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!