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How craft and architecture can come together to tell new stories of identity and culture

Can architecture bring back craft into its storytelling, not only as a way to support artisans but also give an identity to the regional flavours of our country, and reclaim a place that was theirs centuries ago?

Written by Shiny Varghese |
Updated: May 6, 2020 7:53:36 pm
architecture, architecture telling stories, architecture reclaiming space, architecture reclaiming space, architecture, indian express, indian express news If architecture is about problem solving, not all solutions are formed only in the mind. (Source: Prabhakar B Bhagwat)

Mumbai-based architect Uttam Jain, in a dialogue with architect-academic Narendra Dengle, narrated his experience of working on a cinema house project, about 80 km from Jodhpur. They had a local master craftsman in charge of the site, Lal Mohammad, who was old, couldn’t read or write but could understand drawings perfectly. Jain, with the client, was trying to solve the problem of fixing a one-square-foot chequered pattern of local dressed stone on the façade. They finally came up with a solution that would cost Rs 30,000 extra.

When Mohammad came to know of this, he presented a ‘lap joint’ solution to Jain the next day. With one stone piece supporting another, he was able to solve the problem at no extra cost. Jain asked him what he could do in return. All that Mohammad requested was a shoulder massage to ease his tired limbs. For Jain, it was “the highest way of giving honour”. It was also a lesson in humility and a deep understanding of what craftspeople contribute, besides their skills and innate knowledge of traditional materials and techniques.

Even as the challenges of COVID-19 plague us in cities, artisans and craftspeople across the country are facing the heat in their villages. Bhubaneshwar-based Bijay Kumar Parida, a master artist of Pattachitra, reveals that it has been a struggle, especially since tourism has taken a hit and his own students cannot come to class. However, he is hopeful because of a few architectural projects that have come his way in these last few months. One such is a corporate office in Gurgaon, where Delhi-based Studio Lotus has collaborated with Dastkari Haat Samiti to have artisans on board for the interiors. Parida took his traditional format of painting on cloth to a wall that stretched nearly 12 feet. The change of medium did not shrink his imagination as trees bellowed in the breeze and the peacocks made an appearance. “I had themed it on rain,” says Parinda, about the bottle green wall that has his brush strokes in white. In the same project, Kashmiri artists have brought their lacquer artistry to lamp domes, with deer and tigers meandering through foliage, and Warli painters are bringing new motifs to their ancient art form.

Can architecture bring back craft into its storytelling, not only as a way to support artisans but also give an identity to the regional flavours of our country, and reclaim a place that was theirs centuries ago. If architecture is about problem solving, not all solutions are formed only in the mind. Sandeep Virmani, Executive Vice Chairman, Hunnarshala Foundation, says, “Solutions also happen when you work with your hands. It’s in the doing, the connection with mind, head and heart, is how we have built solutions. When architects and artisans come together, they develop a unique vocabulary, focused around the material. It’s the material that tells you what the solution is. So, aesthetically it creates a powerful narrative based on material and context. Otherwise, it’s about forcing an idea and making the material work. Often, in the urban system, the artisan is only labour, a mute worker in site.”

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Hunnarshala Foundation has been working with artisans across the country, in building bamboo houses in Bihar, shallow domes in Muzzafarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, and dressing walls with mirror and wall art in Gujarat. (Source: Hunnarshala Foundation)

Bhuj-based Virmani recalls the time they were working on a project in Madhya Pradesh, when one of the workers on site alerted them to the high salinity of the soil. Sure enough, when they did the soil test, they knew he was right. He was made the quality manager for the project. “When we identify such craftspeople, we train them through workshops so that the material or skill can be redeveloped for contemporary needs,” he says.

According to Rishav Jain, who authored Crafts in Interior Architecture: India, 1990 onwards (SID Research Cell, CEPT; 2015), craft evolves with time. He presents different approaches to craft in Indian architecture, which move from the traditional use of artisans’ skills in projects to designers straddling the local and global vocabulary and charting their own paths in the use of traditional materials. Architects Nimish Patel and Parul Zaveri worked with over 300 craftspeople for three years in the making of The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur. The super luxury heritage resort had every modern amenity in the rooms even as it melded tradition into design through lime plastering called ghutai and had handcrafted stone columns as part of its structural elements.

“We are losing out on the knowledge that these craftspeople have innately gathered. When we worked on the project more than two decades ago, the senior karigars would come and sit on the site and advise the team. A lime plaster karigar will tell you if there is too much rain, don’t put whey or dahi into the mix, or stone sculptors could tell you if the block of stone is male, female or neutral. If they are given some freedom and made part of the design team, they make a project much richer. These times of COVID 19 have shown us how we need to work with nature and climate for architecture that’s suitable for each region,” says Zaveri. Virmani recalls how bamboo artisans of Bihar worked with them to build homes after the Kosi floods. “All they had was a knife,” he says.

