Monday, December 12, 2011

FirstPost Mumbai.The Blue Tarpaulin

Here is my new column on FirstPost.Com.

The Blue Tarpaulin: What it bares about Mumbai's high-rises

In my opinion, La Familia Ambani did not not shift into their two billion dollar abode because of a Vaastu dysfunction. I think the problem was much more mundane. Antilla leaks. This is why Mumbai was subjected to the rather unedifying sight last monsoon of large parts of the world’s costliest urban home covered with blue tarpaulin.

Antilla apart, the blue tarpaulin is a sight that has become ubiquitous all over the city. Normally associated with slums in mid-growth or buildings under construction, Antilla caught our eye mainly because it was a skyscraper, a state of the art uberhaus, and one designed by a vaunted, outsourced architectural firm.

Let us begin with the moral of the story first: Mumbai’s climate will bite you on the bum if you do not respect it in the first place. The tarpaulin is indexical of the essential disjunction between our aspirations and the sensitivity we have to fulfill them.

As buildings in our city rise higher than ever — 100 storeys and more are now being commonly contemplated — the appreciation that they are being erected in a tropical climate seem to be bypassed by the day. Sleek, blister-packed, glass edifices routinely puncture our skies forming beacons shanghaied by visions of an uncharted future.

How considerate are these imaginings to the inhabitants within? The fully air-conditioned environments are all very well, but all it needs is a leaking building to undo such technologies. As every householder knows, cracks, fissures and leaks are often invisible and go undetected until the problem becomes malignant.

Mumbai has lost its horizontality. This is a metaphor at many levels. For Mumbai’s high rises, the vertical semantic itself, the need for each building to be tower-like, an icon splashed on front page advertisements of national newspapers, can be the problem.

In the tropics, any architecture, whose predominant feature is a wall, exists in denial of the hot summer, the wet monsoon and the yearlong humidity. Its 4mm glass exterior is the only protection against these insistent forces, and the pane is a very meagre insulation indeed. Whereas this knowledge is self-evident, your grandmum would tell you so, exigencies to ignore it are too strong to resist.

Technology and real-estate prices beguile both designers and their patrons to create potentially problematic buildings. There are locations in Mumbai that now go for up to Rs 700 per square inch, so the need to maximise saleable area commonly overrides common sense.

The choice of steel frame technology as a structural system is increasingly replacing RCC (Reinforced Cement Concrete) as the norm, for two reasons: the first is that building erection is prefabricated, dry and speedy. Secondly, the structure itself occupies the least space in the building footprint, and encloses many more square feet that can, of course, be monetised. So like a tetrapack of milk left out in the sun too long, the building bulges from the inside out, straining at its seams, appearing at first glance that all is well on the inside.

Mumbai has lost its horizontality. This is a metaphor at many levels. We are increasingly out of touch with the ground beneath our feet, preferring, ever so easily to elevate ourselves out of the mulch of our city’s reality. The horizontal lines that were once its hallmarks, expressed in deep eaved roofs, wraparound verandahs, sheltered walls, and the triple-shuttered floor length windows, are sparingly visible in its inner city areas even today. These are features of low-rise buildings in the tropics. Ironically, it is the slum dweller who has adopted these vernaculars to create habitable space with a small amount of comfort conditions. The blue tarpaulin is now the waterproof, sheltering deep roof under which all the activities of life are possible. What is home for the slumwallah is the seasonal, ‘tempervary’ solace for the Ambanis.

Horizontality will have to become imperative in Mumbai’s high-rises if they are to remain hospitable to their occupants. This is a part of the world where sunlight abounds. What is needed is the creation of shade, and the provision of cross-ventilation. This is possible only when the outer layer of a building (whether shanty or skyscraper) is imagined as an overcoat and not a lycra bikini.

Only by investing in a layer outside of the habitable space will any building handle both insolation and precipitation. Several countries in South East Asia (Malaysia in particular) have begun to adapt their high-rises to these principles, creating what is now in architectural circles referred to as ‘the bio-climatic skyscraper’. Here, the design choices themselves determine the building’s outer form and inner spaces, shaped to create defences against the elements and to maximise on the comfort of its inhabitants. Any reliance on mitigation in the form of energy-consuming mechanical means is minimised through this simple realisation: good design comes free.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mario de Miranda (1926-2011)

Mario Miranda passed away today.

We never met. We did not need to.

Mario de Miranda was the subliminal presence in our growing up years. He provided the visual counterpoint to our learning, our schooling, our appreciation of English, of literature, of illustration, of art, of Bombay, of India and beyond. His illustrations in our schoolbooks, his cartoons in our newspapers, his murals on the walls of our restaurants and his art in our galleries remain forever in the back of mind and can be recalled in an augenblick.

When I started writing this blog, one of the first pieces I wrote was on Mario. It remains to this day the single most visited page on my blog, outstripping very other blogpost by several hundred visits. Here is a poem I wrote, inspired by one of his illustrations, way back in the 80s, when I was in college, based on his 'Bar Lady in Germany' . This was the first of many wonderful travel illustrations that he produced, displaying finesse and rigor in his cross-hatching but sublime in his observation of life.

India should remember Mario as our own Norman Rockwell.

We are fortunate that architect Gerard da Cunha has designed a gallery in Goa specifically for Mario's work and has published a comprehensive book of his oeuvre. It is now a time of remembrance and appreciation.

Tchau, Mario!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Friday, November 25, 2011

Urban Bawl 3

Here is the third in the series of Urban Bawl columns in Time Out Mumbai for their 'Back of the Book' page.
Two small stories involving articles of clothing, centrifugally and centripetally engaged.

Two stories from a Mumbai Local

While returning home in the late afternoon, I am tired and sleepy and rush to find a window in the first class. I am lucky and soon, nearly nodding off. While I was alone to start with, now I notice a man come in, look around and leave. This doesn't register until it happens again. I pull myself up and look around. On the window seat opposite me, there is a white knitted skull-cap. You know, the kind worn by Muslims at the back of the head. The kind that Narendra Modi recently refused to accept.

