By turning his gaze backward, Bijoy Jain is creating a new architectural language that acknowledges his country’s precolonial past.
After Jain returned from living abroad in 1995, he spent months in pre-gentrification Alibag, isolated, as a fierce but revivifying monsoon thrashed the western coast of India. It was here that he taught himself about Indian trees, developed the astonishing simplicity and quiet that characterizes his work and, most important, broke from the limitations of being a Western-educated architect and found a way to speak to a living artisanal tradition in India of carpenters and stonemasons, painters and craftspeople. Describing days without electricity and venomous snakes coming out of their burrows, Jain said that Alibag gave him “a perception of what it means to be agrarian in India.”1
Jain was confronting a problem that haunts every aspect of creative life in India: what to do with the past. India has produced over 40 centuries’ worth of writing, painting, music and architecture, and yet when each of these art forms met its modern iteration through British rule, the meeting of past and present, traditional and modern, was not merely sterile — it was corrosive.
- 1. Jain saw the problem of tradition and modernity like this: “Architecture is a Western idea,” he said, “We didn’t have an architecture school until the 1900s.” Yet India has a codified tradition of building that stretched back at least as far as Ajanta and Ellora. Three years before the National Institute of Design (N.I.D.) was first established in 1961 in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, Charles and Ray Eames had written a manifesto for the institution in which they stated that it must reckon seriously with “the quality and the values of a traditional society.” But that did not happen. Instead, as in so much of the old non-West, past and present sat uneasily next to each other, never resulting in an exciting hybrid. This meant that as tradition calcified, Indian modernity remained a mere top soil, neither able to nourish itself through contact with the Indian past, nor able to move beyond a derivative relationship with the West. “Why was [the question of tradition and modernity] not part of the dialogue or conversation?” Jain asked, reluctantly questioning the architects who had gone before him, men such as Charles Correa and the Pritzker Prize-winning Balkrishna Doshi. “Not to question modernity today,” he added, “would be folly.”