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Life like that

Placed among the 50 finest structures of post-Lutyens Delhi, Chakravarty House — designed by ace Delhi architect Romi Khosla in 1975 — can certainly generate in the reader a good level of curiosity. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty   | Photo Credit: 28dmchouse

In 2008, flipping through a book titled “The Modern Architecture of New Delhi”, I came across a red-bricked single storey house in Delhi named Chakravarty House. Where in Delhi is this Chakravarty House, the book doesn’t mention. What is worth looking out for in this private house is certainly mentioned by the book’s author, architect Rahul Khanna. Two points apparently make it stand out — the exaggerated chimney and the way the architect has made optimum use of the relatively small plot size.

Placed among the 50 finest structures of post-Lutyens Delhi, among them Rabindra Bhawan, Tibet House, Triveni Kala Sangam, India Habitat Centre, the Delhi IIT and the India International Centre, Chakravarty House — designed by ace Delhi architect Romi Khosla in 1975 — can certainly generate in the reader a good level of curiosity. Also an interest to trace the house, considered a fine expression of architects in post Independent India trying to find their own vocabulary in the National Capital.

Years flipped by, and the intent to go looking for the house remained a thought. But just the other day, chancing upon Khanna’s well-collated book, that interest came nudging again. So where in Delhi is this “modest residence built for a professor on a limited budget”? Where is this brick cottage “reminiscent of a colonial bungalow with a triangular sloped roof and exaggerated chimney”, armed with a courtyard in a 60 square metre plot? Does it still stand, or has it given in to the flat construction boom the city has been seeing for some years now?

Turns out it still stands, against an envelope of high-rises. The directions from Khosla’s office are simple: “It is a little after Savitri Cinema in Chittranjan Park. Just go along the main road, you can’t miss this single storey house among the high-rises.”

So I go! And there it is, the red chimney jutting out unusually from among layers of flats on both sides. Soon I end up meeting the Chakravartys.

C.N. Chankravarty, the man who assigned Khosla the job in the ’70s, retired as a professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1990. He is used to strangers ringing the bell and expressing an interest in the architecture of the house. “A newspaper reporter has come for the first time but I am used to students of architecture and researchers coming not just from Delhi but outside the city. The house has been featured in international journals,” says Chakravarti. His daughter Sushmita takes me around the house. “It was originally a one bedroom house; we have done an extension at the back some time ago. We couldn’t do it through Khosla as by then he became too busy,” says Sushmita.

Khosla remembers Chakravarty’s brief. “He wanted a low-cost single bedroom house that he had sufficient savings to fund without borrowing.” In 1975, the cost of the house was Rs.43,000. “Despite the need for strict economy, the house was constructed with thick walls to keep the Delhi heat out. The floors were made with cement and coloured with patterns,” describes Khosla. Years later, while getting the extension done, the Chakravartys wanted the same flooring, but “It couldn’t be replicated.” The original aged black floor with mustard yellow lines certainly stands out from the standard floor tiles and marble slabs that flood the market now.

Khosla says the design of the house emphasises values and memories that have been embedded into its structure. “The most prominent of these features is the chimney that has been stretched into the sky as perhaps would be imagined by a child drawing a house. The sloping roof with a slate finish also refers to a classic image of a house that one would call a home with the promise of a hearth, warm food and that intimate sense of comfort that sloping roofs can give.”

In architectural language, the house has been termed “post-modern”. Those days, Khosla was in touch with post-modernist American architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, both of whom brought through their work the motifs of traditional architecture into contemporary reality. “I shared, at that time, Venturi’s contention that modernity and its minimalism had needlessly stripped the Indian urban environment of its potential complexity,” says Khosla. The Chakravarty House is his expression of this contention.

In the ’70s, the house was a lonely structure in Chittaranjan Park. “Today, it seems like a ‘hold out’, a David bravely preserving its values and territory against the Goliaths who box it in, disguised as towering apartment blocks, dripping crores, on either side,” rues 73-year-old Khosla.

Indeed, much has happened to the values of urbanism and house pride in Delhi since. Today, it is the builder who defines one’s house and one’s house pride. Remarks Khosla, “Chakravarty wanted a modest bungalow, preferably in brick, as a standalone house with a garden that reminded him of a home, where he would retire in all modesty having taught students all his working life about the literary world of Tolstoy and Gorky, for it was Russian studies that was his specialty. And so it stands there, still all alone, representing the strong personal values of the owner and not a hit-and-run builder.”

Not that the Chakravartys have not encountered builders’ pressure. “Every other day, someone would ring the bell, offer a lucrative deal to turn it into a high-rise of flats. My mother, who passed away two years ago, had a standard answer for them: it is a heritage building, and they would run away thinking they would land up in trouble instead,” says Sushmita with a laugh.

The Chakravartys also keep getting requests to share the original design of the house. “Once a JNU professor was really pushing my mother for it. She told him, I can’t stop you from replicating it, but I can’t give you the original plan, it would be unfair to the architect of the house.” Every time guests came home for the first time, Sushmita says, her house-proud mother would show them around the house. “She would particularly show how through a tunnel from the kitchen, the waste reaches an outlet near the gate from where the waste collector can pick it up every morning without disturbing us.” The chimney is connected to the kitchen, long pre-dating today’s chimney-fitted Delhi kitchens. Extremely proud of the house, Khosla says whoever did the extension must have done a good job because whenever he passes by it, he sees “someone or the other is taking photographs of its fragile presence in this hostile urban environment that the planners have given to Delhi.”


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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 5:57:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/chakravarty-house-is-a-stark-contrast-to-what-delhi-has-become/article6252720.ece

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