Then another person come in, sees the cap, hesitates and moves to the opposite corner and sits near the window there. And then another, who winces visibly and finds a place as far away from this forgotten and forlorn object as is possible within the small enclosure of a railway compartment. I observe this silent opera, as the seats fill up one by one, all, except the one opposite me. Others prefer to remain standing. Finally, a commuter enters, sees this seat as the only empty one, and with two fingers gingerly lifts the cap, tucks it into a corner, and sits down. The train starts, and in its gentle sleep-inducing rhythms I am left to wonder, how much meaning gets invested in so ephemeral an object.

6.30pm, Mumbai CST. Platform 1. The Harbour line.
It is the cusp before full-blown rush hour. A young couple, uncharacteristically entwined, walk the length of the platform towards where the first class compartments would arrive. The boy, almost all in black, encircles the girl’s waist with one arm. The girl is slim and short, a petiteness further enhanced by a really tight pair of jeans and a top that fits only too well. She has, over one shoulder a biggish ladies bag with several dangly bits. She wears fashionable heels, giving her an inch or two. With her free arm she clinches the boy back, tightly. It is unusual to see such a public display of affection, especially in a railway station in the evening.

The boy can only see her eyes.
The girl’s face and hair are obscured, wrapped completely, a dark dupatta forming a very makeshift naqaab. Both are engrossed; they bill and coo to each other as they wait for the train. Soon, the Vashi train trundles in, quite on time. The girl raises her head and gives the boy a peck on his cheek, right through the dupatta. The boy disentangles himself and gets into the general compartment. The girl walks a few steps down to the Ladies First Class.

Even before she finds a place to sit, with one smooth motion, she whips away the dupatta from her face, her hair falls to her shoulders, and once again she becomes Everywoman.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A New Column on Urbanism

This is the first of a new column on urbanism I will be writing for Network 18's Mumbai section of , which I should be doing every three weeks or so. To read the full piece, please click on the title below:

What makes Shivaji Park more accessible than Oval Maidan

Every unauthorized shop-owner needs a peg on which to hang his wares. So does every squatter. Give someone a backrest and they will fashion a home out of it. Every physical subdivision, every border or fence in Mumbai’s public realm provides a multitude of pegs, made available for appropriation by the private anxieties of its legal occupants. The urbanist Jane Jacobs, more than half a century ago, spoke of how borders, while being dismissed as passive objects, or matter-of-factly as edges, actually exert an active influence. Every new wall physically and existentially divides its denizens. You are who you are depending on which side of it you belong. Take care of your own then; forget what goes on outside. 

The emerging city of Mumbailopolis arrays its spanking new buildings, all barricaded against Mumbai, Open City. Lower Parel’s Peninsula is a fairly generic corporate park, laid out classically in gridlike blocks. Situated at the junction of Ganpatrao Kadam and Senapati Bapat Marg, Peninsula is surrounded by walls that visually deny views on both sides. There is nothing the city gives to the park and in turn it gives nothing back. On the inside is a befountained evocation of urban order, quite suited to totalitarian big brotherly Singapore. Manufactured havens such as these have strongly filtered accesses; but outside, le deluge. 

High-rise residential towers under construction are pictured behind an old residential building in central Mumbai September 9, 2011. Reuters Beyond its perimeter are narrow encroached footpaths, streets with high vehicle density and the diagonal slash of a flyover, all jostling for space. The wall outside is a vast plane of nothingness, suitable erecting political hoardings or, of course, for easy use as a peg. The Peninsula is only a current example, but similar circumstances pervade over most of the new ‘re’developments in brown-field spaces. 

Building walls today reflect setbacks, mandated by law, applicable across the city irrespective of specific circumstances. Open spaces all around buildings are therefore judiciously guarded by the plot owners. These spaces, cut off from the city outside because of their relative narrowness, tend to remain unused, and only alienate those inside. 

Surprisingly, no lessons have been learnt from the very urbane Ballard Estate, designed as a series of building blocks placed right on streets that define the urban fabric. The City Improvement Trust in the early part of the last century defined building by footprints. This led to common building lines and uniform pedestrian ways. Building fronts were placed squarely on the roads; entrances were obvious and accessed straight off the streets. Windows overlooked life outside as it happened at all times, forming what Jacobs calls ‘eyes on the street’, empowering those inside to take charge of their own concerns of safety and still preserve good urban manners. 

For a city starved of public spaces, the Oval Maidan is an exemplar of barriers destroying urbanity. In order, presumably, to preserve the grounds from the depredations of undesirables, the Oval is fenced off with railings that put you in mind of a penitentiary no matter which side you are on. Inside, a few cricket pitches are tended to for a filtered few to use. The narrow ‘public’ path joining the Art Deco to the Neo-Gothic stretch only emphasizes the impression of one being out of place. The railings along Veer Nariman Road are variously adapted as pegs for street vendors. The corner near the statue of BR Ambedkar is desolate enough for both women and men to prefer taking the opposite side of Madame Cama Road. What could have been, in the absence of the railings, a positive social space, a ‘living room for the city’, for all those with purpose and for flaneurs in general, is now fossilized for the rather vapid pleasure of viewing from the balconies of Deco residences. 

Compare this with the ‘katta’ culture of Shivaji Park, a maidan truly loved by all who live around it. Its unfiltered access from all sides allows an extended neighborhood to occupy it and call their own. A simple kerb edging forms a makeshift seat for everyone regardless, and can be easily monitored for abuse. Shivaji Park demonstrates that plot boundaries can be defined in ways other than erecting barriers. Simple changes in flooring, building low curbs, installing street furniture or well located trees can be used to allow unrestricted visual and physical access. In several European cities, even main thoroughfares do not differentiate between foot path and driveable roads. Lines of streetlights or a different sort of paving suffice as indicators.

Walls, defying conventional wisdom, are anachronistic in today’s surveillance obsessed society. Walls form blind corners. Walls create narrow undefined spaces that usually lie fallow. Walls form ready scaffolding for easy encroachment. Today, strategically located CCTV’s can do the same job a wall does, even better perhaps, and most definitely at a lower price. The employment of personnel from private security agencies, now becoming increasingly acceptable can have more value in preserving and protecting than a dormant fence. 

