Saturday, December 11, 2010

What is an architect worth?

What is the value of a professional architect?

This question came up, when, in a recent round of placements for Architectural Interns, one of India's largest and most prolific architectural firms offered interns from my college Rupees Five Hundred per month (Rs.500/-) as salary for placing them. You read that right. Both times.

Apart from being deviant, perverse and downright ridiculous, it is unfortunately not so far from the norm as far as architectural interns in Bombay or the rest of the country are concerned. In architecture colleges, the coursework is for a five-year duration. The final semester of this long course is a term of professional internship where a student joins a firm to understand the nitty-grittys of professional practice and also be an active part of the team of architects that execute projects. They are never intended to be observers or by-standers. Students who join as interns are made to work without any fixed work conditions, and depending from office to office, have to work 12 hours a day or more, and even during weekends. They are (mostly) not reimbursed travel expenses for commuting to work and, as some say, 'hamare office mein chai ka paisa bhi dena padta hai.'

Despite this, many interns join architects offering them an internship salary of anywhere between Rs. 2,500/- to Rs.7,500/-. Few firms offer Rs.10,000/- or above. The highest I have heard is Rs.18,000/- which a student of mine got by joining a firm in Delhi. I have often wondered why, no matter what the pittance offered to them, do students get reconciled, even happy to a salary that amounts to an insulting amount of bheekh (largesse)? The reasons interns give us are:
1. It is a good architectural design firm.
2. I always wanted to work with so-and-so architect.
3. I am getting to learn so many things.
4. I will do my internship here, and then change when the mandatory time period is over.
5. I will get a good recommendation letter from the firm when I apply for post-graduate studies.
6. I am not the lowest paid (in comparison to my peers) so it’s OK.

Why do architects not have even a twinge of conscience when paying sums like these? Architectural firms come in all sizes. There are many one-person proprietary firms with few projects and resources, and then there are some monster firms with staff strengths of over 200 employees and office branches in several cities. Paying such low salaries is not necessarily restricted to size, as is evident by my initial example. Mostly it is a culture of conditioning. And added to that the arrogance of self-aggrandizement. The reasons firms give for their salary structure is:
1. Students don’t learn anything in college. We have to spend time teaching them.
2. They don’t stay with us for a longer duration; they run away the first opportunity they get.
3. We are a small firm; we can’t afford to pay them more.
4. They will never get a better experience than in our firm.
5. They won’t sign a bond to stay in our firm for (x) years.
6. Everybody is doing the same thing.
7. We don't really want interns.

It is by plunging to the lowest common denominator that both employers and interns perpetuate this culture of exploitation. In my irritation and frustration (we have, for several years, tried to get our students placed in offices that pay what the interns minimally deserve, but have not succeeded), I propose that, instead of wasting their half-decade long learning, skills, experience and talent to people who do not value them, they should instead join the unskilled workforce and get jobs either breaking stones or sweeping floors.

Here is the definition of an unskilled employee: An unskilled employee is one who does operations that involve the performance of simple duties, which require the experience of little of no independent judgment or previous experience although familiarity with the occupational environment is necessary. His work may thus require in addition to physical exertion familiarity with variety of articles or goods.

Just as a comparison: an architectural intern is one who does operations that involve the making of architectural drawings and models (the drawings made on computers using specialized software), making site visits, doing site supervision and measurements, meeting clients and other professional consultants, visiting local municipal agencies for procuring certificates of commencement for projects, etc., helping in the creation and checking of tenders and bills of quantities, writing correspondence, sending/receiving drawings and other documents, and doing pretty much everything required by the employee; which requires five years of professional learnings, but whose independent judgment is of little or no value, with no previous office experience, although familiarity with the occupational environment is necessary. The work may require, in addition to physical exertion, familiarity with variety of articles or goods.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of argument let us consider the architectural intern unskilled.

Unskilled workers come under the purview of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, which is a legislative protection for workers to receive a minimum wage, and a fundamental premise of decent work. With effect from November 2009, the National Floor Level of Minimum Wage is Rs.100/- per day. Minimum wages are fixed for work up to 9 hours a day and 48 hours per week.

