When three brothers from Jalandhar wanted the Thomas Jefferson villa from Virginia replicated at DLF Gurgaon, architect Gautam Bhatia not only had a bestseller, but he also furnished modern vocabulary with a new phrase — “Punjabi Baroque”. Here, Bach would mix with bhangra and rich, sculpted surfaces would sweat it out in the tropical climes of India. Not one to fight shy of uncovering India’s state of architecture, Bhatia’s new exhibition “City Fragments” at Delhi’s Visual Arts Gallery is his satirical take on the modern Indian city. Presented by Apparao Galleries, Bhatia’s work in pen-and-ink, and pencil drawings, and sculptures in fibreglass and bronze, point to the ironic dilemmas confronting an architect.
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Can we have a bungalow in the sky? What about a hotel in a suitcase or a Home Delivery, where the pre-fab house arrives on a truck? Bhatia’s canvases are a confession of architecture itself. He stands as both insider and outsider in his stance as an artist providing the client’s brief and the architect’s imaginative response.
If in Warehouse Architecture, he has drawn miniature models of Palladian houses and Roman villas, in Cabinet Apartments, each shelf within the cabinet hosts a classical building. Country Estates is a file cabinet with fibreglass models of European-styled houses, which can easily be shut in, reinforcing the idea of gated communities and island housing.
“Our biggest problem is of understanding what the city is for. We measure it by events or work but we forget it is a cohesive force. We need to find the reason as to why we make cities. We don’t ask what makes a city liveable, it’s not about settling people in colonies, it’s how they engage with each other,” says Delhi-based Bhatia.
The exhibition is about the non-arrival of architecture, because nothing is as it seems. There’s a town in a WC, which Bhatia calls WC City, or World Class City, while Bisleri Stepwell is a section drawing of a traditional stepwell fitted with a giant mineral water bottle. “It was ironic that during our travels to Gujarat and Rajasthan, we found stepwells empty, and people travelling to these traditional water sources with bottled water,” he says. The Courtyard City, he shows subterranean houses on a grid, almost like a chess board, each locked within their own cube. “Drawings give you an advantage of sketching things you can’t build. One way to question the premise of practice today is through such a medium,” says Bhatia, backed by nearly four decades of practice.
Those in the business of building cities too feature in Bhatia’s work. Emerging Power shows a potbelly emerging from a fibreglass block and sequentially the entire frame of a politician appears, the quintessential portrayal of one with a Gandhi cap and khadi kurta. Bhatia’s bronze sculptures are a nod to the living and working conditions of labourers in cities, living in cheek by jowl homes, pushing paper to get work done and forming queues for their daily wages.
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