Every owner of real estate, even in these One-Lakh-Rupees-per-square-foot times, can give back a certain part of their property to the city for public use. The edges of buildings, not the anonymity of railings are a far more cordial urban interface between inhabitants and pedestrians. Robert Frost once said: ‘something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down’. Quite possibly, in spirit, he lives in Mumbai somewhere.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Urban Bawl 2

Here is the second in the series of Urban Bawl columns in Time Out Mumbai for their 'Back of the Book' page. This piece is on city, memory and a set of installations by Jitish Kallat.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bringing it all back home

Artist Jitish Kallat has been invited by the Bhau Daji Lad Museum’s Director Tasneem Zakaria Mehta to create a series of installations in the museum that engage with the exhibits. This invitation is one of a series of mandates that the museum has made to invite contemporary artists who are alumni of the Sir JJ School of Art to make works of art in the museum. Through historical incidence, the museum is habited with artefacts and exhibits made by the former students of the Sir JJ School of Art in the late nineteenth century. Kallat is the second contemporary artist to put up his work thus, the first was Sudarshan Shetty.
The Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla, Mumbai is an ornate pile nestling cheek by jowl with the city zoo. This museum (formerly known as the Victoria and Albert Museum) and its extended grounds (formerly known as the Victoria Gardens) house several artefacts of nineteenth century colonialism, including the equestrian statue of Edward VIII (latterly remembered elsewhere, but in absentia, as Kala Ghoda) and the elephant that gave Elephanta Island (formerly and latterly known as Gharapuri) its name. It is inside the museum that the singular legacy of the Sir JJ School manifests itself.

Unlike the Ajaayab Ghar/ Wunderkammer paradigm of museums that were the repositories of curiosities and exotica, essentially rooms filled with collections, sorted or otherwise, with an intention both to preserve as well as to enthral, the Victoria and Albert was an entity created to reflect the city of Bombay. In a well orchestrated attempt to portray the colonial city as inhabited by a diverse cosmopolitanism under a benign ruler, the Sir JJ School of Art and its students were commissioned to create relief maps, figurines and dioramas depicting life in the city as it was then.
The museum was therefore lined with showcase after showcase filled with glimpses of life in Bombay and surroundings, teeming with the vitality of the various denizens who populated it, but neatly sorted according to sartorial taxonomies of caste, creed and religious persuasion. Ergo, dioramas of Bombay at work and at play exhibited full bodied depictions of Parsees in their flowing white robes and tall hats, varieties of Muslims with varieties of beards, Kutchhis, Marwaris, Kolis, Marathas, Agaris, and assortments of sadhus amongst much else. All these populated the museum in a representative albeit stereotypical microcosm of the city outside. Other creations by the School of Art also fill its shelves, notably pottery and ceramics. Of course there is a sizable collection of other collections as well that are on display in the vast interiors on either side of a dominating, larger than life, marble statue of Uncle Albert himself.

I have memories of several visits to the museum as a child. I soon realised how different it was from the other great museum of the city, the Prince of Wales. A visit here formed a bonus feature to the de rigueur walkabout in the Raani Baag to admire caged animals. I was not particularly impressed by the exhibits that I thought bordered on the monotonous, showcase after showcase of clay toys, especially in comparison to the Prince of Wales, a place I loved, which was a veritable Ajaayab Ghar. With every visit, it seemed to me, the museum was getting darker and dingier, there were not too many visitors about, and a sense of desolation and abandonment was apparent. All this changed, very happily after 2008, when the museum was exquisitely restored by Vikas Dilawari, many of the artefacts re-housed under a contemporary curatorial gaze. The latest enterprise, as is seen with Jitish Kallat, of commencing a conversation between the contemporary city and the erstwhile artefacts has revitalised the space, both literally and intellectually.

It was only appropriate for director/curator Tasneem Zakaria Mehta to bring an alumnus of the Sir JJ School of Art in as an Artist in Residence. There a great resonance between the two institutions, near contemporaries of each other. The School of Art was set up initially to preserve and resurrect the dying crafts of India, whose value Sir Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy saw in the artefacts that filled up the vast Indian section of the Crystal Palace Exposition of London in 1851. Through his munificence was the school of art set up, with an aim to train local students to carry forward these traditions. Things did not exactly work out this way, for within a year or so of the school’s inception, Sir JJ was dead and the teachers and masters imported from England set up a curriculum to train students in the grand tradition of the Beaux Arts, with specialised departments of painting, sculpture and architectural ornament. Students became more and more adept at these skills rather than Indian crafts and as the city experienced its boom in the wake of the cotton trade and textile industrialization. The School was able to contribute to the city in several ways. In the last decade of the 1800s, ceramics and pottery made by the school went ‘viral’ for a short while in the mother country.

Like the Bhau Daji Museum, the Sir JJ School of Art stayed the course it had set upon. Art was produced for the Salon, within the Western tradition of the Beaux Arts and the modernism that had made its impact fully felt in Europe did not really impact Bombay’s shores until the penultimate decades before independence. It would require an almost subaltern resistance to the craft/skill based productions. This would emerge from within its students in the early fifties in the form of the Progressive Artists Movement that rattled its doors and rebooted both the forms and substance of what was produced in the school. Change, such as it was, was brought about by the alumni. Dissatisfaction bred innovation.