For employment in Maharashtra, the Labor Department, Government of Maharashtra makes the following provisions for unskilled stone crushers/breakers: their basic wage varies from Rs.169.23 to Rs.192.31 per day. The total minimum wage for stone crushing/breaking varies from Rs.227.63 to Rs. 250.71 per day. That works out to Rs.5,918.38 at the very minimum for a 26 day working month (a 6-day week).

Unskilled sweepers and scavengers have a similar basic wage and their total minimum wage varies from Rs.194.87 to Rs. 217.95 per day. This works out to Rs. 5,066.62 at the very minimum per month.

To the best of my knowledge, almost one out of every four architectural firms I know of pays their architectural interns less than this. Even using the national floor level of minimum wage, an intern's salary should amount to Rs. 2600/ per month. Certainly not Five Hundred.

A generation of architects has already been warped by this despicable mindset. Architects as employees have no long term loyalty to firms; keep jumping jobs for a pittance in salary raise, develop a mercenary mindset and go abroad the first chance they get. Employers keep taking interns with three month commitments; manage without senior architects, run their show like road contractors offering daily wages to all comers, all this while publishing their work in the glossy magazines.

Sure, this is not in violation of any Child Labor Laws, but them it isn’t much removed from that either.

Just in case you find this hard to swallow, you can read this rather dismal chain of posts from a discussion on ArchNet.

All Wage Data from

Sunday, November 28, 2010

My First Serial Killer

I saw Claude Chabrol's Le Boucher (The Butcher, 1970), I'm not sure, but probably around 1974. I was nine.

I watched this film in blurry black and white on Bombay Doordarshan. This was a time of fledgling programming by Bombay's only television channel, leading to its golden age in the mid-seventies. Foreign films were a weekly staple, as I remember, under the program head of 'Montage'. For me though, looking back now, Chabrol's film was one of many firsts: it was my first introduction to world cinema, it was my first sub-titled film (something I unquestioningly accepted as normal) and it was my first serial killer movie.

Of course, what stood out for me was the last bit. As kids we were all brought up on a bloody diet of killing, murder, bloodshed, what have you... you know the wholesomeness of growing up, none of the namby-pamby stuff.

One scene in the movie stood out, clearly imprinting in my memory. I have recalled it many times since, I must have been pleasantly traumatized by it. A schoolteacher takes a bunch of children out on a picnic to a cave site in the hills. They sit by a stone ledge and open their sandwiches. One little girl open her buttered sandwich and exclaims 'Its raining!' The teacher says 'It's not raining.' The girl cries out 'But its red!' and looks up. A bloody female hand with freshly dripping blood pokes over the ledge. Everyone screams. Oh, how we loved watching this then, a bunch of kids in our neighbor's home (the only television set in the area at that time) and replayed it over and over in our heads and in our games. Drops of blood being an index for murder is a corny cliche today, but for us kids it was an affirmation of our own imaginations and fears.

By this time of course I had had my fill of horror stories and horror movies (only through books and magazines, trawling the depths of Poona's British Council Library, where I practically grew up). A particular favorite was the Encyclopedia of Horror Film and Cinefantastique (full of pictures, both scary and naughty-that's where I discovered King Kong, Godzilla, Dracula, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, The House of Wax, the Thing, the Blob, and everything undead), and of course the monthly Films and Filming magazine that I could never get enough of. Watching these actual movies would come much, much later. No, I consumed texts, still images and above all movie posters, lurid marquees in books and magazines and outside on all the cinema theaters I passed everyday in our school-bus on our way to school, fueling fantasies and populating the visual libraries in my head.

Chabrol, of course, I saw for the first and only time time that evening in the mid 70s. I found the scene again today, after nearly 40 years, and in glorious color here. And yes, the scene played put pretty much as I remembered it. Amazing, how I must have internalised the whole thing. A few years later, still a kid, I wrote a murrrderrr ishtory of my own called 'Whatever happened to Aunt Alice?' full of killing and assorted bunkum, where the first clue to a possible doing-in were three drops of blood on a bedsheet. Yes, yes, I did Google the title today to find that it was a film made in 1969, and I must have seen the title somewhere, what did I know? Plagiarism does not exist when you are ten. I must have seen the poster on the right, it has a gory familiarity, the blood is just about right. Also, this just occurred to me: the image of the bloody hand on the DVD box mirrors the hand in Le Boucher. Some amazing triangulation happening here, both inside my head and outside of it.

