted to the CBD in Belapur as was intended. But still, the new city is slowly finding its own identity away from Bombay. Still a lot remains to be realised, most significantly the effective and sustainable use of the water edge, the western seafront of Navi Mumbai and options of water transport. Even the node designed by Correa- Ulwe is only just being populated, and more by speculation rather than occupation because of its proximity to the chimera that is the airport. And, Correa would sadly live to see and record that squatters had begun to establish many pockets in his new town.

Back in the island city, Correa would be called upon by the Government of Maharashtra in 1996 to set up a committee to prepare and integrated development plan for the now defunct mill lands. The redevelopment was to include ‘coherent urban form and civic amenities and to generate new employment opportunities for mill workers’ now out of jobs for nearly a decade. The famous one third/one third/one third solution that he proposed for open spaces and amenities, for affordable housing and for sale in the open market was lauded in the city. It offered the real chance for having a consolidated open space in the city that has one of the smallest amounts of open spaces in all the cities of the world. A space like Central Park was imminently possible. But various vested interests whittled down and diluted the proposal to make it but a shadow of its original self. Today there is no consolidated open space. Instead and alternative business enter is consolidating itself, populating the spaces that were once the mill lands with malls, hotels and office spaces, certainly not inclusive, nor incremental.

What has been lost is the old urbanity of the city, one where people of all classes and stations lived cheek by jowl.  ‘Affordable housing isn’t something that happens in a vacuum’ writes Correa, ‘ it is the direct result of the correlation between the pattern of public transport and employment distribution in the city. The third that would have been converted to affordable housing is ultimately become the city’s biggest loss. This large area has only fuelled the stakes of the real estate market. Today, there is hardly any affordable housing being built in the city. Those living in the chawls in proximity of the mills still live in conditions of decaying buildings or have moved out to the furthest reaches of the metropolitan region where some affordability is possible. The absence of sensible social housing in Central Mumbai is a vacuum that is filled in by self-help housing in other parts of the city having locational advantage in terms of public transport. In other words- slums, self-built and regulated, outside the pale of mainstream amenities and civic regard. Correa’s opportunities for urban transformation were also opportunities for social engineering- thorough harnessing the power of the city.

What remains in Mumbai today is an aspirational population clamouring for the limited spaces and opportunities that she offers. Gentrification is now a mental construct that makes the citizen demand rights- from subsidised transport to free housing, giving little in return. Inclusive spaces such as those conceived by Correa through his designs and his advocacy are usurped within the ambit of real estate and not shared space, awaiting monetization. In a city where only two types of growth can be seen- the rise of luxury towers and the agglomeration of slums, the convivial, collegial and ethical urbanity that Charles Correa had always talked about, something that he clearly identified as the spirit of the city is recession. The public realm, exists in so far as to allow people to commute from one place to another, not to loiter, to contemplate or to breathe in.

We lament the city, for in Correa’s passing, he will, without doubt, be remembered as an architect of some of India (and the world’s ) finest contemporary buildings, but might well be forgotten as Citizen Correa- a person who knew Bombay intimately, had the ideas to transform the city into a place for all, but for all his efforts was really not heard.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Ginger Biscuits

Image and eaten by Pooja Ugrani


Of all the available biscuits, I like ginger biscuits best.

It is an acquired taste; so of course, they are the least easily available. When I can lay my hands on them, I tend to over-buy and hoard.  I have to, you see. In the boondocks where I live, resources are available only because they sell. 'Yeh item running hai'. New products do make their way on and off, but last only if they catch the imagination of the grand unwashed. Only running items are reordered.

This is not the way of the small kirana-wallah but the credo of the franchisee supermarkets as well- Big Bazaar, D-Mart, Hyper Mart will only stock items that will easily clear their shelves. The end effect is obvious- there is no diversity, no innovative products, no inclusion or freshness in the merchandise, only the staid and steady. So of late, no ginger biscuits. Also no coconut-orange juice, no basil and no Dindori.

In much the same way, our government has imagined 'smart cities'.

They have redefined ‘liveable cities’ to ‘cities that have the potential to give maximum returns’. In a great leap of associative fallacy they equate 'smart' with 'running items'- with economic viability. This ledger-book definition keeps citizens entirely out of the balance-sheet. If 100 crores are to be put into a city, it must generate 100 crores to be deemed smart.

This, in the long run, is a slippery slope. We can imagine stock patches of habitation with corporate built slickness and all round surveillance. A city where you can control your air conditioner with your mobile phone. But you cannot buy a packet of ginger biscuits, because not enough people like to eat it. Cities without diversity or inclusion, with only economic drivers, lacking socio-cultural touch points are cities heading for stagnation. We already have enough gated communities and failed malls to show us what such smart cities can become. No dogs, no bachelors, no women living alone or together, no musicians, no non-vegetarians, no Muslims. Nothing that is not conventional or conservative.