To return to Jitish Kallat.
His installations, currently up at the Bhau Daji Lad are collectively called ‘ Field-notes: Tomorrow was here yesterday’. Kallat, through a series of rather subtle interventions, introduces a voice that begins with a whisper that slowly rises not to a din but to a level that cannot be hushed away. His work talks of the contemporary city, of Mumbai, as a series of intrusions and impositions that occur where least expected, and are made up of objects that allude to change and transition, the propensity of the contemporary city to usurp the old, to erase the inconvenient and to easily slip into an amnesia fuelled by unreasonable aspiration. Kallat bring the city to the museum, disturbing years of cobwebby and mildewed mindsets, raking nails across the persisting image of the idyllic cosmopolis that the former artefacts sought to recreate. His installations evoke issues not given enough air in the city: the conflicts that have beset it in the contemporary past, the ghettoization of the mind into increasingly homogeneous selves, the othering of everyone else, and the swift slide into violence outside that is only a step behind the violence within.
With 'Chlorophyll Park (Mutatis Mutandis)', using digitally composite photographs, Kallat addresses the aspirations of a ‘dirty’ city with a ludic use of lawns that over-run former tarred roads with a uniform green lushness, or as his press note says ‘evoking a time when urban expansion is halted, and nature exacts her claim on the concrete jungle.’ O that our city could be like this! And yet, the oversaturated green sets up a counter allusion- that of Astroturf, the faux grass carpet made of plastic, uniform but lifeless. The fulfilment of aspiration flips back to mere application of superficial lamina, not unlike the ubiquitous blue tarps that we see covering large parts of the built city, especially in the monsoons.
Kallat’s panoramic photograph ‘Artist making a phone call’ where the same subjects make impossibly multiple appearances in the same image is successfully juxtaposed (using similar framing and symmetrical locations) with panoramic images of Bombay taken nearly a hundred years ago. This exhibition is filled with such created presences.
A visitor passes under an unexpected series of scaffoldings within the interiors of the museum- at the entrance, all round the statue of Albert and straddling the grand stairway like a Dusshera toran. These bamboo scaffoldings, held together by coir rope, are ubiquitous in the city outside. Every inhabitant of Mumbai walks around or under them, side-steps to avoid them or rues their presence on buildings, flyovers and skywalks and pavements. They represent the city in flux, never complete, never at rest. Kallat turns the museums space inside out bringing in an element of exterior presence inside the museum, belying expectations of what should be in and what should not. One is reminded of the Laurentian Library in Florence by Michelangelo where the interior walls are articulated as an external facade. A closer look at the scaffolding is revelatory: these are not bamboo at all, but meticulously crafted poles of fibreglass. The knots that cause one to mistake them for bamboo are in fact animals in relief, familiar to most South Bombaywallahs.
They encounter them every day, embedded in the neo-Gothic ornament that can be seen on most of the buildings in the stretch from Bombay VT to the Regal. Birds and rabbits, dogs and mice have played peekaboo with pedestrians on the streets of Bombay since the late 1800s, leaping out from behind the acanthus fronds that make up the Corinthian capitals on so many buildings in the colonial city. Another flip: the past has infiltrated the present, the contemporary contaminated with a persistence of the erstwhile.
I first encountered ‘Annexation’ from the museum’s upper floor gallery looking down into the atrium. I had just finished contemplating ‘Anger at the speed of fright’, Kallat’s own contribution to the dioramas of the museum, which he makes by usurping two showcases that would have otherwise have housed objects from the museum’s permanent collection (models of boats and ships, as it happens). The showcases are filled with foot high figurines, all male, dressed sartorially to evoke Rajnikanth/Salman Khan/Govinda, indulging in various cameos of rioting, assaulting each other with weapons of various found objects, scattering a detritus of abandoned possessions in their wake. Frozen in the middle of a bloodletting fury, these little people occupy the space they are housed in a variety of vignettes of choreographed violence. Preserved here, in all their inglourious presence, is a diorama riveting to look at, but with a sinking heart.
As I moved beyond this installation in the upper gallery, I looked down at the ground floor to see a burnt-out kerosene stove with equally burnt-out tweezers for lighting the wick. Do you remember the primus from the days before the gas stove became the primary choola to cook on? A remnant of violence, a destruction of domesticity, the aftermath of a riot, this black, soot-stained, partially melted stove reminded me of our immediate past, of things we did witness in the mad days our city went through not so long ago. We don’t talk about how easily the city can revert to this, as it did for extended periods in 1992-93 (and of course various times before that, and occasionally since). The stove was aligned with other displays and even had chrome barriers that called attention to it as ‘a work of art’ or an exalted ‘do not touch’ exhibit in a museum. It had dark, bad beauty that warranted a closer look.
‘Annexation’ is a work of great aesthetic pleasure when seen up close. Made of lead and metal, it is formally arranged as a monument, with plinth, column and canopy overridden with the self-same animal figures, just like those on the bamboo scaffolding, taken down from the neo-Gothic buildings of the city, and lumped together. The animals of various species had resorted to devouring each other. The stove transforms to an under-scaled gazebo or an over-scaled fountain, classically correct in its mouldings and ornament. Once again Kallat conflated the past to make us realise the present.
Now consider this. In the ‘Battle of the Styles’ that was an ongoing debate in the mid nineteenth century, both in England and in India, the neo-Classical vied with the neo-Gothic for being anointed as the most appropriate style of architecture in a universe dominated by Kaiser-i-Hind Ranee Victoria. From the 1860’s onwards, the neo-Gothic style achieved fashion dominance in the colonies. Bombay’s first line of public buildings, the set that gave the name of ‘Urbs Prima India’ to the city were all built in the neo-Gothic style. These buildings displayed ornament and architectural articulation taken from French Gothic and Venetian Gothic sources, proselytised mainly by writers like John Ruskin with his ‘Stones of Venice’, a very influential voice amongst architects and artists of the time.

In Bombay, the School of Art commenced classes in 1857, under three masters- one each a master of painting, of sculpture and of architectural ornament. Lockwood Kipling was the Master of architectural ornament. His work and his teachings for the ten years or so that he spent in Bombay was greatly influential, as was his attempt to integrate Indian forms with western architectural elements. He initiated the creation of architectural ornament, of forms and elements of buildings carved in stone in the School of Art which would then be installed on the various buildings that were coming up in the city. His students became adept at creating elements like column capitals, bases, plinths, friezes, roundels, crockets and gargoyles that would become the crowning features of the neo-Gothic buildings all over the city.
All the architects creating these new edifices, from F. W. Stevens, to George Wittet, to John Begg and William Emerson ‘outsourced’ the aesthetic details in stone to the students of the Sir JJ School of Art. Lockwood Kipling’s own work can be seen even today in the two beautiful reliefs of local Indian life created in the tympanums of the entrances arches to Crawford Market. In the School of Art Building (designed by Molecey) built in the neo-Gothic idiom, sculptural vignettes of artists and craftsmen are ‘embedded’ in the Corinthian Capitals. The most notable building that Kipling and his students would contribute to was the Victoria Terminus Station, across the street from the school. The Venetian Gothic pointed arches on the facade are interspaced with a variety of architectural sculptures that range from the symbolic to the representative (busts of city fathers) to the playfully ornamental, where architecture freely morphs into sculptural depictions of peacocks, monkeys, rabbits and rats. These animals are on full display at eye level on the porch of the railway station that leads to the ticketing chamber. It is from this very porch that Jitish Kallat has sourced most of the animals on his scaffolding and his stove.

