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Invisible Cities

Samrat Chakrabarti (chakrabarti.samrat@gmail.com) is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

Old houses and neighbourhoods are fast vanishing along with the architectural heritage of our cities and towns.


The art project forces one to regard identity and memory through old buildings
Artist credit: Chandrakala M. (between Mysore&Mysooru)

What is it about old houses that draws the eye, beckons the heart and excites the imagination? How is it that time weaves poetry on brick and stone?

An ongoing art exhibition in Mumbai’s Clark House gallery invites us to ponder these questions by turning our gaze to the architectural heritage of a city. Not the iconic grand buildings celebrated in tourist brochures, but rather the vulnerable, less regarded, and commonplace ones that frame the street and make the neighbourhood: bungalows, houses, shops and dwellings. In between Mysore & Mysooru, Shoaib Chadkhan has collaborated with local artists to create a project with a simple premise: old buildings considered as art objects. Rendered in the individual styles of the various participating artists and ranging in form from watercolours to photographic collages, the project captures an architectural charm that has a melancholic idyll that is discernible as belonging to a single place. 

It’s an interestingly strange experience to be asked to regard identity and memory through art where the protagonist is brick and stone. Many of the artworks are completely devoid of human figures and, where present, they are incidental to the scene, their vague features contrasting sharply with the detailed renderings of the buildings behind them. The effect is that they capture the exact feeling that comes about when we pass by a house that charms us with its picturesque vintage. Except, here, with these buildings being the subject of an artwork hung on a gallery wall, you are given the permission to dwell in that feeling, gaze keenly, and meditate on the scene before you. What unfolds is an affecting story that is as rich as the idea of home, place, belonging and lives lived. You are invited to consider how the seasons and plant life root the house, making it one with its surroundings; of how human habitation leaves behind trails that hint at the all-too-human stories that would have played out under an arch, behind a door, or along a corridor. One also begins to understand the aesthetics of decay; that time lends a humanising character to a building by making it less pristine, less homogeneous in the marks it leaves behind on its texture. 


 Could the charm of old houses come from the textural heterogeneity added by the seasons and human habitation?
Artist Credit: B. Brahmanand (between Mysore&Mysooru)

Apart from the aesthetic considerations, one is also struck by the architectural grammar of these buildings, and the neighbourhoods and streets they make up.  These buildings have a charm and beauty also because they speak of a time when our constructions had a sense of style and character. Together they make up an architectural heritage lending Mysore a distinctive identity that makes it Mysore rather than anywhere else. This brings us to the true melancholic heart of this project; it captures a Mysore that is soon vanishing. Many of these houses are gone, and the rest will soon follow. They stand in the way of Mysore’s march to becoming Mysuru: a rising economic star that dreams in cement boxes and glass facades in tropical weather, same as anywhere else. 


Many of the houses featured in the art works have already been torn down. Photo Credit: Priyanka Rego/between Mysore&Mysooru

This sense of loss—of heritage and identity, and the accompanying erasure of psychogeographies—is in the air. In another part of Karnataka, three recent architecture graduates, Suyash Khanolkar, Mohit Yalgi and Tanvi Dhond undertook a similar documentation-through-art project, titled Houses of Belgao. The project involved not just art, but an attempt to start a conversation around the need to protect Belgao’s (also known as Belgaum or Belagavi) vernacular architecture. It is an exhibition featuring illustrations of specific architectural elements unique to the old homes of Belgao (flooring patterns, mosaic, stone terraces, cast iron railings, etc), followed by workshops and panel discussions with citizens, city administrators and houseowners to sensitise them to the diverse architectural heritage of the city, which ranges from homes that are over 350 years old and colonial structures, to homes built in the 1920s. Here, too, like between Mysore & Mysooru, the project took flight from a sense of alarm at the pace of the change that is erasing the old urban landscape. Suyash says, “I think about 50% of the old houses are gone and whatever remains is mostly because of property disputes. Belgao is losing its identity. Why do you think the new extensions of cities all look the same?” Suyash calls it the decontextualised, homegenising imperative of global capital. What was once a big-city anxiety is now reaching our smaller towns and cities. 


