A hearty lunch of mustard-laden fish, vegetables and rice, topped with fresh kaccha gola, welcomes me in Shantiniketan at my hosts’ home. Soon after, I nearly succumb to the temptation of a siesta but am shaken out of my semi-slumber when I find there is no way to lock my bedroom door, or even close the window. I am apprehensive but my fatigue is getting the better of me so I keep my questions for later.
I am intrigued by this purposeful design, not knowing it is only the tip of the iceberg here at Shantiniketan. I learn later that living without locks is not just the way this house has been designed but the very philosophy that painter-architect Bidyut Roy and his wife, ceramic artist Lipi Biswas, live by.
Residents of Shantiniketan for over 20 years now, Bidyut and Lipi’s home has grown in an organic way. Bidyut began his labour of love in the late 80s, and kept adding to it over time. He didn’t plan much; it all came from his heart naturally, pretty much like most of his work, and his house is nothing but an extension of this artistic expression.
Lipi’s arrival in 1995 added more elements to the house. Branching off from painting, she moved to pottery, and they added a lovely attic studio and a storefront to their place.
A lush foliage of bamboo, palm, neem, passion fruit, guava, banana, and elephant apple screens off the various units in the house and gives it the feel of a sanctuary. The use of local material and plenty of earthy elements aid cross ventilation and keep the house naturally cool even in the summer. There are plenty of open spaces and largely floor seating, designed such that it makes anybody and everybody feel at home.
The most unique element though is the ‘transparency’ in the house: from the aesthetic hollows in the studio and kitchen walls to the skylights connecting the main bedroom and guest rooms to the, hold your breath, bathroom with no lock (a light inside works as a signal of its occupancy).
“We dislike the concept of lock and keys because we are very transparent people who don’t like to hide anything. Be it our work, life, emotions or relationships, it is out there in all its starkness,” says Lipi.
But what about safety from a woman’s perspective, I ask. “I grew up in Patna, so being fearless was the only way to be. I also practised karate, and grew up with the notion that we must be our own protectors, an idea I have instilled in our daughter Muni as well,” she says as I peer at a perfectly fired ceramic dish on display which she explains is a Chinese chicken-stew pot.
From conventional learning to finding her own style, it has been a long journey for Lipi. Breaking away from painting, her introduction to pottery began with her initiation into Santhali culture. She made clay dolls with children from the Santhal village nearby, learnt their language and way of life before briefly studying pottery at Sriniketan, then moving on to learning from master potters in Thailand and France.
A far longer journey, however, has been in leading a life that defies convention. Are they not scared of someone breaking in? “What is there to steal anyway? What we have all comes from the earth and will merge into it eventually,” says Bidyut. With that, he goes back to his little sketch pad, drawing bold strokes in black ink that follow instinct and not pattern, much like himself.
Bidyut is a man of few words but whatever little he says leaves you with enough food for thought. A painter at heart, Bidyut learnt mural artistry from famous artist K.G. Subramanyam and incorporated his teacher’s thoughts into his own aesthetics. Using his knowledge of murals, he branched into architecture but the influence of the former is evident in all that Bidyut builds; his works look more like a painting than plain structures.
The duo never takes on too much work, just enough to keep their thrifty lives going. If we run after money, when will we create art, they reason. Despite that, this is a house of plenty. There is always an entourage of people coming in and going out, starting early in the morning when neighbourhood craftsmen come in for a cup of tea. Senji, a beautiful Santhali girl, begins her morning chores, lifting the shital paatis or traditional cane mats off the floor and sweeping the place. The open sitting-cum-dining room is the hub of creative gatherings with Bengali-speaking Japanese artists, French furniture designers, Baul musicians, and other long-term residents dropping in to discuss design, art, and life, over a cup of coffee or a meal.
Senji and Muni snicker over private jokes as they lay the spread, often prepared by Bidyut. Puku, the brazen black kitten starts mewing for fish, which he finally gets once the meal is done. This is not just a house of plenty but also one of inclusivity.
Come evening, I move with my cup of laal cha to the store. A gentle breeze blows outside, and my thoughts are interrupted by the soft fall of dry leaves on my shoulders. I look up once again to marvel at the beauteous crape myrtle growing right through the heart of this pretty pottery store and admire not just the way this place has been designed but also what it represents. A house shouldn’t be something that locks you in, Bidyut had said. This one opens up minds.
Born and brought up in the Himalayas, the writer is an adventurer who derives great joy from napping under the mountain sun.