These two installations bring all the various strands together: the outer city and the inner museum, the older artefacts with the current impositions, the Bhau Daji Lad with the Sir JJ School of Art, the rapidly changing with the resistant past, and the 21st century city with a 19th century form. An alumnus of the school of art, Kallat has returned to the very museum that the school’s early artists filled. But Kallat’s prodigal installations return with the same elements that made the school a notable contributor to the city in the first place, the home of the architectural ornament. In his inimitable manner, Jitish Kallat has succeeded in bringing it all back home.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Urban bawl

I have been invited by Time Out Mumbai to write a column for their 'Back of the Book' page with a frequency of six weeks or so. Being given a general carte blanche (other than the word count), I was delighted to accept. What is nice is that the column will be circulated every fortnight into Time Out Delhi and Time Out Bengaluru, hence the six week interval.

The first piece is published in the latest issue of Time Out, under the by-line 'Urban bawl'. This one, called 'English Class', is a reflection on our use of language in the city.

English Class

A newly married couple walk hand in hand amidst the venerable ruins of Nalanda in Bihar. She displays every post-marital semantic- green saree and bangles, elbow length mehendi and fluorescent sindoor. He wears well-fitted jeans, shades and a tee-shirt that screams in a loud font: ‘Show Me Your Hooters!’ After blinking several times in disbelief, it comes to me that neither really knows the difference between a car-horn and a large breast when encountered as slang. I concede (although I did not try) that, if I did speak to them, I could have had a comfortable tête-à-tête with both in English.

There was a time when we were taught English gratia English. Today, increasingly, it is a transactional tool, not language to revel in. In Mumbai, various ‘academies’ (‘classes’ are infra-dig) help you ‘overcome your English language problem’. One such advertises Business English as a ‘tailor made course to suit requirements of professionals travelling abroad, answering mails, business etiquettes and free flow conversation’. This poor English, taught by those who speak poor English, is far removed from the ‘exposing my talents’ or ‘removing photograph’ garden-variety Indianisms and has inflated into a full-blown Pavlovian call-and-response- adequate only to get a job done.

English is not spoken; it is used, the way most of us use technology, at the push-button-get-result level, unconcerned with any deus-ex-machina within. In public, words activate and deactivate like phone-apps, bypassing all known clichés into a different level of parole. Fill any given situation with some words; meaning gets conveyed as a form of gestalt. Just after the Zaveri Bazaar blasts, a television news reporter announces 'the police commissioner is taking toll of the blast area.' A bootleg DVD of ‘The Perfect Man’ has a byline (copy-pasted from any available review, because a byline must be given): 'It is to be endured rather than enjoyed.'

'narmean? Of course you do.

More and more people in our cities speak English, blithely ignorant of the language’s own culture, etymology and allusion. A commentator digresses from cricket to July’s riots in London and keeps referring to some black perpetrators as ‘African-American’, attempting political correctness with unintentional consequences. This unselfconscious use of English, to fill space, written or verbal, from smses (pls revaart asap 2 cust) to hoardings, variously deflates, decontextualises, and ultimately decimates sense, and yet, as in the immortal words from Namak Halaal: ‘I can talk English, I can walk English, I can laugh English, I can run English, because English is a phunny language.’ We nurse this as a paradigm in our post-globalized world.

I berate myself for such hoity-toity rantings, elitist bleddy Inglis speaker that I am, making phun of those challenged. I am contrite.

Then, last week, crossing the foot-over bridge outside the CST, I pass a young mother and son. She wears a quintessentially urban saree. The little boy, no more than seven, perhaps, wears a dark tee-shirt that says: ‘I pushed myself out through the vagina and all I got for it was this lousy T-shirt’... and I go: ‘What were you thinking, Mommy?’ But that’s just the point.

She wasn’t.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A clean, well-lighted place

An extended (much longer) version of this piece has just been published in Vol. 1, Issue.2 of Domus (India) called a 'A New Crown Jewel'; with much greater coverage on the construction process, the drawings and many more photographs; including a short writeup by Rahul Mehrotra. Do get hold of the issue if you can.

Like a family that hasn’t really had a child-that-lived for quite some time now, certainly not a healthy babe, architecture in Bombay has seen the begetting of runts with such aclarity that we, mere citizens, seem to have forgotten that an alpha animal can come into existence too. So it is an occasion for a muted huzzah to see a new addition to our dry shores in the form of an insertion in the middle of our art district. The new Visitor’s Centre to (the Museum formerly known as the Prince of Wales) is a small but sensitively designed building that both replaces an earlier one that was well regarded, and does so with a program that considerably expands the scope of its predecessor.

Bombay has/is becoming bereft at a pace that will overwhelm us before we know it. In the rapidly changing urbanscape today, memories of places are the grunts that are the first to face the cannons of change; slated to die quickly, to be forgotten so the development machine can roll on inexorably. You only have to see the changing skylines around Nana Chowk and the Mills Lands to know what is being lost and what is already history. While change is inevitable, it does not take much to preserve the few markers we have with our past, our childhoods and growing up years, but it does take sensitive transformers like designers Rahul Mehrotra Associates (RMA)  to do so consciously, and gracefully.

