Chronicles Opposing Realities
It can reasonably be argued that the richness and variety of Indian architecture is a derivative of two opposing realities: largely obsolete labour-intensive building technology, and a modern and advanced design discipline. Certainly, the much talked about budgetary constraints are not a condition specific to the Indian context. What can be considered specific to India are the vast variations in climate, materials and culture, and the inherent imagery and symbolism of the traditional built form. Given these realities, it is natural that one expects a strong regional flavour in the formally designed architecture of different regions. Contrary to this expectation, the authors of this book, first in a series on contemporary Indian architecture, point out that "the sources of design in these (modern) buildings are alien to the traditional culture; they reflect attitudes and techniques firmly rooted in the universal paradigm of modern architecture". Their main contention is that the concept of 'regional' architecture is only notional as the design principles are universally modern and "any architecture that is competently and sensitively conceived responds intrinsically to its time and place".

Vikram Bhatt and Peter Scriver follow the evolution of modern Indian architecture from the arrival of the master-builders Corbusier and Kahn to the coming of age of the generation of Indian architects who were trained in the International style, and then the recent, younger generation who are imbuing their Modernist buildings with the richness of form and content that has helped create "an architecture that has managed to elude the malaise and impotence of much current design in the west".

In an interesting style that blends description with well-researched criticism, the authors present an overview of the most notable trends in the contemporary works of both the old and the new generation of modem Indian architects. Predominant in the mainstream architectural works is the Modernist style, a direct consequence of the all pervading influence of the Modernist masters. The recent trends are a search for alternatives to mainstream architectural practice, a growing Post-Modern influence, and a revival of grand colonial styles.

In direct ideological conflict with the mainstream that caters to affluent private or corporate clientele or to government institutions, there is a tangential course that many architects now follow—tangential because the architecture they create does not define any particular "style" of its own. This nevertheless seems to be for a large number of architects a viable application of their skills. Their search is for solutions to the problems of mass shelter—its design as well as its cost-effective construction. They are involved not only at the design stage but also at the resource mobilisation, planning and policy-making levels. These works, the authors claim, do not really contribute to any architectural movement as their various processes demand that "the architect's own creative prerogative is curtailed—a voluntary censorship that seems to imply a loss of faith in the profession's capacity to address the real issues". The chapter on "Alternatives for a Developing India" presents an interesting discussion of the issues that have given shape to several significant efforts: Charles Correa's mass housing for New Bombay, the Sangath Foundation's sites-and-services scheme in Indore, Laurie Baker's 'cost reduction' versus 'low-cost' option, and the explorations into appropriate technologies in Auroville.

A notable trend in recent years is the emergence of a tendency to experiment with the dictates of the Post-Modern school and its call to enrich the 'pure' Modernist built form with traditional imagery and symbolism. This trend is still in its infancy and implies a hesitation to break from the more time-tested Modernist idiom. Nevertheless, it is a far less disturbing trend than the blind revival of the colonial style that tries to recreate its grandeur in India, often resorting to pastiche as a desperate bid to reconcile classical form with nouveau rich function. The nouveau riche provide much of the growing patronage that is forming a market place for a variety of self-indulgent work in the metropolises.

It is all too apparent in this book that Indian architecture still struggles to come to terms with diverse and complex Indian realities, particularly with the ambitions of an upwardly mobile middle class and with those of its even larger mass of economically and socially underprivileged. The authors resist the temptation to assign these as reasons for lack of a united architectural movement. Their research provides no other conclusive reason—testimony to the fact that the search for an 'Indian’ architecture may remain an elusive one for some years to come. "Plurality prevails, the product of many parallel and autonomous efforts, and intimations of any theoretical alliance today are, most likely, only incidental".

Bhatt and Scriver's book provides good reading. It will also be a reference work providing easy access to basic information regarding varied intentions in the contemporary architecture of India. The photographs are disappointing but they get compensated for by the text. Let us hope that future books in this series do not make the same compromise.

jagan Shah



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