'Vernacular Architecture of India: Traditional Residential Styles & Spaces' book review: Homeward Bound

Despite the flimsy text, its stunning photographs make this book a valuable archive of Indian architecture
 A Chettiar vernacular house in Tamil Nadu.
A Chettiar vernacular house in Tamil Nadu.

PWhen the new Capital complex was coming up in Delhi’s Raisina Hill, the India Society was formed in London to study Indian culture “in all its aesthetic aspects” as “Indian art has an unbroken tradition of design and craftsmanship handed down from antiquity”. This is an extract from an India Society representation in November 1910, which is relevant to our times too: “It is unfortunately the case that owing to the spread of European fashions among the English-educated classes in India, and to departmental procedure in placing a high premium upon the work of designers and craftsmen who merely imitate the commercial art of modern Europe, the number of master builders is steadily diminishing and the quality of their work is diminishing…”

This plain-speaking report is added towards the end of Vernacular Architecture of India: Traditional Residential Styles and Spaces, a thumping book by Tejinder Singh Randhawa, featuring lush analogue colour photographs of traditional dwellings, both humble huts and magnificent palaces. These images appropriate almost every inch of its 544 pages. The colour photographs are supplemented by sepia images of grand havelis and dharamshalas in Delhi, Rajasthan and Gwalior that were part of the India Society report. Those expecting the book to be a comprehensive compendium—going by its title and avoirdupois—are, however, likely to be disappointed.

A chaukat—earthquake-resistant timber-bonded four-storeyed house—in Uttarakhand
A chaukat—earthquake-resistant timber-bonded four-storeyed house—in Uttarakhand

The author, who also took all the photographs, save the superb monochromatic ones from the Archaeological Survey of India and India Society, is a former IAS officer, and he seems to have gone trigger happy, so to speak, wherever he was posted, and also in the peripheral regions of the areas under his administration. So, the focus of his photographs is confined to regions that were accessible to him; he turned a blind eye to those that weren’t. There is, therefore, a redundancy of images from Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab (Randhawa’s native place), Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Goa; of the delightfully hybrid character of the homes of the Bohra community; of remnants of tribal homes of Andaman and Nicobar islands; and of Kashmir and remote monasteries and habitats in Ladakh. But, we see precious little of Shahjahanabad or Old Delhi, Varanasi, Lucknow, Kolkata and Odisha, the latter with its rich legacy of traditional architecture made of laterite stone and mud. And, Randhawa seems to have forgotten Bihar altogether, although that state, thanks to its relative poverty, still boasts an abundance of mud hutments with thatched roofs and adjoining grain stores.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, the photographs certainly form a valuable archive accessible to the interested public, since, as is mentioned in the beginning, they were taken a “long time” ago, and many of these houses have already disappeared. The appalling indifference of successive governments at the Centre to our built heritage adds to their value. The photographs are, indeed, uniformly well composed, and dwell both on the larger picture and the intricate and exquisite detailing. Some of the splendid chiseled woodwork and stone carvings lavished on functional structures of extant buildings in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Karanataka are a tribute to the skills of our carpenters, stone carvers and artisans, who have, sadly lost their touch because their artistry is no longer in demand.

A house in Bhubaneswar, Odisha
A house in Bhubaneswar, Odisha

Randhawa waxes eloquent about the Bangladar roof forms that appeared in the royal architecture of the Rajputs and the Mughals. The sloping dome-shaped roofs with drawn-down corners of huts in Bengal are said to be the inspiration behind them. These roofs were made of straw or reed and they have all but disappeared even from remote villages of Bengal as cheap concrete jerry buildings that are unsuitable for our climes are on the wish list of all Indians, irrespective of their spending power. The impact of these images could have been stronger had the layout not corseted them. They desperately need to exhale.

Sadly, the text does not match the high quality of the images. It is flimsy and lacks substance. The images of particular buildings are seldom supported by details of their origin and history. In the pages on Kashmir, there is no mention of the exodus of Pandits, who were forced to abandon their homes. There is little evidence of the use of the blue pencil. Why else would Kolkata be spelt with a double ‘t’? Grammatical errors are another irritant. The Bengali for a house with a courtyard is not rajbari, which means king’s house. Perhaps, Randhawa bit off more than he could chew. Awareness of one’s limitations is a rarity.

Vernacular Architecture of India: Traditional Residential Styles & Spaces

By: Tejinder S. Randhawa

Publisher: Architecture Autonomous

Pages: 540

Price: Rs 4,500

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