Situated at the entrance to the Museum campus, right across the road from (the gallery formerly known as the Cowasjee Jehangir Hall) the Visitors Centre is built on the same site as the Children’s Centre that was host to several programs in the past, but mostly mono-natured, lectures and workshops on museology, aesthetics and culture. What is fondly remembered is the lecture space with its shallow-vaulted ceiling and clerestories, its three large doors and the deep porch that faced the Indo-Saracenic pile that is the museum itself. In the creation of the new Centre, RMA have, to their credit respected our memories by retaining these remembered elements but with a vocabulary that is completely of the present millennium.

If anything the porch has been made even deeper, transforming into a more inclusive social space, a place to hang out and consume bits of this and that before entering the lecture hall, or even simply gaze across a sea of green at George Wittet’s many copypaste elements from the architecture of Bijapur. The Centre is built of stainless steel and glass which, through its sheen and multiple reflections, gives an altogether lighter aspect to the open areas around the building. The porch is like the deck of a ship, with its metal elements and a deep awning held up by slim, hinged columns of chrome. You also become aware of a whimsical water metaphor because the stainless steel soffit of the deck becomes a rippling upside down pool reflecting the columns, lawn and You as you move under it.
The Visitors’ Centre derives from a modernist tradition of pavilion-building that channels the Glass Boxes of Mies and Johnson. It employs many syntactical elements- a raised plinth, deep roofs on both sides to provide shade; the overhead plane held up by slim shining supports used sparingly, a sheltered glass enclosure of indeterminate function. The architecture gains significance by not kowtowing to the visual fakery that is the bane of most buildings that come up in the vicinity of important older structures. The bonsai Gateway that is the public pissoir at Apollo Bunder, as any fule kno, will always be an example of the wretchedness of designers ignorant of visual semantics (and plain commonsense). The Visitors’ Centre, on the other hand, stands apart, but, because of its position and ephemeral visage evokes a gentle dialogue with the ponderous structure of the museum, enriching both in the process.

As frequent visitor to the Museum, I have been delighted at the changes that are taking place in the institution itself. There are new Galleries; older ones have been refurbished with better displays and audio guides in the interpretative paradigm of New Museums the world over. The Visitor’s Centre is an extension of this modernisation, and has newer functions like a souvenir shop and a (soon to come) cafeteria other than the lecture hall and ticketing. The Museum Shop, despite its infancy, has all the good standards I associate with those in the Great Galleries of Europe and I would strongly urge you to visit it and give it business. Unlike the Children’s’ Centre that it replaces, this building opens out on both sides, with a main entrance towards the road. Although this does give a separate character focussing on existing trees and the Souvenir Shop, it does cause a circulation niggle. The entrance to the Museum grounds continues to be through the older gates. A visitor sees nothing to begin with, which means that she first has to make a sharp ninety degree turn to face the ticketing.

There was an opportunity to open out the entire front of the pavilion to the public street by bringing down the wall in front of it. This could have created its own little plaza that continued smoothly from the public front of the Jehangir Art Gallery. A visitor could then have directly climbed the plinth to the ticketing and other facilities and entered the grounds through the Centre. A small gesture of good manners could in fact have helped business by making the Centre a contemporary front for the modern museum that the Prince of Wales museum seems determined to turn into. The Souvenir Shop could have been accessible directly from the street. More to the point, this could have become an exemplar for the city at large which is currently building higher boundary walls and more gates than it has ever done during its existence.

The Jehangir Art Gallery remains the best example of urban good manners. It has an unashamed and unrestricted face to the street and the Kala Ghoda plaza, wide steps for all to sit on under an inviting and architecturally arresting canopy. City Tour operators often refer to it as the Moojhum and visitors get to see the art on display for free, and don’t even realise that they have missed the building behind it. On the rear of the Gallery is the deeply loved Samovar Cafe that has weathered many storms and continued to be a place for gathering of art lovers and good food. Like the Visitors Centre, Samovar has its longer face on the lawns of the Museum. Unlike the Visitors Centre, it is separated from said lawns by an entirely unnecessary barrier of chain-link fencing. It would be a good idea, now that change is in the air, to bring down this wall too, extend the deep roof of the Cafe and open it out to the Museum garden. The integration of all these buildings and activities would make them greater than the sum of their parts.

All that is needed is a modicum of urban trust.

All photographs here by Mustansir Dalvi, Smita Dalvi (c) 2011

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Architect's Alphabet by Rudyard Kipling

The Dean's bungalow at the School of Art Campus in Bombay, in which Rudyard Kipling was not born.

The Architect's Alphabet 
Rudyard Kipling

A was an Architect: B were his Brains
C was the Chaos he wrought when he used 'em
D was the Dissolute course of his Drains
E was the End of the people who used 'em
F were the Fools who allowed him to build
G were his Gehennas of brickbats and lime
H were his houses, bacteria filled
I am the poet who left them in time
J were his Joists- but they broke with the rats on 'em
K were his Kements (I adhere to this spelling)
L were his Leadings- you couldn't swing cats on 'em
M was the Mildew that clove to each dwelling
N was his Notion of saving expense
O were the Odds it would cost like all Tophet
P (please insert for the sake of the sense)
Q were his Quantities, P was his Profit
R were his Roofs which were waterlogged rafts
S for they Sagged (S is also his Sinks)
T the Tornadoes he told us were draughts
U were his Usual Unspecified Stinks
V was the Vengeance I vowed on the head of him
W was Wrong and Waiting and Waste
X is King Xerexes (God knows I have need of him!,
Y and a Yataghan wielded with taste)
Z are Zymotic diseases, a host of 'em
Ambo's my architect, I have got most of 'em.

A poem written by Rudyard Kipling in the 1890s in the margin of a notebook belonging to architect Sir Herbert Baker. 'Ambo' is Ambrose Poynter, an architect, cousin and friend of Kipling. Obviously, Kipling was less than satisfied with his work.

This unpublished poem was discovered in 1968 by the anthologist Kenneth Baker.

I acknowledge the wonderful book 'The Art of Looking Sideways'by Alan Fletcher (Phaidon Press) as the source.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why don't we do it in the road?

Why don't we do it in the road?
Why don't we do it in the road?
Why don't we do it in the road?
Why don't we do it in the road ?
No one will be watching us 
Whaa-aay don't we do it in the road!

"I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her ‘I love you madly’, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly’. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same.

"Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated; both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony… But both will have succeeded, once again, in speaking of love.”
(Umberto Eco, Postscript to the Name of the Rose)

6.30pm at Bombay VT Station. Platform 1. The Harbour line.
It is the cusp before full-blown rush hour. A young couple, uncharacteristically entwined, walk the length of the platform towards where the first class compartments would arrive. The boy, almost all in black, encircles the girls waist with one arm. The girl is slim and short, a petiteness further enhanced by a really tight pair of jeans and a top that fits only too well, has, over one shoulder a biggish ladies bag with several dangly bits. She wears fashionable heels, giving her an inch or two. With her free arm she clinches the boy back, tightly. It is unusual to see such a public display of affection, especially in a railway station in the evening.

The boy can only see her eyes.
The girl’s face and hair are obscured, wrapped completely, a dark dupatta forming a very makeshift naqaab. Both are engrossed; they bill and coo to each other as they wait for the train. Soon, the Vashi train trundles in, quite on time. The girl raises her head and gives the boy a peck on his cheek, right through the dupatta. The boy disentangles himself and gets into the general compartment. The girl walks a few steps down to the Ladies First Class.

Even before she finds a place to sit, with one smooth motion, she whips away the dupatta from her face, her hair falls to her shoulders, and once again she becomes Everywoman.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bombay, or what’s left of it

This was an occasional piece written for the Mumbai Reader 10 (2010, UDRI, compiled by Pankaj Joshi and Isaac Matthew) published last year. Given the speed and unpredictability of change in Bombay's urban space currently, I am posting it on this blog to see whether it still holds good.

Bombay, or what’s left of it

It all depends on the way you look at it. Our city is too diverse and too variegated for one single future. It is the sum of its parts and each part, in turn, is the sum of its parts, and so on, ad infinitum. Nowhere is this expressed better than in Mumbai’s inner city- Bombay.

What are the limits to the inner city? Everything south of the mill lands? Everything south of the Mithi? Neighbourhoods and precincts in our city are undefined, subtle, constructed out of mutual agreements rather than constructed of discreet boundaries. For definition instead, we have generic Wards. ‘C’ and ‘D’ Wards in Mumbai are the archetype of the Inner City, of the Bombay of public memory, identified not by colours on a map, but by paths, places and domains, resonating with neighbourhood names –Kalbadevi, Bhuleshwar, Tardeo, and landmarks- Panjrapol, Gaiwadi, the Cotton Exchange. The urban character, its fabric, its people and its apparent chaos and filth all make it what it is. With the current penchant of making-over all that is old in the city, one wonders what of this will sustain, even a decade from now. For far too long decisions about change are made by foregrounding visual blight as a tool of damnation- garbage, decrepitude, rundown areas, leaking house-gullies, open wiring; all these and more are reason enough for wholesale change. Eyes, of course, are the easiest to fool.

Current models of redevelopment assume the helplessness of the residents of the Inner City to better themselves; that these hapless denizens require the benevolence of their ‘betters’-developers and legislators alike. It is assumed that tenants and landlords coexist in an extended no man’s land, thanks to the vagaries of the Bombay Rents, Hotel, and Lodging House Rates Control Act, 1947. Interestingly, it is the Rent Act itself that, over the last sixty years has helped preserve and sustain the egalitarian character of the Inner City. Owners, landlords, tenants, sub-tenants, leave and licensees, common-law occupants, parasites, saprophytes, the homeless and their relatives, friends and pets all make the broad spectrum of life that fill these streets and enrich our city. The enforced clampdown of rents and sales for decades prevented sudden gentrification of these valuable areas, preventing the polychromy of shared existence to be faded down to the monotone ‘Owner’.

Over the rest of Mumbai, as its peripheries ballooned northwards and general affluence rose steadily since the early eighties, the idea of owning a piece of the property pie eclipsed the idea of rented property in the minds of its inhabitants as the only ‘safe’ model for living. Today, home and material estate have got mixed up in a bind, severely strained by the limited space of a city bounded on three sides by water. This has led to a siege mindset, where the real survivors are Owners, and people who need to rent ‘transients’. Little wonder then, that speculators have had an open field over the last thirty years.

Today, when even the possibilities of northward expansion seem to be exhausted, the city is turning on itself, trying to survive by devouring its own children. Every area in the city, salt pan or mangrove, green field or brown, lived in or decrepit, outer or inner is fair game. In the hyperdense inner city of the C and D wards, land is the key commodity for speculation, of forcing a value on paper, of commodifying a human need for profit. This paper value multiplies without restraint simply by assigning a perceived agency to it, either by speculation or even legislation. The recent modifications to the Town Planning Act, the eponymous clauses 33/7and 33/9 legislate the densification the already dense.

These Santa Clauses for the speculators posit redevelopment of inner city areas as if they are tabula rasa. The recent proposal for the area we now know as Bhendi Bazaar is a case in point where several hundred structures are proposed to be consumed into thirty or forty high rises. The inevitable result of this would mean the erstwhile tenants would be under severe pressure to move away, those who can afford the many zeros per square foot would move in leading to wholesale  and instant gentrification and demographic change. Modifications in the existing fabric, creating filth-free gated communities, with gated mindsets will lead to a substantial reduction of communal wealth that is the street, the plaza, the playground. What politically correct, un-cosmopolitan, pristine and monolith will replace the grungy surprises, the get-your-hands-dirty delights of the much loved and much visited Chor Bazaar?

Property/ Value
Physical land in our inner city is acutely finite, so how can it be sub-divided, ad infinitum? Historically, landed property defined feudalism. Owning land or real estate generated income for the owner without the owner having to do the actual work of the estate. Landed property was a key element of the feudal pecking order, and freed the owner for other tasks such as living the high life.

