Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Notes from Nepal

I was in Kathmandu for about two weeks this July. While the trip was part of my day job and I worked with folks from our sister architecture studio in Kathmandu on all the weekdays, I also got to explore a few parts of the city and its life after work and during the weekends. Here are a few notes:

Soon after reaching there, I realized that there was something about the place that felt very similar to India. I just couldn't tell what yet. Some resolution happened over dinner and lunch with the folks at Himal, but most of these comparison-y impressions were colored only after some very interesting conversations I had with this one colleague, Bikash Dai. He is Nepali origin but had recently moved back after spending ten years in Germany. He could see his country and people from a distance and having also visited India recently, he could relate to this sense of familiarity that I was feeling. But Nepal was still distinctly different from India in telling ways and this kept getting more lucid through our conversations and my experiences over the fortnight.

For starters, much of the city and its buildings felt much like parts of Delhi, but just tinier by about 20 percent; the main roads, the streets that connected the buildings, the buildings, the staircases, the furniture. Sanepa and Jawalakhel (where I was staying) seemed much like plotted neighbourhoods in Delhi, but built only to perhaps half of what is considered full capacity here. Housing many embassies and international offices, the neighbourhood consequently houses a sizeable expatriate population and everything that comes with it (European bakeries, organic cafes and vegetable stores and usually lower population densities).

Also, in general, the city felt much easier to deal with in comparison to Delhi. I remember I felt like I had settled in fairly quickly. Everyday Breakfast was croissants and fresh mangoes. Workplace was fifteen minutes from my B&B by foot. The Studio was in the attic of a mixed use building that also housed an acupuncture therapist, a cosy casual dining Japanese restaurant and day care as well as a thrift sale counter selling second hand clothing, books and furniture. Lunch used to be the Nepali staple, daal bhaat tarkari, the staff meals at the Japanese restaurant that we shared.

The neighbourhood of Thamel felt quite like Janpath in the day and Hauz Khas Village at night, only much tamer. Most public places that I visited were anchored around temples and stupas. But despite the fact they were in use, these places were fairly religion neutral and very public. There would be men and women, young and old, sitting around or standing in groups and in pairs, and kids playing football. Much could be learnt from the way these common people appropriate their public places, the steps, the edges, etc.

Taking public transport in Kathmandu was harder than I had imagined. Cabs were pretty easy but expensive in comparison to the cost of everything else there. Then there were buses and mini buses and micro buses. While the easier part was to ask and getting (absolutely) stuffed into these vehicles, the difficult part was to get the conductors to understand where I wanted to get off. The more difficult part was to brave the Nadeem-Shravan grade of superhit bollywood music from the 90s, usually featuring Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan (the Nepali superstar), that bus loudspeakers would be blaring for hours together.

This bus confusion is what got me to enter the UNESCO world heritage site, the city of Bhaktapur from a gate that was diametrically opposite to the gate that most tourists are supposed to enter from. But what a fortunate accident did it turn out to be! Here I saw everyday life unfold. Young and old women and men were selling vegetables and  fruits, knitted garments, footwear,  juju dhau among other dairy products in little shops along very neat brick lined streets. The old folk were sitting about and smoking cigarettes in elevated brick pavilions overlooking humble public squares. All of this was being played out with spectacularly finished brick and timber buildings in the background. Also in the back lanes were timber and terracotta craftsmen who had been able to successfully sustain their traditional craft practices over the years. The place seemed to be frozen in time; not just its buildings but also its indigenous people. Conservation seemed like a very constructive and active word here.

I only wish I had stayed in Bhaktapur for longer and drawn more. But I had to come back and attend an architects’ talk about the future of Nepali cities. Interestingly (or not, actually), the whole event was conducted in the Nepali language, the presentations as well as the discussion that followed. For the time that I had zoned out during the event, I was thinking (hard) about the last time that I had attended anything in India that was in Hindi or a regional language. 

