Ongoing research aims to explore the relationship between architecture and language in a Kolami village of Maharashtra

It is not often that architecture is used as an entry point for the study of the history and culture of a community by either architects or anthropologists in India.

A recent attempt by Venugopal Maddipati, a Fellow with the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library through his paper ‘Language and the space of determined spaces:

The architectural experiments of the Centre of Science for Villages in Wardha and the shaping of home in Wagdara, a Kolami village’ is being viewed with interest for the same reason.

He has been studying the unusual structures of the whole clay tumbler roofs of houses in Wagdara village of Wardha in Maharashtra, along with its exclusive bearing on the Kolami language that has emerged as a marker of the Kolam identity.

As new languages and new forms of hospitality enter into spaces of communities, it may sometimes tragically diminish mutuality and conversation within those very communities, says Venugopal, producing evidence of it in the history of the Kolams, or the Kolver: a tribe in South Central India (in Kolami Kola refers to bamboo). As a fragmented community residing in settlements in the Wardha, Yavatmal, Nanded and Chandrapur districts in Maharashtra and in the Adilabad districts of Andhra Pradesh, the Kolams in spite of having a language of their own have all too often remained vulnerable to the dominating influence of regional languages, namely Telugu and Marathi.

Venugopal is studying the homes or Yella of the Kolams, with their whole clay tumbler roofs, the front patio called Sefri, inner portions of the house or Lopal, spaces adjacent to the house or Sayban, the area behind the house or Petta and the place to keep goats, the Mekel Kot.

The roofs — designed and promoted by the Gandhian Center of Science for Villages in Wardha — are made up of whole-clay tumblers placed on a mat, unlike traditional roofs made of the halves of clay tumblers that are placed on a mat, with the roof yawning on the residents below. Besides providing effective insulation, they are more durable than other mud and grass houses found in the area and are more affordable to build.

But of late, the Sefri has been seen to double up as a mekel kot with the spatiality of the house becoming quite flexible, to be used for whatever it needs to be used for at that moment in time.

In his study, Venugopal wonders if the emergence of language itself as a marker of Kolami identity in some ways conforms to a very different conception of Kolami space and Kolami unity than the one contained within the ritual of Gaanv Bandhini (building boundary walls or fences around villages). In the second conception of Kolami space that extends beyond the border of Wagdara itself, in which knowing the Kolami language vouches for one’s Kolami identity, the space of the home as a material cultural marker of Kolami identity becomes irrelevant, according to Venugopal.

He tries to engage with the ways in which the material manifestations of the tumbler roof house have themselves served as a determining influence upon a peoples’ imagination of the form of a home in Wardha.

“In this regard, I will consider the manner in which the tumbler roof house has served to shape the spatial conceptions of a community, the Kolam Samaj in Wagdara, some twenty kilometers from the city of Wardha, since the 1990s, when CSV built quite a few houses in that village. Historicizing the tumbler roof house, from the vantages of the Kolam Samaj, as I suggest, entails historicizing the peculiar ways in which that community comprehends a circumstantial determinism or a circumstantial shaping of the space of their home. Indeed, if anything, the construction of the tumbler-roof houses in Wagdara attests to a significant transition, that is, it attests to the leaving behind of the historical Kolami conception of the circumstantial determinism of the space of their village, into a new Kolami circumstantial determinism of the space of their home. In my paper I explore this transition which also finds some resonances in the arrival of the Marathi language in Wagdara 25 years ago. Indeed the historicizing of transitions in the Kolami conception of space, entails, to some degree, historicizing a transition in the Kolami linguistic identity as it has come to be affected by the advent of a Marathi-speaking public sphere in Wagdara,” explains Venugopal.

This research is to be part of a book on Gandhi, Mira Behn, Vinoba and architecture in Wardha and beyond, that Venugopal is currently working on.