The great cities of the world have shown us one thing in the 21st century- they can run, grow, even flourish despite the government and their planners, not because of them. You live in one of them today. Look around. You have enough to complain about, but the city is not about to collapse. Diversity and everyday innovation power cities forward, social contracts that are made and remade on the streets power its spirit. And yet none of this is reflected in the Development Plans and indeed Smart City conceptions of the state.

Labels are all they are. Even definitions are difficult to come by, let alone directions.
Meanwhile, I dream of ginger biscuits.


Friday, January 15, 2016

‘Historicize and Problematize’



The inaugural conference of ‘The State of Architecture’ exhibition (currently on at the NGMA, Mumbai, curated by Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote and Kaiwan Mehta) called ‘The State of the Profession’ achieved the objective set out by Kaiwan Mehta in his opening remarks: ‘Historicize and Problematize’. In doing so several affirmative readings were possible about the state of architecture in India today. The conference covered the profession, practice, education, criticism and institutions. Here are some larger impressions that remained with me:

The profession of architecture, if seen as a collective set of ideals, is difficult to pin down. At one level this is the consequence of the diversity of practice that is now increasingly prevalent. Yet at another, this difficulty may be attributed to the lack of ‘communities of judgment’, to use an evocative phrase by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who gave the conference’s keynote address, among architects in the country. Looking towards ‘institutional’ definitions does not seem to help, as institutions too, in a sense are ensconced in silos of their own making. 

The choices made by several architects who spoke at the conference present (rather than represent) the ‘problematization’ of the profession and the fuzzy presence of the professional. This conference brought together such professionals whose practices are essentially reflexive, rather than located in the self-confident comfort zone of the mainstream. For what it is worth, this too can be attributed to the impotence of regulatory mechanisms or the community’s own unwillingness to introspect as a collective. Questions were raised, but it will be some time before definite readings are possible.

The practice of architecture in India, since the millennium, seems to have grown richer by moving outside of the mainstream. It is not the diversity of practices that are the most revelatory (although that is important) but the diversity within individual practice. The embracing of multiple disciplines, media, collaborations and muses have resulted in a variety of ‘messy practices’, reflecting the ‘punctuated chaos’ (to quote Bill Gates) that we find ourselves in currently. This can only be a good thing. The feedback loop between thinking and doing gushes like a cataract in some practices. In many cases, these practices cater to the same patrons as that of the mainstream, indicating a more enlightened patronage and a greater sense of collegiality and synthesis. 

On the other hand some practices, co-create with end users, bringing themselves in direct contact with the communities they design for, even searching out communities not catered to by architects so far. Several practices reach out to the marginalized- slum inhabitants, those living in tribal or rural areas located far away from transport streams. These architects subsume their expressions into those of their constituents, and even encourage the users to express themselves in the built form. There is an embedded-ness of the crafts-person in the design process. This does hark back to the pre-modernist practices in the country before technology got valorized at the expense of the indigenous crafts tradition.

The state of architectural education is particularly problematic. It should have been an article of faith that schools of architecture were the laboratories that informed architectural practice. This does not seem to be happening. Education is overwhelmed by numbers. One of the unique features of this exhibition is the location of architecture within the larger eco-system of education, criticism, location and institutions. What emerges is that from 2015 onward, more than 25,000 students will graduate from the 450 odd architecture schools in the country. This is a number greater than the number of practicing architects in the country. This begs the question- who are the teachers, and what is the nature of learning in these many schools? How may quality or innovation or farsightedness be possible in this proliferation? 

Curricula too, are largely prescriptive, where under the rubric of a single university, may cater to the lowest common denominator. The roles of both students and teachers of architecture have to be re-examined in the light of fast and easily available information. The top down didactic and ‘expert’ supervisory approaches seem to have lost their relevance. The teacher has to be reimagined as an ongoing learner and co-create with the student. There are few stand-alone schools in this country who may chart their own course. A clear call was made in the conference for a syllabus that was more flexible and less prescriptive, less of a cookie-cutter, one size fits all templates. Here, the diversity of practices can provide role models, and be muse to architectural education rather than the other way around.

