A country that allows its craftsmen to die, is going to die soon: Architect Miki Desai

For 40 years, Ahmedabad-based architect and retired professor of CEPT University, Miki Desai, travelled across India and South Asia to document sustainable architecture. Desai, 72, was in Delhi last week for his exhibition “From My House to Your House: A Select Journey of Indian Vernacular Architecture (Lok-Sthapatya)”, with 5,000 photographs, diagrams, and a playing-card deck, that highlighted the fast-disappearing aspects of sustainable “vernacular” architecture. Desai also spoke of the “intricate, structural carpentry” of Kerala’s temple architecture, which he delves deeper into in his recent book, Wooden Architecture of Kerala (Mapin Publishing). Excerpts:

What is vernacular architecture?

The pure definition, adhered to by many, is architecture done without architects. It is also where people themselves have made the buildings (village mud-houses, with local material); we are talking about craftsmen doing the buildings, but at the same time, the idea of architecture as a profession doesn’t exist. What exists are guilds, like carpenters’ guild, that constructs the buildings. Thus, it is a collaborative effort of craftsmen, rather than of a professional. Call them indigenous, instead of vernacular. What’s important is not the terminology, but what’s happening within it.

What took you to Kerala?

Somebody from Switzerland approached me in the 1990s to contribute to an exhibition, “Ill? Why”. For my chapter on “Vows People Take to Get Cured”, I started looking at Indian temples and was directed to Kerala’s practice of nercha (vows) – taken to get cured, get a marriage done, etc. I’m a heathen, but there I became a devotee, for the only way to learn things is to participate. The temples were so different from what I had seen.

In what ways? Tell us more…

There are four types, in terms of shape: square, circular, rectangular, apsidal. Their spires could have four storeys and the wooden (double) roof craftsmanship could go as far back as 400 years. The temple architecture is similar to residential architecture. Within the temple (outer shell) is another temple (inner shell), the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum), where the main idol is enshrined. The visitation is unlike north Indian temples. You’re not allowed inside the garbhagriha, the domain of the Melshanthi or priest. The salutation pavilion is restricted to the Namboothiris (landed Brahmins). Outsiders can’t climb in; and there’s an invisible line which a Dalit wouldn’t cross.

The Central Vista redesign is facing a lot of flak. What makes Bimal Patel a winning bidder? Was he your student at CEPT?

He is well-connected. No, I didn’t teach him, but he used to be a good friend. To me, ‘modern’, ‘old’, ‘smart cities’ are not important words. We have to look at the necessities and plight of the people, and, in forging urbanity, keep our Indian limitations, ethos, culture, climate, materials in mind, rather than creating symbols of pride, of falsehood. A country that allows its craftsmen to die, is going to die soon. (Source: The Indian Express, republished here for spreading the knowledge)

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