 I made my way to the Patan Darbar Square about four times during the trip. There was something really magnetic about this whole place, the main street that was lined by the main face of a 16th century palace of the Malla kings and a host of temples were sprinkled on the plaza facing the palace wall. The palace is now converted into a museum but the temples are still in function. However, what is interesting that this urban space is used and appropriated extensively by the people, with little functional or historical baggage. There were people old and young, local and travellers, sitting around on the raised platforms edging the buildings and chatting and smoking, playing football, eating ice cream. On could also hear prayer songs and temple bells in the background and also an occasional wedding procession with people dancing to the latest bollywood songs played by a brass band.

It appeared that this disassociation of the architecture from its function had helped people build new relationships with the place. The temple wasn’t trying to enforce what must be done right outside its boundary, or what is possibly a breach of the sanctity of the place. There were barriers for controlled passage of cars but there were no boundary walls. There was also no major vandalism that I saw. There was also no aggressive street vendors/ hawkers. The street was public and open and free and inviting. And nothing was claiming this public space more than the other, especially the architecture. These heritage buildings were just the backdrop to see urban life unfold. It made me think about our heritage structures in Delhi and what would happen if the city opened its monuments to its people in a true sense. What are we scared of?

I borrowed and rode Bikash dai's mountain bike to the tiny town of Kirtipur and the Taudaha Lake on one of my last days in Kathmandu. Of course, I died several times during this day trip riding uphill, sparing a moment or two to think about how unhealthy our city lives were and how we’re actually going to die very soon. Twenty minutes of cycling and I was in the middle of wilderness with spectacular views of the valley. The air was light and cold but still smelt of pollution.

I made friends with 9 year old David, Sujen and Dilsan at my first drawing spot in Kirtipur and they agreed to take me around from then on. We walked to the Bagh Bhairav Mandir, two versions of which we drew together. I was surprised to realize how the kids read and drew the line work of the temple while I looked at the planes at play. Then they took me the Uma Maheshwar temple and narrated to me old and new stories about the temple and the town. From here, one could see the massive urban magnet that Kathmandu was becoming and also imagine the powerful position that Kirtipur would have enjoyed once.

Thirty minutes away was the Taudaha Lake. It seemed like a proper local tourist spot that families and couples flock. The main thing for tourists to do here was to buy fish food from these women planted all around the lakeside and feed the fish in the lake. I lay the bike to rest by a stone wall and began to draw. Interested first in the bike but soon in my brush pens were six year old Sangam and Sarthak. They helped me with some water from the lake and also with some little fish from the lake that they brought for me as a present.  I was surprised to find them clueless when I asked them whether they had been to Kathmandu. They said that the had never heard of Kathmandu. Then they told me that they knew about Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and the Netherlands. In no time, they had guessed that I was from India. As soon as they figured, the first thing they asked me was whether CID was for real! They were also singing Yo-Yo Honey Singh songs this whole while. Our conversation left me puzzled but equally amused on many levels. 

The trip was a good mix of everyday routine work and wandering. With its relatively easy lifestyle, Kathmandu seemed like a good place to move to, for work. Within days of living and working there, I actually got in the groove of the place and felt like I could do this for a long time without getting restless. Bikash dai's analogy summed it pretty well for me, "A lot of Nepal is much like India, just minus the steroids."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Interview with Gaurav (Jai) Gupta

I was a pretty clueless child 5 years ago. I did not know jack shit about design and fashion (I wasn't supposed to either, but still). In my three weeks at the studio, I would spend time just looking at these beautiful AKAARO scarves at the studio and then watching this craftsman make similar stuff on a hand loom in the workshop just across the central courtyard. Gaurav’s studio was a rectangular room behind a deep verandah. The high ceiling was supported on metal beams and lined with stone slabs, all painted white. Half the studio was a display area and the other half was the work space. Once in the three weeks, I helped with moving the stuff around in the studio, to see if the reworked layout was more efficient (the architecture student that Iwas). Gaurav was pretty patient with me hovering around and also with my seemingly stupid questions. Here are a few notes from our conversation, jotted down in a ruled ‘classmate’ notebook, with a felt tip pen in June, 2009.


Tell me a little bit about textiles (Yeah, this is exactly how clueless I was!)

Alright, see, just in the way the human skin is to protect our internal organs from external changes and respond to them, clothing is the second skin and a shelter/enclosure can be the third skin. So depending on the need/ function one explores textiles and how they can be made. Textiles also make visual barriers (And I’m thinking buildings already, pftt.)

