Our post-Independence cities are so ugly: Didi Contractor

At 90 and going strong, the renowned architect muses on aesthetics, sustainability and the magic of the handmade

July 04, 2020 04:01 pm | Updated July 08, 2020 06:16 pm IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

I had already been hearing for years about the nonagenarian architect Didi Contractor’s astonishing work across the beautiful Kangra Valley, my motherland, when I finally got the chance to meet her in person at her intimate mud-bamboo-slate Himalayan home last winter. Although I am not an architect, I have studied the myriad ways in which manmade structures have evolved relationships with the mountainous terrain of Kangra, where Didi’s sensitively imagined edifices stand.

Here in front of me was the practitioner who has assiduously worked to preserve the inherently harmonious sense of hill life and landscape through everything she has envisioned. Popularly known as ‘Didi’, her nickname since birth and the Hindi word for older sister, the architect has painstakingly studied local building traditions to create structures that are as magical as they are this-worldly. Ranging from the Nishtha Community Centre for Rural Health, Education and Environment, and many private homes, to lawyer Prashant Bhushan’s sprawling Sambhaavnaa Institute of Public Policy and Politics, Didi’s works evoke earthly music through their embeddedness in the tones and textures of the Himalayan countryside.

Within minutes of our introductions, we found ourselves animatedly discussing the ethics, politics and craft of fantasy writing – my research area – and our shared admiration of the great Victorian fantasist-cum-polymath William Morris, who had spearheaded the enormously influential Arts and Crafts Movement that critiqued the tenets of industrialisation and sought a return to craftsmanship. Just as anything handmade held a special, magical quality for Morris, for Didi too vernacular architecture created from handmade bricks and naturally sourced materials has the power to generate enchantment. I recalled Morris’ famous observation that “architecture would lead us to all the arts,” and Didi concurred excitedly, declaring architecture “the king or queen of all arts.”

Harmonious synthesis

Didi’s interest in architecture is a culmination of several interests and philosophies. Born to an American-German Expressionist couple during the inter-war years, painting, clay, textile and sculpture infused her surroundings from the very beginning. Despite her fascination with architecture, she trained in painting and art history, as women were not yet welcomed into the architectural profession.

Since she married Narayan Contractor in the middle of the 20th century, she has made her home in India. After a decade with her husband’s traditional joint family in Nasik, they shifted to Juhu and she began her work in interiors when the Maharana of Mewar converted his Lake Palace in Udaipur into a hotel. With the generous assistance of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the then chairman of the Handicrafts Board, she showcased textiles and crafts from all over India, which helped turn the tide of elite Indian taste back towards Swadeshi. She also fondly remembers designing the Juhu home and theatre of veteran actor and friend Prithviraj Kapoor.

Along with Morris, she counts Mahatma Gandhi’s focus on the “handmade” as a key influence, not only for its political defiance of colonial production but also for its promotion of indigenous crafts. Didi’s growing understanding of Indian aesthetics avidly made use of these learnings, and when in the late 1970s she shifted to the Himalayas from Bombay, she consciously chose to settle in the famous art colony in Andretta (not far from her current home in Sidhbari) that played host to a variety of crafts including world-famous pottery and vernacular structures. The Gandhian ideal of peace was translated in Didi’s edifices as an element of “quietness”. As she wrote in a note for the photographic retrospective of her works by Joginder Singh, “I try to create something that is as quiet as possible. What works should just look natural, as meant to be.”

Attuned to sustainability, Didi defended her use of bamboo and pine over the stately, long-lived, slow growing and ecologically valuable cedrus deodara. Pine and bamboo frequently merge in Didi’s designs. Just before our meeting, I had spent a couple of hours at Sambhaavnaa Institute where I saw the two materials elegantly support the adobe constructions cascading down the hillside. Didi described Sambhaavnaa as an architectural experiment in “social idealism,” through which she wanted to establish that one could utilise age-old building traditions to generate something contemporary and mood-defining.

Defiled aesthetic

“Our post-Independence cities are so ugly,” lamented Didi towards the end of our conversation, pointing to how the modern globalised architectural movement in India had ushered in a disconnect between Indian traditions, Gandhian ideals, vernacular building practices and the realities of different regional geographies, with everything being built in cement and globalised similitude. Didi decried the predominance of cement, noting that cement factories and the baking of bricks are major sources of pollution.

The defiling of the vernacular aesthetic, said Didi, also equally characterises the pedagogy of architecture in India. “Our architecture colleges are only interested in churning out draughtsmen, just as schools are only interested in making babus .” There are hardly any thoughtful practitioners anymore.

Everyday magic

I looked at the kitchen-cum-living area where we were seated – a fine study in detail of everyday things, from pots and pans to books, rugs and bric-a-brac. “Atmosphere is created through details,” said Didi. “When you focus on the small, the good, large things effortlessly follow.”

As we wound up our long discussion, I congratulated her on the 2018 Nari Shakti Puraskar that was presented to her late last year — the nation’s highest civilian award recognising women’s work. At 90, Didi spends long hours insuring her legacy through writing and training young architects. Like her buildings, she remains deeply rooted to the hills and bound to the earth.

The writer has recently held research fellowships at LMU and Yale as a global and art historian, respectively.

This article was updated on July 08 to reflect some new information.

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