The role of institutions that oversee the profession was perhaps the most problematic. The governing institutions mandated to look after the interest of architects and to regulate practices and provide codes of conduct under which practices could flourish seemed to present a monocular gaze, more at ease with the mainstream sense of the profession. Laboring under self-perpetuating myths of their own presence, they presented a stance of protectionism and definition. The current positions of institutions comes across as largely reactionary- expressing fears of encroachment by ‘others’- by engineers, by ‘non-architects’ of various stripes, by foreign firms, by project managers. In the affirmative universe of collaboration and multi-disciplinarity they seem to write themselves out by focusing too much on who should be an architect and who should not. 

While it was readily accepted in the conference that architects as a whole in the county influence a relatively small amount of actual building, the vast majority of building still happens outside the pale of institutional memberships. The institutions themselves did not seem to accommodate this reality in a worldview largely oriented towards building memberships and corpuses.

In both the exhibition and the conference, the state of criticism in the country was historicized perhaps for the first time . Architectural writing and critical self-examination is only now emerging, and its influence is far from clear. More books on Indian architecture are being written, but not enough on contemporary concerns and challenges. Like reflexive practices, we need more of reflexive criticism whether in books or journals. Journals such as that of the Indian Institute of Architects have excellent archival value, particularly from its early decades, but do not provide critical writing. Other magazines that have emerged since the turn of the century largely valorize and commemorate the boutique practices and showcase architects in their very limited roles as lifestyle designers. 

There is also a dearth of academic writing on architecture because of the absence of peer-reviewed journals on architecture. In the last couple of years some journals have been established but their value shall only be seen in their sustainability.

If one had to rank the various states of architecture in India based on the deliberations and the initial viewing of the exhibition, the practices in constant dialogue with themselves and their larger environment are the most encouraging. The profession is being redefined by these practices and has a potential to influence education and criticism. There have to have a larger presence on the cultural consciousness of the country for lasting value, much beyond the confines of this conference. Architectural journalism still has to take off to meet these practices half-way and become the critical carriers of potential.  Architectural education has to resume its role as producer of ideas and alternatives that can be fructified in practice. The institutions that govern architecture need deep self-examination as to their present and future relevance.

One issue undiscussed in most part was the location of the Indian architect in a stage larger than the local. Perhaps the valedictory conference that focuses on architecture in South Asia will pick up the gauntlet.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Without the benefit of hindsight- In conversation with Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote and Kaiwan Mehta


First published in Domus India 46 December 2015
Reproduced with kind permission of the editor


Without the benefit of hindsight
In conversation with Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote and Kaiwan Mehta

Mustansir Dalvi


Looking back to the time architectural practices first began to proliferate in India, one sees that they always operated within an ecosystem of practice, academia and association. We can trace this to the 1930’s, when the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA) was set up, which in turn emerged from the alumni of the Bombay School of Art. Teachers at the school were the most prolific practitioners in the country, and students made the easy transition from learning, to apprenticeship, to setting up their own practices. Even patrons, largely non-state (in the penultimate decades before independence) aligned themselves with the architects in a collegial association. The Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects and their annual lectures became the mouthpieces of collective praxis, as the many presidential speeches show. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing, knowledge flowed centripetally.

In the years after independence, these bonds became looser as the nation-state became the chief patron. While private wealth and industry provided steady work for architects all over the country, the IIA still continued to remain the platform of discourse and dissemination- an internal professional rumination, largely distanced from changing politics and culture in the country, especially from the seventies onwards. While students of architecture did briefly take political stances during the Emergency, practice remained unaffected.

By the end of the eighties, with the rise of the patron as aspirant or speculator, and, a few years later with the effects of liberalization made flesh, the erstwhile associations started to crumble, the ecosystem became unstable, and in some ways unsustainable. Architectural practices became myriad and diffuse, working centrifugally, aligning into various smaller constellations. The influence of the IIA waned, while the Council of Architecture, mandated to look after the concerns of practice in the early seventies through an Act of Parliament, by and large, came to focus on monitoring architectural education that had, by the turn of the millennium, boomed with colleges springing up in all parts of the country.

Education too, dispersed in the wake of overarching Modernism’s eclipse and the acceptance of pluralism fuelled both by the rise of critical theoretical positions in architecture as well as a dilution of the rigor that functionalism once imposed on its practitioners. Critical discussions on Indian architecture have since been restricted to a few conferences and the odd polemic in architecture magazines (which also proliferated since the eighties, but have mainly been showpieces of architecture for the rich and famous). Books on Indian architecture, when concentrating on the contemporary are in the form of monographs, vanity publications or, when serious, about urban change.  Vistara, the exhibition, in 1984 was comprehensive, but an overview of Indian architecture. Three decades on, there has been no serious review of the state of the architectural profession in India.