So intersections with architecture? 

They happen as they are required. With cave dwellings were also tents, remember?! There are tensile fabrics used for temporary and light weight roofs, tri-axial fabrics used for aerospace projects and of course in, fabrics in interior spaces for covering or dividing space. It is easy to get a sense of enclosure with textiles.

With your background in textile design, I see lots of interesting explorations with material. Tell me about how you work with them?

Yeah, there are natural materials like wool, cotton, silk. Now I have been exploring stainless steel as a material for my weaves. With new materials are new possibilities of exploring volumetric and the feel of fabrics. Also, properties like breathability, usability, opacity and stiffness have the possibility of being rethought. While natural fabrics usually have a timeless, organic quality, fabrics from newer materials could perform better for specific uses.

There is the interesting structural quality to the fabrics I see here. Where does this aesthetic come from?

My sense of aesthetic comes from the way I see beauty in the world around me. The expression is usually minimal, muted and engineered. I think a lot of how we think and produce through design comes subconsciously from our upbringing and experiences. I grew up in this very organized, dimly lit environment. There were parks and playgrounds by they were all rectilinear. I feel this memory growing up has translated into my ideology of thinking structure, frame and engineering. The colour palette has always been muted.

My work doesn't seem striking in the first look I think. Nothing is popping out for attention. The richness of the content is in the detail that has gone into making of the fabrics and the garment. You have to look closer.

What would you say your key inspirations are?

Urbanity and its repetition; Urban Chaos and perhaps the sadness that comes with it. I also find deep inspiration in Issey Miyake and Japanese and Scandinavian design.

This engineered pattern making I feel is quite far from at least how I had perceived Indian textiles for all this while. I always think of Indian textile and I think of colour and embroidery. So your work is not literally Indian, but there is something in it that still feels very much like contemporary India.

Yes, it has happened before that buyers have not been able to completely figure what they described as an inherent sense of warmth in my fabrics. It is this soul that they said makes my work feel Indian. Some said that the Indian-ness comes naturally and intuitively in the spatial arrangement of patterns and their scale. The look is engineered, but the feel is handmade.

Hmm, I guess it is the handmade quality that must make it warmer!

Absolutely! There is a certain humane organic quality of the hand loom that cannot be replaced with the power loom. On the power loom, set patterns are fed onto the computer and they are just repeated. On the hand loom, even though the work is much slower, the possibilities of modifications and innovation right in the middle of the process are possible, because you work directly with the craftsman. In that sense it saves time and resources majorly. Also, the hand loom being labour intensive also retains traditional livelihoods.


I figured he was a (pretty kickass) textile designer who was then beginning to explore garments. Also, I could figure that this was someone working very closely with the idea of crafting.

Interview with Priya Seth

In my three weeks at the studio, I spent a good chunk of time observing Ceramist Priya Seth work curiously and chatting with her, and trying my hand at pottery. Her work space was a deep verandah overlooking the central open space in the studio. There was a kiln, a couple of pottery wheels, some finished pieces and works in progress just lying around, and a dark and dry room the stored the many glazes and bags of clay she would use. The arched colonnade walls were painted blue. It would be HOT outside, but it felt much better under the fan. Soft spoken and patient, she would be on the potter’s wheel for hours at a stretch. It was the first time that I had met someone so engaged (almost meditatively so) in their craft and honing it further with practice. Here are bits from our conversation, jotted down in a ruled ‘classmate’ notebook, with a felt tip pen in June, 2009.


How do you conceive your ceramics pieces?

Mostly, everything I make is utilitarian. The motive comes from the clients’ need and the intention comes from my interpretation of these wants. The skill of craftsmanship that is brought in by the maker of these pieces is what makes them delightful.

Your association with your material is very hands on. What is the relationship of the creator and the raw material in the case of a ceramist? What is it for you?

Just as in furniture or textile design, the material is a crucial part of the process. With ceramics this relationship is even more interesting because the material (both clay and glaze) keeps changing little by little all the time! There are pretty much no standards. Every batch of clay sacks and glazing material is a little different from the other so the results are never the same.