But of this I am sure of:
when those drops fell on the little girl's open buttered sandwich, I saw them fall in red.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A New Beginning

This is the first piece I wrote for Time Out Mumbai, occasioned by their 'End of the Line' issue on the last suburbs at the end of the Mumbai Local lines. Panvel, of course is currently the last station on the Harbour Line.

A New Beginning
Mustansir Dalvi tries to makes sense of living in Panvel

A patch of road, about three feet wide, crosses my path to the railway station on the New Panvel side. Elsewhere, the road continues, well tarred regularly before each monsoon. This singularity, however, remains untouched and has been since the Harbour Line made its way into town in 1995. Not just unmaintained: it was never built in the first place. Every subsequent overlay of tar turns this dirty old track into an even deeper crater filled with rocks and plastic detritus. Each morning, as I drive station-wards, I am compelled to make obeisance here with a loud, teeth-rattling thump. Departmental no man’s land between the Central Railway and CIDCO, to me this patch represents Panvel itself. 

   We found a home in New Panvel in the early ’90s. It was planned by CIDCO, circa 1970, as part of the New Bombay Project. Across the highway is “old” Panvel (of the same vintage as the Big City across the pond). New Panvel – or Naveen Panvel, as it’s now known – falls between several jurisdictional cracks. Part of revenue district Raigad (but not the Raigad Lok Sabha constituency), not under the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation nor administered by the Panvel Municipal Council, yet, apparently maintained by CIDCO, our little hub of urbanity is paternally challenged It’s at one end of the Harbour Line. Although Panvel is a terminus for the suburban line, through trains connect it pan-India, from Hazrat Nizamuddin to Thiruvananthapuram. Old and Naveen coexist, like Siamese twins, both conjoint and severed by the railway and the NH4.

   New Panvel was a one-horse town when we first bought our home, and remained so until the millennium. I can get nostalgic about leisurely drives down its wide, main avenue perpendicular to the highway, through the town and beyond into pristine wilderness, into the spectacular hillscape at the foothills of Matheran. Every monsoon, we chased the elusive 180 degree rainbow. We got lucky, once. Then, we would return to this well-planned place that, for 30 years, merely existed; a place for investors and absentee landlords, a few service shops and several jewellers’ boutiques that fronted for moneylenders. New educational complexes grew and prospered because land was available, as was easy residential accommodation. “Then came the churches, then came the schools, then came the lawyers, then came the rules; then came the trains and the trucks with their load,” exactly as Dire Straits predicted in their song “Telegraph Road”. New Bombay developed, but this node awoke only after the Harbour Line reached Panvel in 1995. 

In the ’90s and noughties, as we paid up EMIs at 16.5 per cent, Panvel surfed the crests and troughs of real estate vagary and emerged, unlike sisters Vashi and Kharghar, resolutely downmarket. Migration fuelled economy; incoming communities marked their presence with new religious places – a temple to Kali, another to Ayappa, a new mosque, the unusually named CIDCO Vinayak mandir.  Forty years on, the wrinkles are visible, what with the administrative ambiguity the city finds itself in. Now, various levels of neglect can mean that load-shedding hits us as if Panvel is a rural backwater; local rickshawallahs scorn metering (for every fuel price hike of one rupee, their base-fare rises by five); garbage collection is sluggish; bins are usually taken apart by stray dogs, who rule the night and run in packs of 20.

