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Laurie Baker: the man, his work, and his tales

Laurie Baker

Laurie Baker  

We were building our house more than 20 years ago in Kerala’s capital city, and >Laurie Baker, architect extraordinaire, who had made Kerala his home, designed it. By then, he had been in India for some 44 years and had built a house for himself in the Thiruvananthapuram suburb of Nalanchira. (He told us with a twinkle in the eye that it was only in 1994 that his citizenship papers were through.)

Most often he came to the work-site wearing a khadi shirt, frayed baggy trousers, shoes giving way at the toes, and grandpa glasses resting lightly at the tip of his nose.

“I’m afraid I can spend only a half hour with you today,” he would say on the phone, prior to coming over to our site on Vikramen Hill in Kuravonkonam, Thiruvananthapuram. But once he came and started involving himself and talking, the half hour would stretch to a good hour and a half. What a gift for words he had! Word on word he piled them on as skillfully as the masons he was overseeing laid brick on brick.

As I listened to him spellbound, I hoped he would never stop for it seemed to me that once again I was back in University College in Thiruvananthapuram, reading my Charles Lamb. He called his stories LITs, short for Long Interminable Tales. I also marvelled at his memory: it was a reservoir of reminiscences of old England, Victorian England, War-time England, the England he had left behind. We were discussing our home. Should we leave it un-plastered, we asked him. He said he had a weakness for the raw brick façade. That started off a stream… another LIT!

Laurence Wilfred ‘Laurie’ Baker was born in Birmingham on March 2, 1917. His father, he said, had a keen interest in old churches, tombstones and graveyards, and the family spent many a weekend in London doing the rounds of churches. Mother on her part was not interested in “deadwood” at all, but those being the days when women unquestioningly obeyed their husbands, she complied.

Well, he said, they had spent one precious Saturday morning traipsing through lonesome graveyards with father peering myopically at ancient tombstones, jotting down details on little pieces of paper which he thrust into his pocket. (Laurie Baker did this too). Then inside the church he and the doddering old sextons would turn over dusty records which they had collected from dimly lit storerooms. He could not understand father’s enthusiasm. Laurie Baker, then only five years old, gave vent to his frustration and boredom by kicking at some of the tombstones.

Guiltily a moment later, he was shaken to hear mother read out the words on one of them: “Sacred To The Precious Memory Of Samuel Longhorn, Murdered In India, By Assailants Unknown.”

“Where is India, mother?” he asked. “Oh somewhere far away, across the seas,” she replied.

At last they came to the Westminster Cathedral in London. The vaulted ceiling seemed hundreds of miles away to the little boy, the sanctum sanctorum vast and distant, the nave so wide, the pews so high he could do nothing but stand silent, awed by all the splendour, behind his parents. A service was in progress. He still remembered it all, that moment etched in time as a moment of breathtaking beauty, the chanting priests, their satin vestments richly embroidered, the incense rising up and dissipating, the sunlight streaming in through the mullioned windows. There was a strange unearthly glow about the place, and his mind was suffused with an indescribable emotion.

Laurie Baker, whose name later became synonymous with un-plastered structures in India, traced his fondness for it to that visit to the cathedral. For the Westminster Cathedral is not plastered fully.

The next day, continued Laurie Baker, he had got up early to savour the morning quiet. It was a wet morning and the dew lay heavily on the grass outside the lodge. Suddenly the silence was shattered by the strangest looking people he had ever seen, who emerged from the house next door. All of them were dressed in satins and silks, the men wearing turbans, and for footwear, embroidered sandals that curved and curled at the toes. The bevy of beautiful women wore the most bizarre, colourful outfits. Later on he was able to give it a name, salwar-kameez.

To the young English boy from the countryside, they looked like characters out of an oriental play. They paused under his window chattering in an unintelligible language. Who were these strange people? Where did they come from? Why did they dress in such a strange manner?

What were they saying? Later on in Kew Gardens, he had seen more of these gorgeously dressed people and he watched them open-mouthed, until mother called him away and reprimanded him.

Years later, during a trip to China during the War years, he had to break the three-month voyage halfway to Rangoon. Penniless and homesick in Calcutta he had seen them again, and he was now able to identify them as Punjabis. But seeing them again in grimy Calcutta, the magic was somewhat missing.

“India came to me long before I came to India to build houses for the people here. I shall live here, work here and die here,” said Baker. On April 1, 2007, he passed away in Thiruvananthapuram. But the structures he helped build, and the whole architectural ethos that he created in his adopted land, remain.

johnsannu@rediffmail.com

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Printable version | Aug 10, 2020 7:51:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/Laurie-Baker-the-man-his-work-and-his-tales/article10808381.ece

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