So with experience, one gets a better sense of how the experiments are going to hopefully turn out. Only once you are attuned to the nature of your material can you explore further and have fun!

Tell me a little about your materials and process?

I use stone clay whose readymade sacks I order. Any clay can’t be directly used for pottery and needs to be prepared, where the water and air balance is made. Preparation of clay is another form of art altogether. We’ll not get into that for now.

There are three common processes usually; sculpting by hand, throwing clay on the wheel and slip casting. I use the throwing technique most often (on a manually operated wheel, where one has to keep kicking a parallel wheel at the bottom to make the pottery wheel spin). This is obviously slower than the casting process, but then, every piece is handmade and is imperfect. That adds an organic quality to the pieces.

What is your design ideology while making these pieces?

While utility is the starting point for the pieces, I try to bring innovation through the technique of production. I try to spend more time experimenting with shapes and glazing mixes and methods on the wheel rather than conceptualizing on the sketchbook. Aesthetic decisions are mostly intuitive.

Some of the recent pieces emerged just out of exploration on site. We attempted a BIG vessel that was fired in an earth dug pit. It’s interesting that the parts that we joined to make the piece are articulated in the finished piece. So you get a sense of how it was made. I also made these pebbles to see if these could ever come close to smooth river stones.

How has your education informed your work?

A few years ago, one of my teachers said this to me it has stuck with me since, “After you’ve understood the basics, you have to constantly keep unlearning whatever you’ve learnt to keep fresh at your craft.”

I studied ceramics in the UK and found much of my unlearning when I came back to India and began practicing. I chose to engage with local potters here, whom I would often observe for hours just to understand how they would do things. This collaborative learning has been very fruitful too.

Your process tells me about the need to be learning from local knowledge. Tell me a little about the position of the Indian potter in today's time.

The Indian Kumhar has in most cases inherited his craft but has often ended up being forced by the demand of the market. Uses terracotta usually and fires in the pit that often results in brittle pieces as the pit fire never reaches maximum temperatures high enough to impart strength to the pieces. The market does not demand innovation in the product and is also not too benevolent with the time it gives to produce. As a result, the situation produces potters who are extremely quick and efficient but still inherit invaluable ancestral information about vernacular techniques and methods. If given some space and time and catalysts, their scope of application is enormous.

Tell me a little about the history and context of studio ceramics in India?

Studio ceramics was brought to India by Sardar Gurcharan Singh sometime in the 1960s. The profession and has yet to catch the eyes of the masses. People who have been able to formally study and explore pottery in a studio are usually not so hard pressed on time to make money. They can afford to seriously invest in exploring themselves and their artistic expression. They develop their aesthetic and with better exposure are able to see their work in a wider context.

So the intersection of the two practices is the next step!

Yeah! Now it appears more obvious than how one perceives the equation from a distance. The Kumhar and ceramist can come together, learn and mutually benefit to make the practice richer in terms of the process and also its contextualization.

Do you also see intersections between ceramics and architecture? (Well, I had just entered architecture school after all, was studying to be an architect proper! I had to force connections!)

Well, in one way, buildings are like big sculptures that have a form that affects the people who use it and the people around it. The sense of aesthetic, I guess is common to both streams. There are, of course, big pieces of ceramics that are used in buildings to articulate/decorate some spaces. The work of Ray Meeker also comes to mind who designed and executed the Agni Jata- the house that was constructed and then fired to become a large, strong piece of ceramic! Also, there have been buildings like the India International Centre where ceramics have been an integral part of the building, in the floor tiles and jaalis.


Among other interesting (inspiring) things, she told me that working on clay is like sending it to school. The clay is adaptable so it better be in good hands!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Meandering in a Studio

Pictures from the Asola Studio 

This is a little big moment. I am bringing closure to something that has been pending for five years now. However, this delay was not completely because of my laziness (or so I would like to believe). This experience really changed the way I saw the practice of architecture and that of design and their intersections. It opened my mind and prompted me every summer since 2009 to take up something that was necessarily outside or at least on the edge of the purview of architecture proper.I waited five years to publish this perhaps because I wanted to see for myself if it had made a difference. And it had.