In the early years after America shucked off the British yoke, its economy was largely agrarian. Land ownership led to social divide, exploitation and slave ownership. Thomas Paine, in Agrarian Justice (1795) defined two kinds of property- one, Natural property, ‘which comes from the creator, such as earth, air, water’ and the other ‘artificial or acquired property, the invention of men.’ Paine felt that equality in the latter was impossible; but equality in the former was necessary. ‘Every individual in the world is born therein with legitimate claims on a certain kind of property or its equivalent. …the condition of persons born after civilization should not be worse than that of those born before. The earth in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.’ Thomas Paine stressed that individual property should be manifest only in the value of improvement, and not in the actual ownership of land. ‘Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated land, owes to the community a ground rent (I know no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds.’ In 1850, Frédéric Bastiat, in his book Economic Harmonies, defined property not as a physical object, but rather as a relationship between people with respect to an object. What one owned was not the object in itself but the value of the object. As such, Bastiat believed that the increasing proportion of communal wealth to private property would result in grater and agreeable egalitarianism.

These lessons from the past are still relevant and can be put to effect in seeking solutions to redevelop of the inner city of Bombay. Some of these prescriptions may appear counter intuitive, but thinking outside the box is the only option available in recent times. Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative (from the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals) must therefore be invoked: ‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.’ To paraphrase Kant crudely- ‘Do unto others as you would have everybody do unto everybody’. Using his sage advice, here are a few, perhaps counter-intuitive ways of seeing a possible future for Community living in the Inner City.

Define the Limits of the inner city        
Our city has to overcome the ‘one size fits all’ approach of the Development Control Rules. Colaba and Virar cannot be developed by the same standards. It is the wholesale application of the DC rules that wreaks the maximum damage on the well defined fabric of many of the older areas in the city. Controls need to be stated, most certainly, but from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, making local conditions a priority rather than monetising every thing into units of FSI. Define neighbourhoods, even streets, as units for development. The inner city is a sum of parts, a mosaic of subcultures, and palimpsest of historical accretion. To achieve this, an institutional setup needs to be envisaged where residents and administrators combine into a unified, democratically run association of inner city management.

Create a model for Participation, not Ownership
Every permanent resident should be considered a part-owner or shareholder in a neighbourhood. Individual ownership, tenancy and occupation should be limited to ‘built property’, not the land on which the property is built. The inner city is old, and worn down. A massive restructuring of infrastructure is necessary. In order to achieve this, developers will need to be called in to technically and financially assist reconstruction. Each developer should therefore be compensated by a right to avail an equivalent area of Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) outside the inner city for proposals of buildings with unit areas not less than 1000 sft. This would imply that the developer can build and profit from housing for middle and upper middle income holders, adding to housing supply, while not further congesting the inner city.

Free the Ground Plane for Public Use
The Ground Plane shall be excluded from individual holdings completely and be administered and developed by an association of inner city management. Amenities for the benefit of local users shall be created, and accessed by pedestrian movement alone. Vehicular accesses could edge neighbourhoods and enter them only at specific points, and as cul-de-sacs. The areas under buildings can be used as they are used now-for social interaction, community activity, rituals, even production with mutual understanding between neighbours. Vertical living, currently being much touted as the only solution to the congested city, can therefore be re-examined critically. Residential and office spaces can then be taken off the ground, increasing individual safety and privacy.

Preserve Urban Memory- the fabric of the inner city
We live in a city of history, of onion layers of memory. These layers allow us to take the city for granted. That is as it should be, for knowledge leads to ‘ownership’ that ensures a sense of well being in the city. Any rebuilding must preserve erstwhile (names and) footprints, and the street character layout, complementing the essentially pedestrian nature of inner city streets. Any sensitive reconstruction must display an appreciation of heritage and its effective conservation; most importantly preserve egalitarian nature of the inner city. There is a city beyond that the eyes can see. It is intangible and it is vast. It is as Whitman describes himself, full of contradictions: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.

World over, inner cities age and ripen with the respect and care of its inhabitants. Our inner cities are older than most, yet most alike in form and character. They define Bombay, or what’s left of it. Let us leave some parts of the city free from the jackboot stomp of the speculator and accept that its residents are capable of determining its place in the new order. Unrealistic individual aspiration leads to a clamour for perceived rights, without accounting for responsibilities that come with it. If each one does not return to the city rather than merely take, we all stand diminished. We are, in a sense our own worst enemy. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The right of women to do as they damn well please

My review of ‘Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets’,  by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, Penguin Books, 2011.  The review is published in the latest issue of Indian Architect & Builder.

'Why Loiter?’ is about the ultimate freedom a woman demands in an urban space: the freedom to do exactly what a man is allowed to do. Mumbai, the progressive city, denies this just by being what it is.  Perhaps the most important liberty a megalopolis should offer is the choice to do nothing. To loiter. To have fun. To be a flaneur, to go walkabout, to regard the city and its life as it happens, with no purpose in mind at all. The problem is, if you are not some kind of useful cog, you are a deviant, and a surveillance obsessed society will not accept this. It is difficult enough for men in Mumbai to loiter without being seen as vagabonds.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Port City Multiculturality

At the Marseille St. Charles TGV, I turn to my fellow traveler, he, with the wife, three smart phones and two blond children. I smile goodbye. “Waalekum Salaam” he responds.

Francois, mine host, greets me warmly, and, as he leads me down the grand steps outside the station, tells me that this city is France’s most multicultural. We walk down the Longue des Capuchins and the flavors of multiculturalism assail our senses. Hotels and street side stalls present cuisines from the fragrant Orient. Lebanese, Moroccan, Turkish and Arab fares grab our attention. Sweets steeped in sugar syrup, sweets made of burnt milk, sweetmeats not unlike barfis bulge lusciously from corrugated paper canapés. As we turn right into the main thoroughfare La Canebiere making our way towards the quay, the Vieux Port, hotels and street front menus written in chalk on blackboard all show the day’s fare, all halaal. Right on the Quai de la Fraternite, on the Neuve is the Jaipur, an Indian Restaurant. Khalil, mine host, is a Pakistani from Peshawar, and offers you naans you could go to war for.

You could look at anyone on the street and know neither ethnicity nor nationality. France has legislated prohibition on displaying religious affiliation on clothing or person. Everyone dresses similarly, exquisitely. But buildings and artifacts, sights, smells the music and speaking in tongues betray the confluence of cultures that only happen in a robust port city.