Ship Building Yard at Mandvi, Gujrat, India © This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Living vs dwelling

Village Ratdi in Saurashtra was very well documented by German ethnologist Eberhand Fischer & Haku shah for the wooden craft (1970). I recently visited the village and it was impossible to even find traces of anything from that book. There are very few craftsmen left in the village as most of them have migrated to the cities. The craftsmen who are left in the village are also limited to ‘bari-barna’ (doors and windows). Similarly in a town called Mangrol where one still finds workshops building ships and bullock carts, the new built environment just fails to express the presence of these crafts. The incoherent new built-type of these towns are following the model of cities as indeed the aspirations of the people in them. One thing that came out distinctly was that the integration of ‘doing’ with the life of these people has been completely destabilised.

It would be an effective exercise to look towards the interconnectivity of local techniques & crafts as a new way of intervening. I am summarizing here the brief experience I had with boat building community & industry in Gujarat and also the possibilities that these traditional technologies offer to the Innovation in Building sector.

An “arrogant sea”

During a short visit to Umargaon (Coastal village in Gujarat) I was interrupted by a fisherman as I was looking at them repairing the boats, he goes “if we offer something to the sea it will wash it back to its shores, it never accepts anything from us; all we can do is to be greedy and ask for a lot by offering something as little as a ship”, what an arrogant sea I said to myself. A very common description of ‘vadvanal’ (water fires) by the regional authors would mean if one wants Sea to be good then he must also learn to resist against its other side. They very moment I thought of little floating houses in the sea.

A few years later on a trip to various coastal towns in Gujarat as Veraval and Mangrol I finally got to see the way they made the fishing boats and cargo ships out of wood. The moment and place are best expressed by the satellite pictures of Mandvi. The density of the built and sprawl of boat building industries suggest the involvement of a city into these industries. And their proximity to the city is the way these industries are integrated into the daily lives of people.

It is an industry

Industrialization does not mean huge industrial set ups even hundred people with tools are also an industry, the precision and methodology at which these craftsmen operated was no less then any big industry with big investments. As an architect it was a sight that would challenge the way I have known wood as a building material through analysis of wooden truss. These boats were not quantified and rationalized in a ‘structural’ sense but there was definitely something that would keep them sailing into the sea for years. The craftsmen at times were handling wood almost like clay or paper, curving and twisting it to get desired shape.

Recently I decided to document one of such boat building activities in the coastal town called Mandvi located 60 km away from bhuj. Historically it has been a town of fisherman, bookmakers and traders. It still plays a very important part in the economy of the whole region. It’s a unique relationship between Traders, Boat makers and fisherman, Traders invest, boat makers make and fishermen use. Some of the ships are also made for the customers from gulf countries.

Boat building is a very structured and serious activity many of the craftsmen also pointed that they are into ‘bada kaam’ (meaning work at a bigger scale then carpentry work lets say for a house or furniture). When all the sourcing of wood is done and the site is decided at first they put the backbone of the ship of ‘Pathan’ and ‘Tir’. Curving ‘Vakia’s’ are mounted on to ‘Pathan’, the curve is made by joining and chiselling the logs of ‘baval’ Boat Building workshop at Mandvi wood. ‘Patia’s’ form the third layer or the outer skin of the boat and they are fixed onto the ‘Vakia’s’, they fit like a Lego pieces onto the structure. But before that one important process takes place of bending and twisting the ‘Patia’s’ to get the curve and right twist. To turn the wood craftsmen use anchors of ‘firma’s’, the wood is slowly heated from below and the ‘firma’s’ are twisted to turn and bend the wood. Finally to fill the gap between wooden members a sealant is used, which is made of cotton dipped in fish oil.

Mandvi seaside is full of boats at various stages of their making ranging from 20 to 50 million INR, as one of the trader says “mara be crore rupya to dariya kanthe padya che” (my two crore rupees is lying on the seaside). As the equation still works for the fishermen and boat builders in spite of changed market patterns the boat building has suffered less. New markets like tourism has provided old rice boats of kerela and house boats of Kashmir an incarnation the steamer of Hoogly recast on the Brahmaputra as floating hotels point to the potential. There are few changes like addition of motors. They have adapted to new technologies in making of the boats like use of electric drills etc.but it has affected the very less the basic of their boat making. The Basic materials used in boat making have not changed and are non-polluting compared to other industries of similar scale. Buzz word ‘sustainability’ finds its true meaning in these clusters where still their system of making and living has been in well integrated.

Possibilities & Realities

Many architects have innovated and integrated a lot with various traditional techniques of building with wood by giving them a rational and a scientific platform. For example the project by Architect Renzo piano explores the use of wood in creating the structure for the Jean Marie tjibaou cultural centre in New Caledonia. Similarly many other architects like Glen Mercutt from Australia, Shigheruban from Japan and others have tried to establish links towards giving new expressions to the material. In this context of innovation and exploration of the materials towards building industry there are great amount of possibilities that can be gleamed from Boat building industry. The need is to recognize their application.

Despite of having such an elaborate episteme of building crafts in India the present architectural practices have completely turned out to be indifferent towards the anthology of knowledge.

It is a pity that one has to see these images side by side as they belong to the same region summarizing our ignorant will to convert the knowledge systems into an unprotected and exploited labour force e.g. dismantling of boats at Alang.

Lots of efforts had been made by people towards documenting & working for the future of building craft sector but unfortunately many crafts sector have ended adapting to industrialization in most desperate manner for example the craft of metal embossing at many places like Shihor and Junaghad has been replaced by industrial dyes for mass production where the real essence of the craft has suffered. Critical Industrialization (not in a conventional manner) and integration of the crafts sector are the key direction of work if one needs to utilize them to their real potentials.

© Kai Weise
© Kai Weise