So this is from five summers ago, when I called an architect family friend of mine, Shruti tai soon after my first year juries to suggest some ‘constructive engagement’ for a couple of weeks. She told me that I could call industrial designer Mike Knowles, go to his studio workshop and just look around. This is exactly what I did and there I was, for about three weeks. I would show up every day and just walk around and read and watch curiously. To explore was the interior and furniture design practice of Preeti and Mike Knowles (it was then called inLiving, is now called the Hidden Gallery), and the studios of ceramist Priya Seth and textile and apparel designer Gaurav (Jai) Gupta.

This place was very different from at least all that I had seen in my first year of architecture education. In this farmhouse compound were single storey brick buildings that housed workspaces and workshops and display areas. The place really felt like a small factory and warehouse, only positively so. Some ceilings were lined with metal girders and stone slabs while the others were sloping metal sheets with an inner (tent-like) white fabric lining. Also, all people who worked out of here were actually conceptualizing, executing samples and retailing out of the same common space! ‘Pretty local and sustainable’ is all that my little mind thought to itself back then.

But more importantly, another thing my mind was thinking about was how clueless I was of what I was supposed to do in these three weeks. Having barely begun to warm up to the idea of a design brief, this was as open ended as they get. Mike explained to me what he imagined I could do at the studio. Go around, observe, ask, explore and understand how these work together and what each of these mean to story of contemporary design in India. We never decided on how these observations would be documented, much to my convenience. 

So here are some conversations with Priya Seth and Gaurav (Jai) Gupta from June 2009.

In my time at the studio, what I was subconsciously learning was how these diverse designers were learning from each other by the sheer virtue of sharing their space. I have since believed firmly in the power of cross disciplinary collaboration and how much it can enrich us as people and designers.

Some of the work that Preeti and Mike create and curate: 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

little music

I’m at this cozy basement studio/theatre for a gig. It has a carpeted floor and cushions for seating, the walls of one end of the room are lined with strips of wood and its floor is raised slightly.  The room is filled with some of the finest musicians in the city of Delhi, who are pretty much performing for each other tonight. Towards the end, there is a point in the concert when almost half of the audience rises up to join the singers’ choir. They dedicate this last song to a very special person in the room.  There is a sense of warm excitement in the air. Just before starting, Chayan Adhikari (Advaita frontman and also the conductor of this choir) turns to the bassist (who is hidden behind this big bunch of singers) and says, “Zara saa toh doh!” (musician friends, help me translate this for the folks who are not familiar with Indian classical music!)

This is the Global Music Institute hosting their first Singers’ Night. Arguably, one of finest schools of music in Delhi, GMI also frequently turns into a venue that hosts spectacular music performances and jams usually with about forty people snugly sitting in as audience. Everyone in the room has come there pretty much just for good live music. However, what one experiences is much more than just music played live. There is the energy that emerges out of sincere playing and attentive, active listening.

The air that night was filled with little unspoken conversations happening on stage and in between, the exchanging of cues and glances, the changing body of language and expressions on when special moments were felt. And the air was filled with ease. I was happy to hear some of my most favourite musicians playing some of my favourite songs. But I was happier to have experienced live music the way I did that day, free of distractions, free of chatter and of food and drinks.

On little afterthought, I realized that even in the past, the gigs that I have absolutely loved the most have been free performances at public venues like the India Habitat Centre, especially the ones by the Balani brothers. Perhaps it was the comfortable scale of this GMI event that it took me a few weeks to completely get over that gig.


Last week, I went for the launch of singer song writer Shantanu Pandit’s EP, Skunk in the Cellar. Anyway in the heat of June, what one could safely assume as off season for the music scene in Delhi, I remember feeling a little repulsed with this whole deal about email pre registrations and this quiet (almost secretive) build up to the event. The gig started at 9 PM and there was a lady at the main entrance checking for registrations. In the narrow lobby were CDs and artwork posters but also a tray with glasses of water and a bowl of candy. Another polite lady at the door to the theatre told us at least 2 times to switch off our phones and remain very quiet.

