The decade I had spent living and studying architecture as an undergraduate in London in the 1960s had been a most intense and almost revolutionary experience. Instead of going for higher education across the Atlantic, as most of my peers were doing, I responded to a deep instinctive urge to return to India for higher studies.
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The following quotation which forms the beginning of an essay written for a collection published recently,1 perhaps describes best my mental state at the beginning of my career:
“Freshly qualified from the Architectural Association in London, I returned home to New Delhi in 1967. Architecture was a mission, and it was to be accomplished in India where I had grown up. Over the last few years, my senses had grown accustomed to the perceptual experience of London in the sixties, and returning home, the built environment of North India presented a familiar yet strangely blurred picture. To me it appeared that there were no hard edges – to roads, buildings or other man-made objects. People seemed to find their way not by the sense of sight, but of sound, rather like bats flying around in the night. It was not only the measure of space which raised new questions for me, but my sense of time presented, even more so now, a new idea of dimension. The questions raised by these perceptual dysjunctions now became my constant companions wherever I went. To find resting places for this unintended baggage, I began to look for shelters configured by the wisdom that lay just below the surface of everyday reality”.
The search for a design philosophy which gave meaning to our everyday reality was brought into focus when I travelled in the rural areas of India on assignment for UNICEF and the Rural Development Department of the Government of India in 1977 to 79. I was advising on the design and construction of multi-purpose community centres to be built in the remote and backward villages of all the Indian States. These centres were designed for construction by local people and authorities, using local materials and techniques. It was an extraordinary voyage of discovery, learning from the wisdom of our indigenous communities about age old building practices, and of living in harmony with nature.
These travels made me experience the great environmental diversity of our sub-continent; from the high mountains of the Himalayan region, to the large river basins forming the Indo-Gangetic plain, to the great Thar desert of Rajasthan and Sind, the dense rain forests of the North East, the vast expanse of the Deccan Plateau, the extensive coastal areas bordering the Indian peninsula, to the off-shore islands of the Andaman and Nicobar group as well as the Lakshwadeep and Maldives. To experience the different habitats, which have evolved organically over a very long period of time, was for me a most significant learning opportunity.
Concurrent with my travels and the rigours of making a living in the architectural market-place of a developing nation, I was also charged with the search for suitable teachers to enable higher studies.
As a part-time teacher at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi, I encountered the excitement of young minds groping for a contemporary architectural language. During this time I also discovered the messages of some great Indian teachers who were the embodiment of the ancient ethical and philosophical systems such as Vedanta, Yoga, and Buddhism, which had emerged in this country.
My architectural practice provided the ground for the exploration of architecture as a manifestation of ancient sacred principles, so much a part of our everyday existence. The practice made no distinction between architecture, interior, landscape, or urban design. The message from our cultural roots was very clear; our existence on Mother Earth was an interdependent process with all five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space manifest in the dynamic equilibrium of human activity and the physical environment, as found and as built. However, the contemporary reality of the very large numbers of people in this country, and the facts of economic and social marginalisation of the majority, became issues of overriding concern which were reflected in the project work of the practice.
The design language for addressing these concerns developed greater depth when I was asked by Tibet House (the cultural office of HH the Dalai Lama) to design a memorial in Buddha Jayanti Park in New Delhi. The memorial was to house a two and a half metre tall statue of Buddha which was presented by the Dalai Lama to the people of India as a symbol of gratitude by the Tibetan people who were given refuge in India. The memorial was realised as a canopy made of carved sandstone set in a specially designed garden within the landscape existing in this public park on the Delhi Ridge. The iconography of the canopy was worked out in close consultation with Tibetan Lamas and scholars, while the tectonics were decided with the stone masons who belonged to a tribe practising this vocation since time immemorial by building temples in Central India as well as Rajasthan and the North Indian plains.
This assignment led to my being asked to design a monastery for Tibetan refugee nuns in Dharamsala in the Kangra Valley. The project, sponsored by the Tibetan Women’s Association, was executed as an exercise in self-build by the user community. The design was worked out in close consultation with the users, and in keeping with Buddhist principles of harmonious interdependence of all living beings and objects. The construction, including materials and labour, was managed by the user community. This exercise which started fifteen years ago, and still continues, has provided a home for nearly 250 refugee nuns, and includes residential, academic, cultural, and primary health-care facilities. It has strengthened my belief in the innate capacity of humankind, and the marginalised, to find order in nature. Professional people only need to provide their expertise to enable this effort, and to help make it an everyday feature of the human condition.
It is a matter of some concern that the goals of professional education and practice, which were set out as a consequence of the industrial enterprise of the 18th and 19th century in Europe and spread across the planet in the 20th century, have not respected the wisdom of ancient societies which developed over centuries of human civilisation in other parts of the world, especially Asia and Africa. However, at the end of the 20th century there has developed a global concern for saving the planet from the ravages of rampant and inappropriate industrialisation, as well as the imperative of fashioning an inclusive political environment which will benefit all sentient beings, and this points the way towards a hopeful future.
The task of developing a design language responsive to our times and our environment will have to be taken up primarily by younger professionals and students. The landscape architecture profession especially needs to demonstrate how the built environment can become enlivened and sustainable by integrating natural elements with man-made structures. A serious and concerted effort to research into the rich bio-diversity of our sub-continent can extend the reservoir of traditional knowledge which already exists, but which needs to be understood, appreciated, and made accessible to become part of our daily practice. Each one of us can contribute to the task of integrating research and practice to enhance the measure of the common good.
- 1. External Stone-Great Buildings of India”, edited by Gautam Bhatia, Penguin Books India 2000