The modest jaali wall can bring in so many amazing features

Where do we find a sunlight breaker, natural air conditioner, money saver, privacy provider and pattern-based wall decorator all rolled into one? In all probability, the search may end up in a jaali wall, as the only answer to the above query. If so, is it a wonder solution? Have we all seen it? Of course yes, yet most of us have forgotten about this amazingly versatile method of construction.

Jaali walls are built with the normal bricks or any other masonry material by placing them with gaps in between either horizontally or vertically. Often these bricks can be placed at an angle also to avoid the direct view into the space inside. Remember the old films where a film heroine would peep through the ornate wall with small holes within, socially not allowed to come into public. Gone are the days of depicting heroines in such manner, but the wall with holes still continues to be around. Wood-carved screens, wooden windows assembled with small timber sections, stone jharokhas, pre-molded clay or cement block with voids, open brick wall and all such others are like first cousins, related to each other, in the jaali options.

The way jaali wall lets in soft light in subdued rays, the way a gentle stream of air flows through the room, and the way outside is visible without letting any inside view are unparalleled in construction options. Accordingly, in the traditional architecture, perforated walls as room enclosures are found all over the Indian sub-continent in diverse places such as Kerala in south or Nepal amidst the northern Himalayas. Incidentally, both the quoted places are legendary for their timber architecture. Padmanabhapuram Palace, with its innumerable wooden jaali windows, appears more porous than solid. Nepalese Mewar architecture style, located in a totally contrasting context, has intricately carved windows set within thick mud walls.

Why has the use of perforated walls declined? There was a time during the last century when civil engineering dominated building design in India, specially modelled after the British systems, which ignored numerous traditional construction practices. Being a predominantly architectural element, jaali appears to be one among the victims; giving way for the PWD-approved normal solid walls punctured only with formal windows. Also, the compact residential neighbourhoods demanded greater privacy and security when the house needed to be locked up during the day time.

The credit for popularising jaali walls generally as an integral part of modern architecture, specifically in Kerala, goes to architect Laurie Baker. Of course, these semi-open walls perfectly fitted the context, besides being cost-effective just as Baker desired. His buildings exhibit different jaali patterns evolved for the specific function, thereby creating a new aesthetics in the design of the structure. Inter alia, he proved how jaali walls are appropriate even in the architecture for today.

(The writer is an architect working for eco-friendly designs and can be contacted at varanashi@gmail.com)