The warnings, however, were well worth the final little walk through a dimly lit narrow passage into the heart of the very charming Akshara Theatre. One entered at the aisle between the steeply rising audience’s seating and the performers, who today were two lanky (for the lack of a better word) boys in their happy place (for the lack of a better phrase). I had heard the songs on the EP online for a couple of days before the event. But I remember having no memory of them once I heard them live. Of course, listening to them now takes me back to that rather tiny seat in the theatre and that good feeling.
Minimal but full sounding, the songs were melancholic but charming. And so was the tone of the night. The sound, the lighting, the setting seemed like they were all deliberately chosen to add to the experience of the music. One needed this setting for these songs to be heard. And one needed this audience.


Post gig conversations with musician friends tell me that more and more musicians have forever been craving for venues and event where they could be really heard and they could make conversation with their listeners. And it would also be true that this artiste-audience connection is easier to establish for singer songwriters, duos and trios whose music would sound better at venues of a smaller scale. What’s heartening is that Delhi is warming up to the idea of these intimate public performances, or perhaps just that I am waking up to them only now (and they’ve been happening all along, have they?).

On July 4, Delhi based artist, architect and singer-songwriter Aditi Veena will be sharing some of her work in progress on the her new solo project 'Mumblings on the impressioned interactions with four charming monsieurs in the life of ditty’. Through visuals and sound, her performance would explore the spatial and experiential relationships between the audience and artists. I am going because for this mostly because I am curious to know what this former sentence would mean in practice. You could find the details for the event here

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The View from the Window

For the past few months, I have been doing the lights (turning them on and off on the console, really) for the Design x Design Exposé events that are hosted by Allliance Francaise de Delhi and Studio iF once every two months. It gives me the chance to be part of some of the back end processes of the events but also to experience it from the projection room. I can see the proceedings and sense the developments but I'm still not there, really. But then I get this wide window ledge of the projection room to leisurely place my notebook and the sketching paraphernalia and stretch out and listen and draw and write.

While I am drawing, I am disengaged from experiencing the conversation first hand, and seeing it unfold in front of my eyes as a spectator. I still cannot decide if I dislike more the fact that I cannot ask any questions during the discussions, or feel happy and privileged that I get the space and luxury to absorb and draw from an almost external perspective.

It is live sketching but it almost feels like it isn't. 

Here, are notes from the last event held on May 29 featuring Srishti Bajaj/Designbait and Plural Design+ Oracles Landscape.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Notes from B.Town (Day 2)

Moving out of the old city proper, I travelled to explore some of the suburbs of Mumbai. Starting at the Marine Drive, I went to the Banganga tank in Walkeshwar, the mills of Lower Parel and then to Bandra and Pali Hill. I was surprised to see that many Gymkhana Maidans along the Marine Drive do not have any boundary wall facing the main street; made the urban open space feel larger, more public.

I vividly remembered my last visit to the Banganga tank and wanted to relive the experience of this urban oasis, introspective and calm; as much beyond the city as it is inside it. The neighbourhood reminds me of the ruins of Hampi, ancient and oh-so-stable, as though it is going to remain exactly the same for another hundred years. The temples become the social anchor to the tank, holding the essence of the place together in all the bustle and transformation of the city.

Lower Parel was quite a surprising mix of the old and the intervened, with many fluid and elegant multi-storey glass buildings abutting grimly old low lying neighborhoods. This was a story of aggressive urban transformation, that I think would have had equally powerful social consequences. While rehabilitated people occupied humble four storey housing with hand painted signage; offices, stores and meeting rooms occupied the the glass towers. I then went to the Mathuradas Mill Compound, my taxi cab driver told me that most of these towers were built on mill compound sites that would have looked much like this at one point. I did sneaky tours of a few places and finally planted myself at the very pleasant Cafe Zoe. While all of the internal adaptive reuse was interesting indeed, these establishments just felt very disconnected from their setting, almost oblivious and opaque. It felt like the city had here been reduced to architecture, buildings in cement and steel and was then worked with, just formally and spatially. This was quite different to all that I had observed the previous day, but in some way very familiar (almost similar to a lot of Delhi).

