A Japanese look at India

LAST WEEK, I was talking about 18th and early 19th Century Germans taking a look at Madras. Later in the week, I caught up with a Japanese who had also been taking a look at India - but during the last 30 years. Architect Takeo Kamiya translated that look into a book in 1996 and it was at the recent release of its English edition in Chennai that I caught up with what he had been looking at.

The title of the book is rather misleading in its all-encompassing nature: The Guide to the Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. In it, Kamiya looks at the whole panorama of ancient Indian monumental architecture, from cave sculpting to shrine building and mausolea raising, but pays scant attention to the Colonial contribution and none at all to what might be called `domestic architecture'. The result is a virtual heritage list of ancient public buildings, which his English language publisher, Gerard da Cunha, a Mumbai architect, calls the most complete list of such architecture he's come across.

Certainly documenting even this limited focus has been a monumental task. It began with a sabbatical in India that Kamiya took in 1976, following a Japanese practice of taking a look at your specialty abroad before settling into your business at home. But what fascinated him during that three-month visit made him come back again and again. And during the 17 visits that followed, he pursued a rigorous schedule fortified with tandoori chicken, butter naan and spring rolls "better than the Japanese". Blocking out his five zones of India into small squares, he photographed, measured and analysed every important monument in each square. Thus, there emerged the material for a book rich in photographs, architectural drawings and analyses.

Responsible for the English translation has been Geetha Parameswaran, who has rendered Rajnikanth's films into Japanese. She did the honours again at the release function organised by the Indian Institute of Architects (Tamil Nadu Chapter), where Kamiya pointed out that the biggest differences between Japanese and Indian public architecture was, one, the focus on painting in the former and sculpture in the latter, and, two, the use of space. The `framework architecture' of the Japanese enabled free creation of space and integration with the outdoors. In the subcontinent, whether it was `membranous architecture' or `cloistered architecture', space was always enclosed either by a dome in the case of the former or sculptured towers and walls in the latter.

It is in his favourite monument, the 15th Century Adinatha Jain Temple in Ranakpur, Rajasthan, that all three forms of architecture combine, creating the architectural experience he was most fascinated by in India. The South Indian monuments don't exactly score high with him in this context.


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