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Book review: Venugopal Maddipati recalls Gandhi to meditate on low-cost housing

A rare book of ideas, Maddipati’s ‘Gandhi and Architecture’ examines the Mahatma’s egalitarian approach to architecture that found echoes among other other socialist thinkers

Written by Narayani Gupta | New Delhi |
September 12, 2021 6:35:32 am
Mahatma Gandhi, Venugopal Maddipati book, Gandhi and Architecture: A time for Low-cost Housing, eye 2021, sunday eye, indianexpress newsGandhi and Architecture: A time for Low-cost Housing; by Venugopal Maddipati; Routledge; 206 pages; Rs 995

We can begin with the title. The author describes Mahatma Gandhi’s experiment in the 1930s of building functional and ecologically-sensible homes in a finite area using — as far as feasible — local materials, and keeping within what would seem to be an austere budget.

Venugopal Maddipati is not among those who distinguish “building” from “architecture” — a “caste-differentiation” which distinguishes “informal” from “formal”, “vernacular” self-built homes from houses designed by professionals, also implying a difference of scale.

The word ‘housing’ has a class connotation. It originated from the anxiety of employers to provide homes for migrants working in the new urban factories in 19th-century England, because they were fearful of diseases spreading out from their dense settlements (read bastis for India). The use of the term in this book is much broader and suggests that we need to think about the size and design of homes for everyone, not just for the poorly paid.

Maddipati is a rare scholar who worries every idea to the bone. He brings together philosophies forgotten or dismissed as irrelevant. He reflects not only on Gandhi and Sevagram, or even about the Centre of Science for Villages set up in 1976. He goes beyond Gandhi. Today, Gandhi’s ‘agenda’ is in question — following on from the Black Lives Matter movement, his argument for austerity is seen as implying social exclusionism. There can be an alternative philosophy, which has not dated, nor is limited to one thinker. There are echoes of Patrick Geddes (who had passed away before the Sevagram project took root); “low-cost housing” was taken up by the government of young India in the 1950s; its potential was something that made Laurie Baker decide to live and build in India; it challenged the genius of MIT-trained Charles Correa (whose first major project, in the 1960s, was the Gandhi Memorial at Sabarmati); it is about the Kolams, an Adivasi community from whose organisation of space and homes others could learn so much if they could only shed their social biases. Venu argues that the philosophy of finitude is still relevant, and mud huts are “architecture” as much as is Correa’s Kanchanjunga Apartments.

The author has allowed the book to take its own time, shape and course. Different parts of the collage were fitted in between 2004 and 2017. Both text and ‘Acknowledgements’ indicate wide-ranging archival and other reading, and discussions with people from many disciplines and across continents (This may explain the slightly broken narrative, and a sense of new beginnings well into the book). It requires concentration from the reader, and frequently having to turn the pages back to some earlier section.

The strength of the book is that it reminds us of a time when original ideas attracted receptive audiences (ideas which have since disappeared into the sands of social tensions). There is an implicit call for reviving the sense of social responsibility. Hopefully, this discussion will inspire a humane land-use policy, taking the pandemic into account.

The reader should question the logic of planned settlements, the sizes of plots, designated public spaces, the design of houses. The spatial hierarchy of the British Indian army and civil service (not observed in Britain but carefully calibrated in British India) has been retained by independent India. From the 1950s, two of the markers of Independence changed the nature of urban areas — one, rural dwellers began to migrate to towns, aware of their political price as voters. Two, the number of informal settlements inside towns multiplied, in response to the spurt in formal construction. Dinkar’s timeless poem gave voice to those who make this possible. “Main majdoor, mujhe devon ki basti se kya? (I am a labourer, how does the abode of gods make a difference to me?)” There should have been a parallel provision of low-cost housing. The official response was painfully slow, even inhumane. Remember the scandal of the flats for what officialese calls the “EWS” — tiny one-room homes which economised by having no windows? “Economically weaker” was a description more appropriate for the flats than for the inhabitants.

Tiny homes for the poor should be tolerated only if they are complemented by generous well-designed public spaces — historic Paris, Shahjahanabad in Delhi, and north Kolkata, are densely built, but vibrant with democratic public spaces and shared cultures. This explains the truly urban quality of these towns. But our planners will think hierarchically — tree-lined roads and carefully-manicured parks are reserved for neighbourhoods which are already provided with enclosed private open spaces. “To those that have, more shall be given”.

It is early days yet. The plans and descriptions of the kutir that Gandhiji inhabited in Sevagram have no place in glossy journals on architectures and interiors.The government has no sense of embarrassment about morphing Sabarmati Ashram into a tourist experience, thus pushing Gandhiji firmly into the “past”. But this book gives us a chance to hope for a renaissance.

(Narayani Gupta is a Delhi-based historian)

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