When Satyajit Ray was about seven, Rabindranath Tagore wrote him a few lines in his autograph book that became his axiom in his later life. It read: “I have travelled all around the world to see the rivers and the mountains… but I forgot to see just outside my house a dewdrop on a little blade of grass, which reflects in its convexity the whole universe around you.”
The Indian tradition of being mindful of the panoramic view, of catching the essence to express a larger idea, seen in miniatures, in sculptures, folk traditions and our classics, finds its way into Flights of Hope (Rs 2100). The book, published by LA, Journal of Landscape Architecture, holds “narratives of engagement with nature”. Artists, historians, architects, academicians, environmentalists, and city planners have contributed to nearly 40 essays in the book. Though power-packed with words, maps, photographs, sketches, and illustrations provide ample visual relief. The idea of nature is expressed through fine arts, philosophy, history, anthropology and popular culture. It makes one wonder at the possibilities of design in nature and the nature of design.
In the interview with artist Gulammohammed Sheikh in the book, the artist notes how the western science of colour and light in the spectrum doesn’t qualify in an Indian setting. “Perhaps terms chosen from living habits of people might serve the purpose. In order to describe a pale yellow ground in the Marich Hunt (miniature) in a Kulu folio, if you compare it with mustard it will reveal a new dimension. And then if you say the bright chrome yellow of the ground in a Mewar Bhagavara Purana folio, it reminds you of haldi, and may ring another connotation… Such naming would simultaneously arouse sensations of taste and smell, besides contextualising the region in which the paintings were made. So the colour of mirchi carries an additional dimension of temperature along with taste.”
The book presents nature three ways. The three sections are ‘Imagining and Observing Nature’, where miniatures, illustrations and poetry show imagined and existing landscapes; ‘Engaging with Nature’ which presents rewilding and restoration examples; and ‘Visions and Directions’ which explores new and developing ideas in urban spaces. “Natural landscapes have evolved over a geographical time scale. We have chosen stories that happen at different moments in the life of a process, natural or cultural — past, present and future,” says the editor of the book, architect Geeta Wahi Dua.
Goa-based Tallulah D’Silva, a socially-conscious architect, writes about the legacy of khazaans — harvesting solar salt — where local communities prepare bunds that work as nurseries for fish, while the mangroves, which line the bunds and arrest the silt from the hills, create a buffer for extreme weather. Though their numbers are depleting, the khazaans tell the story of interdependence as a way of life. Ecologist-in-training Jobin Varughese maps a neighbourhood along a railway track in Mithakhali, Ahmedabad, where he explores how birds inhabit the city. From photographs of sightings to their activities and feeding habits, it becomes another route to view nature around us.
A brave attempt has also been made to present poetry around nature in different Indian languages, from Tagore’s poems in Bengali to poets Balkavi and Bahinabai’s descriptions of the landscape in Marathi and poems from Kannada literature. Not only does it layer the imagination of the book, it provides a texture to the ecosystem of various ideas and opinions in the 262-page tome.
“Regional literature, with its hidden knowledge, is seen as an important source to understand the regional landscapes of the country. The total ignorance of the word ‘rural’ in our landscape practice and discourse was a point of concern. So we deliberately looked around for stories from this context. In the essay People’s River Health Index, the life of a river gets directly connected with communities of villages and towns flanking it through Nadi Mitra Mandalis (Friends of the River). There are success stories of community-driven water harvesting practices in Rajasthan and Gujarat, revival of degraded land in a village in Maharashtra and the spreading of knowledge through jataras and nukkad natakas in the book,” says Dua.
While Mumbai-based urban researcher Shweta Wagh presents a case for heritage conversation in its holistic context, elaborated through the Kanchendzonga National Park and Biosphere Reserve, Sikkim, on the UNESCO World Heritage list, Pradip Krishen tells the story of how a once-arid volcanic hill near Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort is now home to over 180 species of birds, through 12 rigorous years of rewilding, with help from the Khandwaliya community.
Academician-architect Ashok Lall draws references from author Amitav Ghosh, when he says that while the literary imagination has power to renew, the “current climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination”. At the time, when our urban landscape threatens to be filled with vertical gardens that falsify the image of greenery, and palm trees are the obvious vegetation on manicured lawns, Flights of Hope presents a holistic view of how to view the world around us, and nurture an ecosystem of creative well-being.