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.
The creation of drama within a space, Didi says, comes from her early teens in Texas, USA, when she took time off school for a year to work in theatre. “I learnt about the poetics of space through set design, how to create backdrops that evoke mood. In school, when the teacher got boring, I would doodle houses to fit my dreams. I had seen an exhibition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s works in the university my father was teaching at. I heard Wright speak and I was captivated,” she says.
The only child of her German father and American mother, who had been engaged in the influential Bauhaus movement, she was drawn to architecture early in life. As a teenager in New Mexico, she helped her parents renovate an old adobe (material sourced from the earth) house, even built a fireplace in her own room. That design had a social role, and that an artist was an agent of change was not lost on her. She went on to study art history in New York, where she met Narayan Contractor, a civil engineering student, fell in love, and arrived in India in 1951.
After a decade of staying in a joint family with her in-laws on the outskirts of Nashik, the couple, with their three children, moved to Bombay. Didi’s first house was built near Juhu beach, which even had coconut trees going through it. It was done in lime mortar with thatch over the roof, and large doors and windows. It won the admiration of many, including her neighbour, actor Prithviraj Kapoor. Didi designed a cottage and a storage unit, which would later turn into Prithvi Theatre. Her husband’s friend, Maharana Bhagwant Singh Mewar, was at the time converting his Lake Palace into Udaipur’s first luxury hotel. Didi was invited to design the interiors. That decade-long project from 1961 onwards, helped her learn the intricacies of carpentry and upholstery from traditional artisans.
“I was hugely influenced by philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy’s ideas on art and swadeshi, and Gandhian ideas of appropriate technology. It gave me a vision of what India could be and what was fast disappearing,” says Didi.
After the children had grown up and moved abroad to study, Didi chose to settle in Andretta, then an artistes’ hub, in the early 1970s. She lived the rural life, paring her needs down to the most spartan, and engaged with the everyday. She began learning and documenting local building traditions and techniques, from earthquake-resistant homes to detailing in mud-plastered walls and well-carved woodwork. She championed a project to bring solar cookers to homes, but adapted the design to local needs — the cooker was encased in mud, not glass. These experiences would attune her work to the rhythm of nature. Like the food slow-cooked in the solar cookers, it would infuse the flavours of tradition, culture and nature into her mind and memory.
“One of the many things that’s wrong today is that people are not ready to accommodate their lives to the rhythm of the universe. We don’t see the wisdom of nature. Technology should also be consistent with a humanistic agenda of making people comfortable with themselves, with one another and nature,” says Didi, who only wears khadi and earth colours, and sorts every waste, from plastic to paper, corks to caps into baskets for recycling in her home.
This sense of empathy can be seen in her first public project in Kangra at the Nishtha Health Clinic, built in 1995. A charitable practice by friend and physician Barbara Nath-Wiser, the adobe structure — made from mud bricks, which have high clay content, straw and other organic materials — is sensitive to the emotional needs of visitors and patients who come to the clinic. The clinic is a healing space also because of its material — mud, bamboo, and slate that offer comfort and ease of scale. A greenhouse inside the clinic protects the out-patient unit from harsh sunlight, while the corridors that are open to the elements allow for light and air to circulate freely. Doctors and staff are lavished with generous views of the hills in their rooms, a visible change from the uninspired boxes that pass off as health clinics in villages.
Naresh Kumar Sharma, who was then barely 19, and an apprentice to the carpenter, remembers how Didi would travel for her site visits. “Amma was then in her 60s. She would arrive on horseback to the site every morning at 11, and physically show us how to lay the stone or mud brick. She has a way of detailing every small process, be it sorting the stones found on site, for landscaping and construction, after excavating the soil, or tearing waste paper to make pulp. We always wondered why she had such elaborate ways to doing things, but the simple logic to tear paper along the grain meant it melted faster, when mixed with water,” says Sharma, who is now an independent builder and earthen building advisor at the Dharmalaya Institute at Bir.
In each of Didi’s designs, there’s always scope for experimentation — from using rice husk and pine in the mud plaster for insulation to using waste car tyres to fill up berms. Much of her experiments were done in her home in Sidhbari, a house that naturally curves and calls you into its corners. Here she has used smoked bamboo instead of steel as beams, which are strong even after 25 years.
The living-cum-kitchen space warms you with the aroma of spices and the spluttering of mustard seeds, as we speak about mud and matter. “I love cooking, it is a creative enterprise. Generations of women have given us a major cultural heritage, and among the arts, I rate it high,” she says.