   The other Panvel, to my right as I get off the train, is, not unlike Mumbai, an old town in a new world. Historically both a port and a trading town, Panvel was once the rice bowl of the north Konkan, with its famous Bazaar Peth, Mirchi and Kapad Gallis. Panvel Gaon dates back to 1725, when the Bapat Wada was built. It was elevated in the 1800s, when migrants from the Konkan were populating Bombay and Panvel Shahar became an alternate place to make a home. When you talk to old-timers, they tell you that a newcomer could always find home in the Bapat Wada and occupation in Dhootpapeshwar, the ayurvedic factory. While the factory is gone, the wada still shelters several hundred residents.

   Then as now, festivals at the many temples, mosques, dargahs, even a synagogue bring the faithful thronging to Panvel. The oldest temple, the Ballaleshwar, is from the eighteenth century; the Beth-El Synagogue was consecrated in 1849. When I visit these places today, I am struck by their similarity. On the outside, every place of worship looks like every other, and only reveals the trappings of faith when I enter. This old town was once a paragon of middle-class cosmopolitanism. Its various communities – Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Jains – shared a Konkani culture, food, clothing and Marathi as lingua franca. 

   In the past 20 years or so, I have seen attitudes stiffen: today, gentrification pervades, the old bonhomie is breaking down. More and more overt displays of religion and community foreground civic life – flags and flex-banners pervade. I am uneasy when I encounter makeshift notice-boards, not-so-subtly exhorting good religious behaviour. Money also fuels change. Many (thankfully, not all) of these places of worship are now “renovated”, with RCC shikharas and minarets sprouting incongruously. Many wadas too have given way to MHHSes, or Middle Class Housing Societies. Now, tall buildings crowd narrow alleyways bottlenecked with newly acquired cars. No country for old men.

  But I wallow in my good fortune, for, out of my window I can see, beyond the whooshing SUVs on the expressway, Panvel’s glorious peaks – Malang, Vishal, Prabal, Matheran and Karnala. Each with signature crowns, they transport me to the geological beginnings of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. This entire geography was the result of great and sustained volcanic eruptions 65 million years ago that cooled to form the Deccan, the Konkan and the isles that were Bombay (eliminating all the dinosaurs in the process). This craggy beauty bookends Navi Mumbai to the east and signals the end of the Harbour Line. 

   Meanwhile, Panvel waits; patient, like the stone sentinels that shadow it, patient like Mother Konkan, who waited decades for the railways to link her to the ghats. Panvel now waits (as I do) for a new airport, a new SEZ, a fast train to Mumbai or even a three-foot patch of road to energise its fortunes – and mine. Until that happens, I have to be content with “Asia’s largest railway station” (all steel mushroom decking and faux Egyptian columns), still in the making. 

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Marad hona toh aisa hona

'Marad ona toh aisa hona
Amul Banner from 1986
'Mera rona to kaisa rona

Other Amul banners featuring God's Own Hand down the years.
Diddled by Germany in the past too.

carded for substance abuse

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Millennium and its discontents

The one big problem with the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson is that the bad guys never, ever have a real chance of winning.

Like Greek tragedies in reverse, things go steadily downhill for the antagonists as destiny and fate, or Salander and Kalle Bloody Blomkvist decree their ultimate annihilation and/or demise. The inevitability of an Evildoers Apocalypse makes you just canter along merrily for the ride, your heartbeat and pulse rate remain at balmy normality as it all plays out and the Gurrl mit der Dragon Tattoo walks into the sunset with her stolen billions. After a point, patience does get stretched.

Very rarely in a novel in the thriller genre do you encounter such has-been, past-the-expiry-date, doofus-brained villains, all with two left feet and un-opposable thumbs. One of the many perpetrators of atrocities is actually a geriatric in a wheel-chair who is almost perpetually connected to a dialysis machine, even as he plans to shower fire and brimstone on the equally gormless Salander and Blomkvist.

To sustain an interest in nearly 2000 pages of adventure you must at least have the occasional possibility of mortality for the main characters, should you want to root for them. Here, even a bullet in the head brings no grief, and is little more than an excuse for 200 odd pages of hospital procedural. It is understood that the protagonists are not going to be bumped off (not until the very end of it all, if at all) but at least there should be the fear of such a possibility and the dread that comes with it. Even a kindersroman like Harry Potter makes us, on occasion, feel that something very, very bad is round the corner, and the anticipation of what might be raises goose pimples, as it should. Mikael Bastard Blomkvist and Lisbeth Insouciant Salander and their clueless peripherals go their merry ways like a fairy/doll house tea party in Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Forest.

