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This Is an Indian House, According to One Architect

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JAIN AND I had met a few hours before our visit to Alibag on a dock in Mumbai, near the iconic Taj hotel and the Gateway of India, the arch the British built in 1924 in honor of the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary 13 years earlier. An armada of small fishing boats and hulking freighters, their bottoms red and rusting, lay as if dazed on the flat, oily surface of Mumbai Harbor. Alibag, which sits on the Indian mainland overlooking the island of Mumbai, is a short boat ride from the southern tip of the metropolis. It has in the past 15 years been overrun by day-trippers, tourists and, of course, the 1 percent — industrialists, socialites and Bollywood stars. Jain knew the area long before it had any of these associations. After his parents died, he spent a decade in the West, first studying architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, then living in Los Angeles, New York and London. While in the United States, he fell in love with land artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Mary Miss, and with Minimalists like Donald Judd. Their work reminded Jain of the rock-cut Buddhist caves. “To come upon their work,” Jain said, referring to the land artists, “was the same thing experientially as [visiting the famous caves in] Ajanta and Ellora. They linger.”

After Jain returned from living abroad in 1995, he spent months in pre-gentrification Alibag, isolated, as a fierce but revivifying monsoon thrashed the western coast of India. It was here that he taught himself about Indian trees, developed the astonishing simplicity and quiet that characterizes his work and, most important, broke from the limitations of being a Western-educated architect and found a way to speak to a living artisanal tradition in India of carpenters and stonemasons, painters and craftspeople. Describing days without electricity and venomous snakes coming out of their burrows, Jain said that Alibag gave him “a perception of what it means to be agrarian in India.”

Jain was confronting a problem that haunts every aspect of creative life in India: what to do with the past. India has produced over 40 centuries’ worth of writing, painting, music and architecture, and yet when each of these art forms met its modern iteration through British rule, the meeting of past and present, traditional and modern, was not merely sterile — it was corrosive.

Jain saw the problem of tradition and modernity like this: “Architecture is a Western idea,” he said, “We didn’t have an architecture school until the 1900s.” Yet India has a codified tradition of building that stretched back at least as far as Ajanta and Ellora. Three years before the National Institute of Design (N.I.D.) was first established in 1961 in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, Charles and Ray Eames had written a manifesto for the institution in which they stated that it must reckon seriously with “the quality and the values of a traditional society.” But that did not happen. Instead, as in so much of the old non-West, past and present sat uneasily next to each other, never resulting in an exciting hybrid. This meant that as tradition calcified, Indian modernity remained a mere top soil, neither able to nourish itself through contact with the Indian past, nor able to move beyond a derivative relationship with the West. “Why was [the question of tradition and modernity] not part of the dialogue or conversation?” Jain asked, reluctantly questioning the architects who had gone before him, men such as Charles Correa and the Pritzker Prize-winning Balkrishna Doshi. “Not to question modernity today,” he added, “would be folly.”

As we stepped into the boat, I saw Jain framed against the backdrop of all of neo-Gothic British Bombay, with its red tiled roofs and shadowed arcades and porticoes. This was Rudyard Kipling’s Bombay of steeples, cupolas and trefoil arches, now blackening in the sea air, now with sprigs of peepul sprouting through their entablatures. The British city graded into a post-independence landscape of blue glass and steel, foursquare towers and bungalows with iron-barred windows. Sandwiched in between all of this, as ubiquitous as the glittering sea and copses of palms, was a city of slum and shanty, already hunkered down under blue tarpaulins in anticipation of the monsoon. What did Jain, who believes so much in making one’s peace with one’s surroundings, think of the British city directly behind him? “It is just a backdrop,” Jain said, adding of the Gateway itself: “It’s a terribly proportioned building. They should take it down. It would open the city to the sea.” He said this without a trace of a smile as our little boat charted a foamy path across the harbor.



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