Between her generously made breakfasts of warm-hearted cheesy frittatas and dinners of grilled fish, perfected with pepper, salt, and lime, Didi shares her life story. She speaks of growing up in the shadow of World War II, visiting numerous museums with her artist parents, learning to make clay sculptures, carve soft stone and wood, batik and block printing, even being an apprentice to a silversmith — everything that would stack up in her mind’s eye, tuning her aesthetic sensibilities to the handmade.
Her crystal-clear voice drops and lifts with theatrical pauses and intonations; her tiny eyes dissolve into dashes when she smiles. But those eyes note every detail, even the way the ladles are hung in her kitchen area, or the bread is cut. Be it broken glass or broccoli stems, she finds use for everything. And when Didi is not quoting scientists, philosophers, historians, or novelists, you could find her reading The New Yorker, or cooking for the cats who have adopted her. She also mentions that she’s had both her knees and hip replaced, cataracts done, and been through radiation as well. “I’m a bionic woman,” she beams triumphantly. As one walks around the complex in Sidhbari, which has nearly seven houses, all built by Didi, the absence of fences dawns only when one realises that it’s the trees and gardens that border each house.
Around 15 years after Nishtha, Didi’s second public project was the Sambhaavnaa Institute of Public Policy and Politics in Palampur. Public interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan had envisioned a campus that would energise public policy activists to become innovative and persevering. “We were aware of Didi’s earth-friendly construction. Her ideology matched ours. Even as it follows a traditional material vocabulary, the institute has all the modern amenities,” says Delhi-based Bhushan.
Our next stop is Dharmalaya, which started in 2012 and continues to expand. As we make our way up in the pelting rain, the clean air turbo-charges our lungs, but scaling its demanding terrain is both punishing and (finally) rewarding. When we reach the institute, we realise we have left the clouds behind. Didi designed the space for people who look at a deeper study of the basics of life — energy, shelter, water, waste, and relationships with one another and nature. Founder Mark Moore remembers meeting Didi in the late 1990s. “We initially had lots of enthusiasm and good soil. We wanted the main building to be like a house that accommodates community functions, kitchen, rooms, a mediation and multi-purpose space. She asked me a few questions, and I had a utilitarian sketch of the space. I could see she was absorbing everything. And then she went to bed; she clearly dreams these spaces. By 5 am, she got her sketches going and by 6 am she called me to say, ‘Come right back, I’ve got the design’. She had captured the essence of the site, to support the connection and reflection we wanted the space to have,” he says.
The meditation room, which opens to a 180-degree view of the outside, is cupped in the palm of the pine landscape and the mountain peaks. If one were to sit on the earthen floor, one would see the sky or the stars, while if one were to stand by the window, the mountainous slopes offer a different view. “My buildings play within the environment. For me, a space is something that answers you. You enter with a question and what you see is the answer.,” says Didi.
“Few people see light as an element of design, it’s an emotional component. Her spaces create interiority in the way she modulates light,” says architect and urban planner KT Ravindran.
This aspect of following light into spaces is evident in Sharma’s home. Having worked with Didi for over 25 years, he built his home taking cues from all that he had learnt. “My grandparents lived in this mud house, which had small rooms and windows. I broke down a couple of walls and put in skylights. So now at 8 am, this part of the house is lit, while by 2 pm the light comes over the kitchen sink. This kind of site understanding is what I learnt from Didi, you can’t find it in any textbook or paper,” says the 42-year-old.
“She virtually harvests buildings out of the site. My role as the photographer of her work was to capture the visual movement of her spaces,” says Delhi-based photographer Joginder Singh, whose self-published book An Adobe Revival: Didi Contractor’s Architecture, will be released next month in Delhi.
For someone who has been a life-long learner and teacher, Didi has many kindred spirits, who form a part of the larger family. Pune-based architect Anujna Dnyaneshwar, who interned with Didi, says, “My journey with Didi has been from the smallest thing to the largest philosophy. I learnt how to cut bread. She taught me that there are no boundaries between how we live and how we design. She insists that in our imagination, we become the carpenter, the mason, and the user of the space. From making sun-dried bricks to mud compact flooring, we had to learn everything. If we were taking wood to the timbre mill, even the waste wood had to be efficiently used. It meant taking extra time on design, but one became resourceful. Her life is aspirational and comforting for me. You know someone has done it before and you can try too.”