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Educating the Eye to See and to Feel

Eternal Stone: Great Buildings of India, Edited by Gautam Bhatia, Penguin Books India 2000. Rs 395.

If there is one single message that comes through in this latest offering from Gautam Bhatia, it is that the architectural imagination is flourishing in India. These 29 essays "by divers hands" (in that archaic phrase) celebrate "Great Buildings of India".

The range of these monuments in time and sensibility is vast. At one chronological end is Geeta Doctor on the Mahabalipuram temple: "after more than thirteen centuries of abrasion by sea spray and wind, its once sharply-chiselled contours have been smudged to an amorphous smoothness". At another, is Bhatia's meditation on the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and its creator, Louis Kahn: "a hardline geometry so precise, so sharp-edged, that as the sun fell away around the brickwork, it still cast an impenetrable glow on the surface. This is what Kahn referred to as the building's share of light, a slice of the sun."

Bhatia's Introduction makes explicit his editorial strategy: "having chosen a building, each architect uses the incidents of his or her own personal experience as hinges for the narration, adding insight and personal reflection to illuminate commonly held beliefs as well as historical facts about the building.... Tuned only the pulse of the person wielding the pen, the record is meant to be true only to the architect's insights on that particular building."

Sure enough, the pleasures of reading this "informal diary" include the variety of ways of "wording" the world. Satish Gujral, speaking of Hauz Khas tells us that "the shapes, the placing of openings, the design of ornamentation, [are] all reminiscent of the spirit of qawwali. First come a few lines recited by the main singer who increases the tempo with each succeeding line, taking it to the hightest pitch when his companions join him in a final lyrical burst of sound." In another essay, "roofs are like hats", declares Laurie Baker. "Like a hat -- a bowler, turban, or a fez -- has its own personality, a roof reflects the personality of the builder".

There is much intellection in these essays too. In his meditation on the Rashtrapati Bhavan, K T Ravindran reflects, "the Tao of Indian heritage, or for that matter anyone else's heritage, has within its fold, the symbols of the invader, friend, merchant, colonizer, King, revolutionary, democrat and liberal."

Autobiographical insights abound. Dancer-novelist-architect Sarayu Ahuja says in her musing on Brihadeshwara Temple: "The practice of dance transferred my senses to my feet. [But today], I see [the Temple] clinically, with a pair of conditioned eyes.... I put it together as a surgeon would stitch up parts of the body after an operation."

Visiting Fatehpur Sikri just as he was building his first houses "for a varied lot of clients", Raj Rewal realizes that "in each case, the decision about the placement of rooms and functional requirements was taken by their wives. It began to dawn on me that pehaps Fatehpur Sikri's planning owed more to Akbar's wife Jodhabai than to the illiterate Akbar."

There is much history here too -- personal and public. B V Doshi (who built ICRISAT where I work) reminisces about Le Corbusier: "I see him walking a tightrope, swinging from the trapeze, scorning the safety of the net.... I think of [him] as the acrobat of architecture".

And here's the delightful Gordon Davidson: "The story of imperial railways is the story of a lowly PWD assistant engineer Frederick William Stevens who, had he not ruffled feathers in the great bastion of Public Works in England, would probably have worked and died happily in English obscurity."

In the presence of great monuments, quite often, the architect describes a moment of epiphany. Ramu Katakam, speaking on the Ettumanur Temple, says "As I turned to walk out of the rear ... a wild champa growing against the outer wall released its fragrance, and once again it felt as if everything had stopped moving."

Alas, the reader will have to be satisfied with only the word-pictures, for the pictures themselves are dreadful. They are for the most part grainy and faded, and lack contrast, like colour prints badly reworked into black and white. Besides, they are printed on poor paper with the text or drawing on the obverse often showing through. Barring a handful (the sharp Bombay Municipal Corporation photo comes to mind), the book's pictures completely belie the cover's vibrant, sandstone yellow, and the brilliant blue of the desert sky. At nearly 400 rupees a copy, Penguin could have done better.

Notwithstanding this one disappointment, I shall certainly look this book up, the next time I visit any of the "Great Buildings" described here. Every profession trains the body in a certain way: these 29 essays educate the eye.

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