Her name doesn’t feature in the “top 100 architects” lists of design media in the country, she never had builders lining up outside her door, nor are there many books that acknowledge her work of over three decades. And yet the contribution of Delia ‘Didi’ Contractor — who died on July 5 at 91 — to Indian architecture is exemplary. A self-taught architect, Didi brought enormous rigour into her adobe (mud) buildings spread across Kangra, Himachal Pradesh. It wasn’t possible to lose sight of the trees, the sky or the Dhauladhars in any of them. In a single room, you would have a different view when you sat on the floor, a different one on a chair and a very different vantage point in the centre.
When most people thought of retirement at 60, Didi travelled on horseback for site visits. Stones would be excavated by hand and segregated into sizes and waste paper stripped along the grain to melt it faster with water. She recycled everything, from cork to broccoli stems; she rebuilt her connection with the earth every time she returned rice husk and pine into the mud plaster; she repaired the process of construction, by valuing those who worked on the ground. She mentored masons, contractors, gardeners, labourers, giving them new challenges and showing them a better way of working and living.
The artist in her was resourceful in finding new ways to imagine the world even as she was not oblivious to market forces. She found ways to make it sit within the radius of her aesthetic and ecological values, by being mindful of the environment and context. Just like the houses she designed without fences in Sidhbari, which sat enveloped by trees and shrubs, her life’s work was one without pretences or posturing.
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