That is what the exhibition ‘State of Architecture’ (SOA) seeks to redress. Scheduled to open at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai and other associated venues the SOA exhibition will be open to the public for around three months and will take a comprehensive look at our architectural present. The curators of this challenging endeavor are Rahul Mehrotra- architect, academic, author and researcher, professor at Harvard and one of the foremost architectural practitioners (RMA Architects) in the country; Ranjit Hoskote- cultural theorist, art critic, curator and author and Kaiwan Mehta- the editor of these very pages, of Domus India, also an author, academic and urban theorist. As the exhibition reaches its final stages of preparation, the curators had a free-wheeling conversation with Mustansir Dalvi about the exhibition, its objectives and the larger state of architecture; its practice and production, in retrospect and in prognosis; covering many issues from praxis to patronage, from theoretical positions to political stances.

 

DALVI:
Why is this the right time to take stock of the state of architecture in India today?

MEHROTRA:
For several important reasons:
The first is clearly to correct or compensate for the absolute silence in the discussion of architecture in the last decade or two. For good reason, our discussions and our focus have been on urban questions, or at least we have approached our discussion about architecture through the lens of the city.

Further, the architecture that has been celebrated in India since the liberalization of our economy has been the ‘architecture of indulgence’- weekend homes, restaurants, resorts and corporate offices; and, as an extension of this limited spectrum of what is celebrated, the discussion is focused on material, craft, and texture in an almost fetishistic manner. While this is productive in its own way – it removes the perception of the usefulness of architecture away from the public. All such programs that, while they are crucial crucibles for architectural innovation, touch a very small fragment of our population.

Lastly, in India, the State has more or less given up the responsibility of projecting an ‘idea of India’ through the built and physical environment as it had done in the post- independence era when several state capitals, government and educational campuses were built across the country. Today the major state-directed projects are highways, flyovers, airports, telecommunications networks and electricity grids which connect urban centers but don’t contribute to determining or guiding their physical structure. The State is now obsessed with a statistical architecture – GDP, etc. So the idea of this exhibition, through focusing on public architecture is to bring this issue into focus and question the State’s role as patron for architecture, or more broadly the role of the architect in contemporary India society.

DALVI:
Do you project the exhibition as a historical unfolding or a critical deconstruction of Indian architecture?

MEHROTRA:
The exhibition is interestingly both a historic unfolding as well as critical deconstruction - a productive hybrid, which we believe, results from multiple curatorial hands. 

MEHTA:
The exhibition should be imagined as a diagram of the curatorial team’s own experiences as practioners, critics and theorists - at one point it emphasizes memory and history, but on the other it also makes tangible and hopefully discernable the living chaos of the present. We are at the threshold of classifying and clarifying the chaos that maybe accorded to the present state of architectural manifestations and, rather than a rush to classification, it is important to understand what the presence of chaos or multiplicity means. Naturally this creates an ambiguity in terms of our roles and our instrumentality as designers and so this is a condition that’s worth interrogating productively. In that sense the exhibition shuffles between the protocols of established histories and establishing arguments in light of dramatic historical shifts and the need for newer criteria or lenses of analysis.

The architect as a professional figure will also be drawn out in the exhibition and the events that surround the show, as against only talking about architecture and buildings, per se. The architect as individual needs to be recovered, not as a hero or a socialite, but as a technocrat, a social being, a political entity, a professional contributor and a public intellectual.

DALVI:
Could you briefly take us through the three parts of the exhibition you have envisaged- ‘the State of the Profession’, ‘Practices and Processes’ and ‘Projections and Speculations’.

MEHROTRA:
The first section, ‘The State of the Profession’ will present data on the profession all the way from education, to the media’s representation of the profession to issues that face practioners today.

The second section is an historic overview sliced by three milestones: the first- Independence, the second- the Emergency and the third- economic liberalization. We believe these three moments had a fundamental bearings on the DNA of the profession and a clear sway in its agenda, from one of national identity construction to much more of a regional obsession starting in the 1990s.

The third section is focused on the present generation of practioners – broadly under 50 years of age. In this section we have curated approximately 80 projects that we think signal the contemporary issues as well as aspiration of society in India, but more importantly also register the talent of an emerging generation of practioners in India.

DALVI:
What is the more significant, in your opinion- the product or the praxis?

MEHROTRA:
Clearly, what is more critical is the praxis. The modes of engagement and the forms of patronage that support these different models of architectural practice are thus going to be privileged in this exhibition. The three parts we have envisaged will take the viewer through both a historical perspective as well as confront them with the present state of the profession, while in terms of the pure data what the present generations of practioners are producing.


