Thursday, September 10, 2009


In our quest for modernity, narrow streets and tiled houses with character in India’s smaller towns are losing out to a faceless mass of glass and concrete.
Meandering streets that organically weave their way into the natural topography. Row houses with tiled roofs and colonnaded verandahs. Waves gently lapping against fishing boats anchored alongside a towering lighthouse. What may seem like a nostalgic conjecture is in fact Bimilipatnam, a historic Dutch port settlement, 25 km from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Apart from being steeped in history and an extremely scenic locale, Bimilipatnam also harbours a sense of place with a social fabric where everyone seemingly knows everyone else and your neighbour is not someone you glance at on your way to work, but is almost extended family. Evolving lifestyles and new-age economics have, however, begun to affect irreversible changes in this quaint town. The tiled-roof and brick walls that once kept the house cool, today is seen as an element that cannot accommodate vertical expansion. The narrow winding street that once gave enclosure and character to the townscape today cannot accommodate a car. The first step towards overcoming these apparent shortcomings is to bring down the vernacular house and erect an apartment that can accommodate five times as many families or build a concrete independent house. Acquisition of a car demonstrates the unsuitability of the winding street and the family is driven to move to Visakhapatnam. This is not a dilemma that is specific to Bimilipatnam. It is a representation of hundreds of vernacular towns all over India.

Different destinations

The quasi ideal India of the picturesque postcard fame still lives in her villages. The real India has packed her bags and is making a beeline for the allure of modernity. With every passing day, more of our country is transforming into the faceless mass of glass and concrete we seem to have taken a fancy for. And the back-breaking brunt is borne by the generic Indian vernacular town. These towns are tangible seats of history, of experiences and images across time. They are a record of the evolutionary indigenous skills we have possessed and probably still do. While shifting to new technology does carry its share of convenience and makes practical sense, our ties with our roots are in danger of being severed with this shift. There are two categories of Indian historic towns that are threatening to become obsolete. The first, abandoned settlements stripped of continuity in time, hauntingly devoid of everyday life. The second, like Bimilipatnam, are palimpsests of sorts, trampled upon by the climb towards progress.

Examples of the former are the Chettinad villages in Tamil Nadu. Aesthetically resplendent and a contemporary exhibition of the lavish lifestyle of the Chettiyars, these villages are no doubt extraordinary examples of Indian architecture. But without the buzz of human activity, they are reduced to mere artifacts; visual treats with vivid imagery that lack soul. However, despite their quiescence, one can draw solace from the survival of these antiquities in the face of time. The settlements slotted in this category unfortunately belong to a disappointing minority. The reality of a larger percentage of small towns in India is harsher. Where once stood buildings firmly rooted to their context, that integrated climatic viability, social dictates, cultural content and aesthetic richness, today stand testimonies of our allegiance to an architecture, which albeit alien is now the norm. Humanity stacked one upon the other in apartments with their pretentious trimmings seemingly mocks at the 100-year-old, tile-roofed courtyard row house, valiantly fighting its losing battle. A parody is enacted through yet another set of buildings that masquerade as vernacular by merely sporting a pastiche tiled roof on a reinforced concrete slab.

What leads to the death of small towns? On the one hand are the economic and commercial angles like increasing land value, newer materials and techniques of construction available and new typologies of buildings that supersede traditional usage of space. When land is a scarce and highly valued commodity, it is not economically viable for a nuclear family of four to inhabit a house socially conceived for the joint family of 20. More efficient transport and communication no longer requires us to group ourselves into small, self-sustaining communities.
Cultural issues

On the other hand there is a more philosophical angle. One that calls for an examination of our value systems as a people, our changing definitions of status and progress, our changing patterns of social interaction (or the lack of it), our aspirations for ourselves and our vision for our future. Thiruvaiyaru, a historic town 13 km from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu demonstrates one such change in ascribed values. The hometown of Saint Thyagaraja, an exponent and one of the Trinity of Carnatic music, is best known for the Thyagaraja Aradhana held in memory of the saint each year. The musical procession begins from the house that the saint was born in and lived and died. About a year ago, the simple original brick vaulted structure was brought down and a three-storey building erected in its place that neither conveyed the feel of the original house nor was representative of the Saint in anyway. The sanctity attached to the very space where hundreds of the Saint’s immortal compositions were born was negated by a desire to indulge in a show of status and wealth. Where is the room for even a debate on value when sanctity can be measured in rupees?

After having generalised up to this juncture, the decline and subsequent need for conservation of these towns personally affects me through different sensibilities. That of a student of architecture in terms of their architectural content, that of a humanist in terms of respect for the history embedded in them and that of a citizen in terms of the collective national identity. However, there also occurs a dichotomy of sorts in my personal conviction. A guilt that is not completely unfounded makes its way into my voracious lobbying for the cause of the small town. A guilt that stems from my being a part of the very city that is swallowing up these towns. A guilt that cautions me against being prescriptive of solutions to preserve the small town, but rather accept the reality as inevitable. The guilt of an urban dweller looking wistfully at the small town and hailing its virtues from afar, while revelling in the luxuries that the city affords. But I quell this guilt by reasoning that absence indeed makes the heart grow fonder. Value is often emphasized by void.

“To know where we are going, we need to understand where we come from”.

Our roots are an inseparable component of our identity. With the erasure of our heritage towns, we are losing far more than just heritage buildings. We are letting go of a way of life, one that maintains the harmony with nature and fellow beings, which we started out with.

Our native identity is degenerating as fast as our traditional settlements. It is time we bolstered nostalgia with a little more retrospection.