“If you look at a sari, it’s one unstitched piece of cloth, yet there is the pallu, the body, the buttis, and then the way the fabric is draped. Without any joints, it still has numerous elements coming together. That dependency, to me, is the role of artisans in architectural projects,” says architect Sanjib Chatterjee, Co-Founder of design firm Kaaru. It’s this learning of nearly two decades that found its meaning in Kaladham, an international arts and cultural centre in Bellary, Karnataka. His team sourced materials and manpower within a 30-mile radius, allowing for stone masons to work on site through the project.

Delhi-based design studio Kaaru sourced materials and manpower within a 30-mile radius, having stone masons work on site for Kaladham, an international arts and cultural centre in Bellary, Karnataka.(Source: Studio Kaaru)

This seamless flow of thought and idea emerges in Vadodara-based project, the ark, by Ahmedabad firm M/s Prabhakar B Bhagwat. The interior design, themed on Noah’s Ark, holds the narrative of a new world, syncing the traditional and the modern. With metalsmiths, applique and wood work, lacquer and Gond, Smruti Bhagwat with the team brought together architecture, interior design and art. “We were looking for someone who worked in metal to do the lobby ceiling. That’s when we met Junas Ismail Luhar. His forefathers used to make bells long ago. And he was very willing to experiment with new processes, which included testing with different additives. He gave us copper sheets in red and blue patina that we have used in the meeting rooms. We worked with each of these craftspeople and we could see that for them it wasn’t about selling a product alone, they wanted to be seen differently and interacting with different types of people was important to them. While Junas created different bell metal sheets for us with different powders on copper with zinc, copper and brass, there was the lacquer artisan, Bhiaa Bacheya Vadha, with whom we worked around the limitations of size and material,” says Bhagwat. The idea was to have table legs represent the hoofs of animals aboard the ark, elephants and giraffes for instance, to give something stationary like the table, a sense of movement. Here craft moved from being just a utility item into one that tells a story, with dollops of experiments thrown in.

Ahmedabad firm M/s Prabhakar B Bhagwat themed the interiors on Noah’s Ark, working with bell metal and lacquer artisans. (Source: Prabhakar B Bhagwat)

Another such instance was in Krushi Bhavan, Bhubaneshwar, where Studio Lotus designed an administrative centre for the Government of Odisha’s Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment. In collaboration with architect Sibananad Bhol, Founder-Design Principal, Collective Craft, they got nearly 100 artisans to weave an Odia story in brick and metal. From the dhokra metal screens to the hand-crafted khondalite rock lattices and the ikat patterns on the brick façade, they managed to reflect identity, regionality and culture within the campus.

Asha Sairam, Design Principal, Studio Lotus says, “It was one of our first government projects. Usually government buildings are not inclusive spaces, even if they are elected by the people, for the people. That’s where the conversation began at the studio. We took the ground floor and turned it into a plaza and lifted it off the ground, so that the space could be used for farmers for haats or workshops. The ikat brick theme wraps around the building and is evocative of the different soils in various places in the state. We tried to stretch the expression of each of these crafts, as designers should, in presenting new expressions of traditional mediums.”

“Finally, it has to be local, that’s the only way relationships are built. Craft has become a commodity unfortunately. But these days, there is certainly a demand for handcrafted buildings. We are doing medium-scale projects that involve craftspeople and in terms of costs, it’s pretty much the same. In modern buildings, nearly 70 per cent of the cost is for materials and only 30 per cent goes to the labour. In locally handcrafted buildings, the labour gets about 70 per cent, and since materials are local, the costs are not more than 30 per cent,” says Virmani.

In Krushi Bhavan, Bhubaneshwar, Studio Lotus worked with 100 artisans to weave an Odia story in brick and metal, from the dhokra metal screens to the hand-crafted khondalite rock lattices and the ikat patterns on the brick façade. (Photo courtesy: Andre Fanthome)

Jaya Jaitly, Founder-President, Dastkari Haat Samiti, concurs. “We need to scale it up. If mud bricks that are handmade can be used in village schools and clinics, we don’t need to have cookie-cutter concrete boxes in our villages. Each region has its own local materials, and architects can work with these traditional systems. Mutual collaboration and finding new expressions will abate rural migration too,” she says.

“The way forward is in working hand in hand with the government. There has to be a constant dialogue with state governments and bureaucracy. Also, there is the need to make raw material available to craftspeople. These are policy decisions. And ultimately, it’s important to document ideas and keep creating new examples of work. So create, create, create,” says Chatterjee.

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