I then went Bandra to meet my architect friend Pallavi who took me around Bandra. Lunching at the maze like Candies, we walked to the village of Chuim. Starkly different from the intense urban villages of Delhi, this was pleasant and quaint. Pallavi told me the villagers here were well to do but more importantly content with their peaceful lives. Walking past a few cool studios we came across this partly hidden funky signage to the Hive. Curious much, we walked in to find ourselves in the middle of this inspiring and engaging place that hosted coworking, independent events, workshops, classes for village children, a cafe and a sea of possibilities on their spacious terrace. The discovery excited and inspired me at many levels. How much does the Hive owe to its setting? Are there places like this in Delhi? How can I help sustain these creative projects?

The following visit to the Ranwar village only made many of these questions clearer. Walking across the main bazaar street selling fresh fruit and vegetables and everyday things we reached the neighborhoods that housed quaint cafes and street art. It was pleasant and pedestrian in a very good way. There were many people and houses rich and poor; young and old, but essentially ordinary and comfort. The place was eventful but not intense, it was comfortable. It made me wonder how the urban villages of Delhi became so intensely overused and abused, as hotbeds of volatile rental real estate and repurposed architecture disconnected with its neighboring social fabric?

And still every inch of urban space felt utilized skillfully and defined. Later that evening in front of Salman Khan’s home, Pallavi and I talked about this thrifty spirit everywhere in the city. She told me it came from how perhaps everyone comes to Bombay and struggles for a few years, working really really hard and only then does life become a little comfortable. It is not embarrassing to have less money. It is not embarrassing to travel on local trains and buses. It is ordinary life and there are many more people living this ordinary life, sharing public space and transport. How does this compare with Delhi? The metro has made so much of a difference but has it?

I clearly have to spend more time to figure out and visit many more places in Mumbai and Delhi. Crawford Market, Kala Ghoda, Dharavi, Versova, Thane and many many more places are still left to do. Do let me know if you have any recommendations/ suggestions or any starting points of answers to some of these questions.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Notes from B.Town (Day 1)

I went to explore the older parts of Mumbai on the first day, Bombay. Starting from what was possibly the first establishment of Colaba, the Sassoon Dock, I went to Fort, Yazdani Bakery, Horniman Circle, and stopped at Brittannia Bakery in Ballard Estate for lunch. The air mostly felt dense, almost suffocating at places that were not ventilated. While the fish, sea food, flower and everyday goods market by the Sassoon dock became one of the most (overwhelmingly) memorable sensations of this trip, walking through the busy markets into the bylanes of Bhuleshwar with signage reading in many many locally spoken languages made me got me closer to the city’s real diversity and its cultural intersections.
Most of the wandering on the first day made me feel like Mumbai was far more urban than Delhi was and had been a mature and bustling centre of urbanity for much longer than Delhi has. It was thriving with density and diversity, with its people, shops and transactions. Walking through the Fort and Ballard Estate area, with most buildings dating back to the 19th and early 20th century colonial lineage, there was this sense of comfort for the human scale. The formal building edge, the generous footpath and the sufficiently wide road seemed to really make it comfortable for people and also impressively accommodate for the many cars of present times. The synergy felt deliberate.

In Dhobi Talao and Bhuleshwar, the expression on Old Parsi and Gujarati owned buildings changed to become more localized. The street grew tighter (and busier but organized) and the neighbourhood felt a lot more intervened upon and contemporary. The teleporting threshold of the big Krishna temple under renovation at Bhuleshwar felt suspended between the busy transactional hub and the temple courtyard that humbled you amidst other old Gujarati women and men. This un-urbane nucleus was at the centre of all of this city and yet quite outside it.

The city had this amazing intensity that came from its efficient and thrifty use of the available urban space. Seating created by buildings, shop fronts, places for plants, the edge of the sidewalk, the entrances to buildings, large urban doors that could be opened only partly to work like smaller windows. Bademiya in Colaba surprised me and inspired me. It actually manifests itself in a way that the main kitchen and seating area separated by the main street! So it functions as a take-away and a dine in restaurant with the service circulation being its most public access. Among other things, this also got the centrestage to the food. I often miss this efficiency in Delhi where I see tonnes of public space wasted because it is left unclaimed or undefined.