DALVI:
Do think that the architect today has a more muted voice and lesser agency than in the last century? To extend this line of thought- is architecture in the county driven more by the patron than the architect?

MEHROTRA:
Architecture is largely being driven by patrons and the voice of the architect, at least as we see it, is muted – far too muted, sadly so. Since the liberalization of our economy, architects are pandering to Capital in unprecedented ways – creating what we could call the Architecture of Impatient Capital.

Capital on account of its impatience creates architecture that is often whimsical, most often vendor driven, for ease of speed of construction, with new roles emerging for architects who now interface with technology but also exchange and access information in a renewed relationship, sometimes productively and often in a subservient way. This then, by extension, is a critical issue for practioners – the ideological stance of most patrons, which is largely based on and invested in Capitalisms.

DALVI:
Twenty-five years after the processes of liberalization commenced in the country, the State has loosened its stranglehold on the production of infrastructure, preferring to outsource that which it once mandated to the entrepreneur/speculator, transforming, in the process, the consumer from occupant to aspirant.

MEHROTRA:
Interestingly, in today’s world no ideological stance can be singular or clear. Through the last 25 years we have the simultaneous experience of transitioning out of socialism and transitioning, simultaneously into capitalism (or some form of it). Thus there have been other patrons, trusts, faith-based organizations, NGOs and civil society more broadly that has also supported architecture and recognized its role in the well-being of society. We hope we can celebrate this other half of architectural production in India that is, equally or if not in greater measure, altering and making the ‘new landscape’.

If the developer is playing a role in the building of our architectural physical fabric, then we will have to see where and how we can engage with that set of players. Real-estate is as much about planning, policy, and culture as much as it is economic and finance - this reality has to be elaborated, researched and explained, while as a profession we have to negotiate these forces for the larger good of our built and natural environments.

Architectural education has a massive role to play in articulating and negotiating these conditions. Building appropriate capacity and training a generation in the various modes of engagement with practice, etc. But the media more generally must also make this more central to its imagination and agenda. We don’t see enough of this discussion in the mainstream media in these critical terms.

DALVI:
The last significant exhibition on architecture in India took place in 1986. Vistara was part of the Festival of India, and brought new paradigms and a new vocabulary into the architectural mainstream.

MEHTA:
Yes, no doubt Vistara is important - it is a landmark, it is iconic, and the more we view it with historical distance it emerges as a turning point. This event has been visited at least at 3 points in the pages of Domus India. The other exhibition designed and curated for the Festivals of India, curated by Raj Rewal in 1985 called ‘Architecture in India’ was also very important.

DALVI:
Do you think that Vistara has cast a long shadow (particularly on the SOA) or was that exhibition a product of its time?

MEHTA:
We actually think that SOA will compliment what the previous exhibition did in a productive way by actually narrowing the lens to the time since independence where these exhibitions more or less stopped. In fact, Vistara was also trying deal with the confusions of its time, or dealing with the predictions of confusion in the immediate decades to come- it established concepts and narratives as a way of talking about architecture for India. Having recently revisited some archival photographs of the exhibition, it is also clear that Vistara was a manifestation of anxieties and ideas that many architects were concerned with- in some way a community of architects contributed to the exhibition, in spirit. The exhibition was possibly a manifestation of many collectively discussed issues.

MEHROTRA:
Vistara was very much an exhibition of its time. One could say it was the last significant event in the history of architectural discourse in India that attempted, in an extremely successful way, to construct a meta-narrative about and Architecture for India, a pan-Indian identity construction. The State of architecture (SOA) is about Architecture in India not for India as an instrument of national identity construction. SOA, we believe will signal this shift and thus it consciously takes the moment of nation statehood as a starting point but unfolds its narrative to show how these deconstructs over the last few decades.

Of significance is also the fact that Vistara was a state-sponsored show as part of the Government of India’s exhibition for the Festivals of India held between 1983 and 1986.This was a nation attempting to reclaim its glory and traditions after the devastation of its image through the period of the Emergency. These exhibitions intended to show case the deep traditions of India to the world outside and presented a narrative of India’s rich architectural traditions. SOA on the other hand is clearly about internal introspection and reflection. It is a critical stocktaking of the role of the architect and architecture in India from, in a sense, within the profession. We hope it will be the first of a series of events over the next few years to interrogate the State of Architecture and the profession in India.

DALVI:
What is the state of architecture in India today? Does the exhibition offer us tools by which we can appreciate or assess contemporary Indian architecture?

MEHTA:
The precise problem is that architecture is floating in murky waters, that is indeed its 'state'- fluid and ambiguous!

