Shutter fantastic: windows of India
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How to bring traditional window designs from Goa and Karaikudi to the modern home

August 26, 2022 06:39 pm | Updated September 03, 2022 09:59 am IST

Window shutters are the central and openable part of a window, fixed to the window frame by means of hinges. Shutters are the prominent aesthetic features of windows which also serve the important function of letting light and breeze into the building and allowing us a view to the outside world. The design (material and type) of the shutters therefore become a critical part of architecture of any building. Today, with myriad possibilities, the design of a window shutter can be interesting as well as challenging. As a first step we can take cues from our rich cultural heritage.

This article explores some traditional designs of window shutters across India which evolved due to local climate, culture and historical architectural influences.

‘Kharkhari’ windows of Calcutta: Inspired by colonial architecture, the ‘kharkhari’ is a louvred window with slats made of wood. A wooden rod fixed on the inside and attached to the wood slats would enable the louvres to move at varying angles as desired, allowing the user to control the amount of light, breeze and views as required. The system was perfect for the hot and humid weather conditions of Bengal. These windows would offer privacy from outside yet allow the occupants to observe the world outside. The adjustable angles of the slats would also prevent rain coming in. Kharkharis were primarily green in colour. This was because of the easy availability and affordability of the green pigment in powder form which was mixed with oil and adhesive and applied as paint.

Modern adaptation: This design still stays relevant today especially in hot climatic conditions as it avoids use of glass that can trap heat. It is fairly straightforward to recreate these type of shutters and we are seeing more of its usage today.

‘Shell’ windows of Goa: In Goa, traditionally, oyster shells were used instead of glass in window shutters. Being translucent, these shutters would let in light but not the heat. These shell window facades bring out the mixed cultural heritage of Goa — the influence of Portuguese architecture combined with the traditional skill and innovation of the local people. These ‘windowpane oysters’ were sourced from riverside beaches, in the Zuari estuary. The flatter shells were collected, cleaned, polished and shaped into squares or rectangles, and fitted to the windows’ grooved wooden slats. As the shells were not transparent, small cutouts within the window allowed a view outside. The varying shapes and sizes of these ‘peepholes’ would offer an additional touch of charm. Today, many of Goa’s shell windows remain preserved in the streets of Panaji.

Modern adaptation: As harvesting oyster shells is no longer environmentally sustainable, we could consider replacing the shells with frosted glass for similar window designs.

‘Jharokhas’ of Rajasthan: Formal and ornamental, jharokhas were widely used in medieval Indian architecture. Mostly made of stone, they are projecting windows, supported off the main wall by aesthetically carved brackets and enclosed with intricate stone or sometimes wood jaalis with or without openable shutters. Typically overlooking a street or market, jharokhas would provide a place for women to watch the outside world without being seen from outside. Jharokhas would also protect the main walls from direct heat and allow a breezeway in. Openable shutters if present would be intricately carved in wood. Originally thought to have been derived from projecting balconies used during the Mauryan empire as early as the 3rd century BC combined with influence of Mughal architecture, jharokhas were adopted in different regions according to specific aesthetic, material and functional needs.

Modern adaptation: Jharokha style windows could provide opportunities for quaint window seats with storage below, similar to bay windows. These also offer options for interesting facades. The level of ornamentation can be adapted to the style of architecture chosen.

Colourful windows of Chettinad: The Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu is acclaimed for its traditional mansions. Inspired by colonial architecture, the Chettiars brought teak wood from Burma and tiles from Europe to construct buildings. These combined with other local materials were brought together using local crafts and construction techniques that responded to the local climate of that area. Window shutters were primarily made of imported wood with prominent metal grills that would let in breeze and offer security. Tall windows would allow for continuous ventilation. Arched tops were common with murals or coloured glass to add an aesthetic to the building.

Modern adaptation: These windows are still highly relevant to the climate of Tamil Nadu. Its large openings stretching tall not only allow for adequate breezeways but also allow the hot air to exhaust out. The wood shutters are a better option to glass. The metal grill adds a touch of charm and provides security. As most aspects of these designs remain relevant today, we should look into adapting these ideas to today’s context in order to make our design more aesthetic as well as environmentally sensitive.

Some general options for adaptation include:
Using salvaged windows from older buildings and reusing them as it is with a coat of paint — salvaged windows are available with local salvaged material dealers or even at online websites such as ‘etsy.com’.
Working with skilled carpenters to re-create such shutters to required size using salvaged wood. Salvaged wood is environmentally more sustainable than new wood. Also keep in mind that natural pigments for paints are better for our health and wellbeing as well as the environment’s. Asian Paints’ Nilaya Naturals is one option.
With the advent of glass and shift to ‘modernism’, we have forgotten our traditional ways of design, slowly moving away from our rich cultural heritage. Fortunately there are a few architects and designers who are sensitive to our past and who are trying to revive traditional designs. As architect Laurie Baker once said: "We should be thinking and designing as Indian, for Indians, in India”.

The writer is the founder of Green Evolution, a sustainable architecture firm.

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