From her alcove high in the mountains, Didi Contractor has spent decades making buildings in the image of nature.
The 88-year-old self-taught architect’s oeuvre, like her life, is a story of rare beauty.
It was the autumn of 1988, architect Golak Khandual was sitting by the roadside painting the Dhauladhars in Andretta, the artists’s village in Himachal Pradesh. An elderly lady, with sprightly enthusiasm, walked past him, leaned over his watercolour and said, “You must be an architect. You draw so badly.” Golak, a graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, knew who she was.
Since the early 1970s, Didi Contractor had been staying in the Kangra valley, tending to her vegetable garden, spending time in meditation, and advocating the benefits of solar cookers. Didi took Golak to the top of the hill. “She walked up with me and with her back to the hills, bent down and looked at the valley. I did the same. For the first time, with my head tilted upside down, someone showed me there is more than one way of seeing. She told me that instead of making 35 watercolours in a day, observe the landscape for 35 hours and make one painting,” recalls Golak, who went on to become an off-the-grid architect-artist.
For Didi, 88, drawing has always been about discovery. As I meet her in her adobe home in Sidhbari, below Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, sketches for a staircase lie on her table. Intricately detailed, the black-ink drawing looks almost like an aerial view of Iraq’s famous minaret of Samarra. The stairs are where the drama unfolds in the work of this self-taught architect. In clinical psychologist Sadhana Vohra’s house in Rakkar, Kangra, the stairs adjust themselves to the topography of the hills. “In the staircases, I feel I’m guiding the emotional entry of a person,” says Didi. At Vohra’s house, built in 2000, with every second or fourth step, the levels change, and with that the view. If you capture the sky on one flight, another gives you a peek into the living area, while another allows you snatches of the greenery outside. Vohra recalls how Didi would take time over every detail, be it a screen door or a window. “I grew up with the house. I got greater clarity about what I valued and felt reaffirmed. It is my sacred place, and for me, Didi is the wise woman of the earth,” says Vohra.