From a point in the early twentieth century when architects fought to stand apart from engineers, and projected themselves as designers and thinkers, participating in the cultural landscape of society, today architecture has slipped into modes of luxury or vanity commodity - pretty houses and rich interiors! Today architects are introduced as lifestyle-producers - handmaidens to a demand for style and fancy living! This condition was the urge behind setting up tents whenever and wherever possible to discuss architecture. Lack of valuable and critical discussions on architecture and the simultaneous pressure on urban development resulted in discussing architecture as an aspect of urban studies or regional/rural studies (often as the counter-story) to perhaps symbolically embrace the social sciences and their humanizing effects.

But then, what does it mean to bring architecture back into focus - and how would we study this object-space which it is, as well as occupies? In framing programming at Arbour: Research Initiatives in Architecture or the editorial intentions within Domus India, one struggled on experiments to develop the tools and system of understanding, analyzing, and discussing architecture, and whenever necessary, to understand architecture in India!

DALVI:
Do these struggles imply that we may be chronologically too close to making useful readings?

MEHTA:
It is now important that we stand within today and talk about today!

We have to discuss our times as our experiences of political realities in everyday life - and here we draw in architecture, as one of the primary modes in which everyday life is lived and experienced. The production and consumption of architecture, as function or symbol, it is an everyday lived reality. The task is then to produce tools that will understand architecture as a material reality as much as it is a cultural topography. So in fact to ask questions of 'today' while we occupy 'today' - may indeed be the important position to adopt - to asses, and make useful readings - and make architecture realize what it is, what it has come to be, what it could potentially be, what it has missed or lost, and where can it (maybe) recover!

MEHROTRA:
Here is a counter question to your question – how do we even decide when is a good time?

We don’t believe any time is right but different distances from the present give you different readings. This is also why we have consciously constructed a curatorial team that brings different pulses to our readings – one of an art critic, architectural critic as well as a practioner. We bring different lenses to view the trajectory of architecture in India and our perspectives will offer different readings of time and distance. Each of these lenses is inherently better equipped for different distances!

Besides this multiplicity of curatorial lenses, we believe the structure of the exhibition move from an objectivity of presentation in the first section to a subjectivities reading or curatorial reading in the third section. The second section is a bridge from where we can look at the past with some distance.

As a generation passes it becomes in some ways easier to read the immediate past, while in other ways harder because even for the immediate past we do not have an adequate culture to archive, capture and reflect on the production of architecture. So the chronological proximity can be used in both ways- to construct robust links and a sense of the continuity with the past but also to interrogate it with the ambiguity that the proximity to reality allows us.

The exhibition will hopefully invite a discussion through provocative questions that will try to clarify the ambiguity that naturally fogs our reading of the contemporary and immediate past. The many events we are organizing around the exhibition are as critical as the exhibition itself – in fact they are intended to deconstruct the artifact of the exhibition so that more nuanced readings emerge for the profession as a whole!

DALVI:
What is the position of contemporary Indian architecture in the larger discourse of nation building? In the first few decades after independence there seemed to be a synchronicity between the aims of the architects and that of the fledgling nation state. Even private patronage seemed to follow a similar mindset. Now in the liberalized present, there seems to be a greater priority on the rights of individuals rather than on collective responsibility especially in the urban environment. How do you assess this transition?

HOSKOTE:
This transition in the nature and role of architecture in India clearly reflects the arc of political change in the country, from the primacy of the State as engine of social, economic and cultural transformation in the early decades after Independence to the gradual withdrawal of the State from this dirigiste position and the emergence of private capital as the source and reference point for the formation of social values, the direction of economic policy and the texture of cultural production.

In the earlier phase, architecture was clearly aligned with the utopian, nation-building ambitions of the postcolonial State, whether the patron was the State or private enterprise. In the current phase, architecture is equally clearly aligned with the aspirations of an emergent class of financiers, speculators and investors, with the State often following this cue in any projects it commissions.

The premise of the earlier phase was the Leviathan-like delegation of decision-making by individuals and communities to the postcolonial State, which would guarantee the greater good. The premise of the current phase is the contrarian equation of individual liberty with private property, and thus with the individual quest for personal happiness, with the greater good falling by the wayside.

MEHROTRA:
There is a difference in the geographies of the location of the new patronage that has emerged. There is an explosive growth of building in the southern states of India. The traditions and cultures of building in these new geographies is very different from the contemporary building culture that had formed in what has been referred to as ' the spine of architectural awareness' stretching from Chandigarh to Goa via Delhi, Ahmedabad and Mumbai, as well as Pondicherry which had, for other reasons, a robust architecture culture developing there even before independence. Interestingly this new form of patronage comes in a post-socialist era where the individual is at the center of the decision-making through an empowerment that is the result of capital accumulation. So this is a new form of patronage but also coming out of specific cultural and physical geographies.