The utter safety that this narrative provides is probably the reason for the books’ success. Larsson jettisons drive and anticipation for wish-fulfilment and vicarious voyeurism. If you choose to identify with the good guys, it is promised that only good things will happen to you, and you can string along until ultimately good things do happen. Larsson satisfies many forbidden urges- breaking down all barriers of the privacy of others, while keeping your own secure, procuring vast sums of money by dubious means but never getting caught (also experiencing the pleasure of spending vast sums of  said monies on pleasuring the self), and of course, screwing all and sundry on two legs. How many of the main characters does Bonking Blomkvist make his conquests? Five, or six, by my last count. Pity he doesn’t swing both ways, or Larsson could have made him sleep with most of the bad guys too.

Salander’s actions, on the other hand, are a result of childhood abuse, but most of that is in the past. Her present is all about the exploitation of the system she finds herself in without responsibility or consequence. Even rape is an opportunity or strategy to get even. Victimhood for her is like some other person, another body that is constructed in the present and put to use for personal gain. Talents like cyber-hacking and passive-surveillance allow her to do pretty much anything, almost like a denizen of Krypton in Metropolis. There is never failure. While reading you are carried forward in the sugar-rush of procedures and methodology of police work, the judiciary, journalism, sting operations and publishing, of the life and mores of millennial Sweden, while all is accomplished as smoothly as a hot knife through butter.

Spare a thought for the poor sods at Tehelka. They must be gnashing their teeth in horror while reading these books. They know a thing or two about consequences.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Romance of Red Stone

You are cordially invited to the book launch of

The Romance of Red Stone
An Appreciation of Ornament 
on Islamic Architecture in India

Photographs by
Yashwant Pitkar
Text by
Mustansir Dalvi

Published by M S Lehri
Super Book House
11” x11”
256 pages

Friday 23rd April 2010, 5.30pm
at the Claude Batley Gallery
Sir JJ College of Architecture, 78/3 DN Road, Mumbai

Ms. Tasneem Mehta,
Convener, Greater Mumbai Chapter of INTACH
Honorary Director and Managing Trustee
of Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai
has kindly consented to release the book on the occasion.

We look forward to your presence 
on the evening of the 23rd.

YD Pitkar  MM Dalvi

About the Book

In The Romance of Red Stone, Yashwant Pitkar presents architectural ornament as a feast of craftsmanship, an enduring romance with shape and stone in its unending variations. Pitkar’s photographs allow the viewer to appreciate Islamic ornament on architecture at a level removed from the formal- as an articulated surface. An architect first, then a photographer, Pitkar’s images reflect his love and admiration  for the buildings of Delhi, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, amongst others, which he captures in a way he knows best, up close and personal.

His unique photographic gaze is like that of a Mughal miniature painter, or a Company artist, taking the viewer close to the buildings, enough to shut out the dominating forms of the architecture to be immersed right into the aesthetics of surface. For those familiar with these buildings, the photographs allow a return, a recollection of architecture as a phenomenon, giving a sensual experience of places visited; an effective feel for the infinite craft.

Pitkar’s images also work at a deeper philosophical level. The viewer is made aware of the inner meaning of aesthetic representation, of the different ways of inducing the immeasurable. The plays of multiple superimposed levels and of forms and patterns continue like an incantation beyond the photographer’s frame suggesting the infinite.

Mustansir Dalvi’s text complements Pitkar’s photographs by guiding the reader to an understanding of the variety and symbolism of ornamental forms that grace Islamic architecture, especially in the Indian context. Ornament in its many manifestations transforms the architecture, dematerializing immense monuments into elegant jewel-boxes. Dalvi shows how artisan and patron came together in India in a unique integration of two divergent world views and cultures to create a lasting syncretism of Islamic and Hindu traditions that reached its zenith in the architecture of the Mughal period.