Left: Built in 1914, 'Anand Bhuvan' stands amidst towering apartment blocks in an old part of Belgao. 
Right: Mosaic Tiling found in an old house in Belgao. Photo Credit: Cicada/Houses of Belgao


An interesting counterpoint to the erasure of our architectural heritage, is a hopeful, if tiny, cultural phenomenon. Powered by social media and, perhaps, a generational change in the outlook towards travel, young middle-class Indians are breaking out of their space bubbles to discover their city through heritage walks. They gather in groups to take walks along historic neighbourhoods and disregarded ruins, led by a knowledgeable guide informing the group of the sociocultural history of the place. It used to be young European backpackers who could be spotted on a cool winter’s day carrying a well-thumbed copy of Lonely Planet in the narrow bylanes of an old bazaar. Now, you see young Indians doing the same. 

Arunima Shankar was involved with Hyderabad Trails—the first organisation of its kind to conduct heritage walks in Hyderabad—in its early days. Educated as a conservation architect in Ahmedabad and inspired by Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University’s pedagogical approach of using the city as a learning lab, Arunima would wonder how she could help Hyderabadis build a deeper association with their city. Along with a friend, she started Hyderabad Trails. It quickly made a splash on Facebook and found an audience in young locals wanting to socialise in a new way while exploring their city. However, Arunima, keen to break out of an exclusively middle-class, English-speaking bubble, left Hyderabad Trails to co-found Akarmaa Foundation in Chennai. “I always wondered, what difference those walks made in terms of engagement with the city. I instead wanted to engage with people (outside that bubble) who can do small value additions.” Arunima now takes a multipronged approach to the challenge of getting people to engage with the heritage of their cities. For corporates looking for team bonding exercises between foreigners and Indians, she organises a treasure hunt, where groups race through the city looking for clues, that involves interactions with locals—like the caretaker of a dargah—and learning stories about the city. Then, there are heritage walks where Sufi singers accompany the group. But, the one she is most enthused about is her engagement with kids. “I discovered that slum kids connect with this stuff in completely different ways. When I ask them who built your city, they have no idea. They’ve never thought about it. Most of them haven’t even seen Charminar or the Qutub Shahi Tombs. The pressures of living mean that they don’t end up travelling out of their localities.” So, Arunima takes them on sketch walks: go to a heritage site and sketch what you see. Her big win came recently when she saw that one of her kids had gone back to a site, this time taking his family along to show them the things he had sketched. 

But, this is just a drop in the ocean. When the Belgao group held its sensitising workshop for homeowners of heritage houses, only a handful turned up. Vikas Urs, a Film and Television Institute of India graduate, has made a short film, Bhoomi (2012), on the houses of the historic “peth” areas of Pune, home to Victorian and Peshwa styles of architecture. He found the houseowners he met a despondent lot. Struggling to live, they are keen to move out and leave behind a life they feel mirrors the decay of the neighbourhood. 


The art project took off from a Facebook post about an old house being torn down by developers. The interest generated by the post put a temporary halt to the planned demolition. Photo Credit: Priyanka Rego/between Mysore&Mysooru

As we widen our roads to accommodate the new brash gods of the global marketplace, and erect shiny new temples of glass and cement to congregate in rituals of commerce and consumerism, we would do well to protect, conserve and, perhaps, revitalise those spaces of nostalgia and memory. If not for beauty, we should do this at least to avoid a future when, staggering out of our gated communities with exotic names, we find that the old gods have gone off without a word and taken with them, our identity.

and in any case the metropolis has the added attraction that, through what it has become, one can look back with nostalgia at what it was. Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

 

Updated On : 2nd Jun, 2018

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