DALVI:
What role does the globalized/liberalized economy play in shaping the localized/socialized urban sphere?

HOSKOTE:
The globalized economy operates through a complex circulation of global goods, services and imaginaries that are threaded through a local set of conditions: the relationship between these is parsed through a variety of modes including translation, mistranslation, reflection and refraction. The urban sphere that is thus produced is characterized by inchoate and often volatile aspirations, a pursuit of images that seem always out of reach, and also a culture that emphasizes the primacy of privatism rather than solidarities of any kind.

MEHTA: 
The last two or three decades have been important times and a period that marks a turning point in not only just the history and politics of India, but the world as well. The fall of the Berlin Wall, demolition of Babri Masjid in India, 9/11 in New York, the liberalization of economic policies in India and the shift from manufacturing to service industry. These decades have also been characterized by shifts in our cultural imaginations, aesthetic decisions, and political choices as is evident in the material world we produce and occupy.

There some wonderful trends within the profession that are becoming evident, a new set of architectural practices have emerged,  and have established a critical body of work that can be evaluated for their different ideas and theoretical perspectives. At the same time, today change occurs at an escalated pace- and to understand the present and future trajectories for the profession we need to build conversations that can facilitate this process.  A nuanced, critical, robust and rigorous discourse within the academy of architecture education and more importantly the profession - we sincerely hope that SOA will be a contribution to this broader aspiration.

DALVI:
Can you take a brief overview on the quality of architectural writing today?

MEHTA:
Writing on architecture is in an abysmal state! But this statement does not take us far. Lack of writing indicates our lack of critical interest in architecture as a professional community, as a culture (national or otherwise).

To theorize a subject for a field is to indeed appreciate its value and existence beyond its mere need-to-be; and the discussions on architecture have happily slipped into rhetorics of regionalism or climate, hate-glass or love-brick and stone, outdated notes on power and architecture - in fact, they seem to be living in a time-warp! The world changed drastically and rapidly in the 1990s - and we could not as an architectural profession keep pace with it - unable to understand what had hit us. Rather than developing newer languages and idioms, and tools to asses and read the new architectural turns, we often resorted to a denial of the shape of things, to a rhetoric of rejection, and misplaced nostalgia.

Politics has become ever more complex, and architects from once being agents of social and aesthetic revolutions, now maintain a technocratic attitude, where you fine-tune your skills, but avoid addressing the very environment (social and cultural) that you ironically depend on for your daily bread and butter! Until we address the conditions of our reality, writing will not be effective or incisive - because the drive to write, argue, shape/unshape will be missing! To write is to create a world that furthers the meaning and role of architecture in a society. It should not be imagined as a skill-task of decoding some hidden meaning in an existing building; it is not supplementary to architecture, or to deliver formulas for a 'better' design - but to enlarge the existing space and terrain of architecture productively.

DALVI:
Are there contemporary texts that can potentially become canonical in the future? Does the SOA exhibition reflect upon architecture as a discourse?

MEHTA:
I am not sure if there are particular iconic essays - if we decide to identify some, I am sure we will find them - but I would prefer to say there is a good enough cluster of texts. One has also in the Domus experience got more interested in exploring the forms of interviews and discussions, parallel to the essay format - as that leads to a nurturing of many voices and many experiences - the practitioner and the theorist both are heard.

The SOA exhibition is an attempt to generate/develop the terrain and landscape to engage with architecture - to produce accounts in a way, even at the cost of repeating descriptions, to address what exists, to generate the network of dots, a set of thought-images which will prepare us for a thesis. The final thesis is the excuse to develop this density of thoughts - finely shaped clusters that will help us understand fragments that shape a history.

MEHROTRA:
Yes, of course, some of the contemporary texts on architecture have the potential to become canonical text. These texts capture the conflicts and conditions of an era today of amazing transformation and reflections of the emergent condition will become the framework for any theoretical discourse in the future. Theory, after all, emanates from insightful reflection of the conditions on the ground.

I think the quality of writing that we see today is extremely good but there is just not enough of it! There is such a dearth of writing that the few pieces being produced today will be precious records of the contemporary condition. Contemporary writing also represent the conflicts and struggles of the first couple of generations of architects in post-colonial India – which itself holds the potential to be a representation of a wider global churning. SOA will capture the state of writing and the broader discourse on architecture. In fact this is one of the core agendas of the show and its related events.

DALVI:
Is the architecture of India today reconciled with its many pasts? As an ideological position, the early Modernists could willfully reject history in the course of charting architectural futures. However, considering that a lot of buildings are part of brownfield developments, often in the heart of some of our ageing cities, what is the possible positions contemporary architecture should take about precedents and contexts?

MEHTA:
Both positions are a problem - excessive sensitivity to a past or a denial/rejection of it - and that somewhere is our situation today, to be oscillating between two positions. Some of the interpretations of the past have also been problematic - where often past is reduced to a monolithic imagination or simply a set of images, to be cut-and-pasted. To the credit of many architects - some in the generation that established studios in the 1970s as well as the younger ones establishing studios between 1980-1990s there has been an expression of this dilemma - where do I address the present time and its own material reality, while also caring about a history and heritage we grow up to respect; at times this has been a dilemma and it has been evident in the architecture, at times it is purposeful expression of that struggle.

The need is to struggle in these times and see what languages of architecture will work for us today, and suit or challenge our political and functional existences. Some of the younger practices are indeed doing that - they may not be able to express that all points in time - but they are intuitively struggling with the present.

There is also the shameless activity of building - which is more the real-estate end of architecture - where you binge on building and construction, where architecture is used to suit greed and some promoted idea of aspirations. Architecture in this realm can only be countered when some well-meaning and ethically-sound architects will enter this sphere of real-estate architecture, and try to push the boundaries from within these specific practices. On the other hand, one will have to work on the idea of public awareness regarding architecture. There is no discussion on architecture in non-professional forums, or the popular media; this is a big lacunae! Architecture is the most public of all arts - it sits in your face - it has a strong public presence in everyday living space - but there is no discussion on architecture in the public sphere.

DALVI:
Is Indian architecture today political? Has it ever been political? Does this exhibition have an ideological standpoint?

HOSKOTE:
Indian architecture certainly articulated a politics of rupture and compelling forward movement in its heroic Modernist phase, when it presented itself as a force that would clear away the residues of tradition and the compromises of the colonial period, and would, both literally and figuratively, build a future for the nation-state that had no precedent in what went before. Even when they used motifs and devices, or redeployed typologies from the legacies of previous times, Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde B V Doshi, Charles Correa and Raj Rewal embodied this spirit in their early work. And when some members of this generation circled back to the retrieval of the embedded wisdom of regional building, architectural and visionary lineages, as they did during the 1980s, that was a political gesture as well– a gesture articulating a politics of critical retrieval.

The State of Architecture exhibition does not proceed from an emphatic ideological premise, but it does bear witness to some of these shifts and transitions. It also, in its choice of contemporary practices and projects, prefers to focus on work that is socially oriented, is informed by the relationship between architecture and other discourses such as conservation and ecological awareness, and in other ways explores manifestations beyond what is possible in a developer-driven domain.

MEHTA:
This is indeed a tricky subject- on the face of it there clearly is a lack of political engagement that contemporary architecture has today. Having said that, in many architectural projects today, one can feel the struggle some architects are going through with this divorce of form, design, and politics.

What we need is not to mourn this divorce but to try and figure out what is the current engagement that form and design have with everyday life- politics and culture. There are many formulaic references established about people and public life, living and working, and often architects are simply reusing them again and again. These are no more than rhetoric. However in some cases there are new adjustments being made, to deal with the political and cultural negotiations of life in India now. It is probably more writing, more studies that will make this new forms of anxiety clear and understandable.

DALVI:
Is it still relevant to believe, as the Modernists once did, that good architecture will inevitably lead to good society?

HOSKOTE:
All the Modernists who believed that good architecture– or noble art– would inevitably lead to a good society have come to grief.

Mondrian believed that his rectilinear, flattened paintings offered cues to the spiritual refinement of life; mass culture has reduced them to shower curtains. Le Corbusier believed that his ideal designs would enable the citizens of tomorrow to lead lives of significance; his work was flawed from the beginning by his desire to subjugate all individual will and desire to the absolutism of the plan. There is no necessary connection between good architecture and a good society– at best, the former can be an image of the latter; it can gesture towards the latter. But the best architecture can be distorted by elites bent on exacerbating the asymmetries in society.





'The State of Architecture: Practices & Processes in India' exhibition 
opens at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai from 6 January - 20 March 2016.

The exhibition will present the nature of contemporary architecture in India within a larger historical overview since Independence. It will not only map emerging practices but also discuss the aspirations they represent and stimulate a conversation on architecture among the architectural fraternity, patrons and public at large. Embodying a spectrum of positions that characterize architectural production in India, the content is intended to be provocative and make explicit the multiple, and often simultaneously valid, streams of architectural thought and engagement that truly represents the pluralism of India.