July 28, 2009

Remembering The Howard Roark of India

(By Sharmila Ganesan-Ram, July 25, 2009, Times of India)

Nari Gandhi (1934-1993) was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin from 1956 to 1961. He later worked with Architect Warren Weber and studied pottery at the Kent State University before returning to India. Through his early works, he introduced in India, Wright’s desert masonry and the Usonian grid. Nari worked without an office, without drawings, without formal associates, without a timetable, unencumbered by legal and financial constraints, retaining the trust of clients without entertaining their requests. He dispensed architecture that was intoxicatingly rich in materials and craftsmanship. He transformed architecture into a work of art and the client into a patron.

A new monograph salutes the late architect Nari Gandhi, who used to eat with his masons and design pure, organic structures

It was not his surname that prompted Nari Gandhi to wear khadi. He embraced the fabric because it was self-reliant, natural and allowed easy breathing. Just like the 30-odd structures built by a man who is often called the Howard Roark of India.

Gandhi—one of the four Indians to have appretinced under the legendary American Frank Lloyd Wright—was an iconic architect. He liked to work without an office and discarded conventions like floor-plan drawings and time-tables. Gandhi, who learnt pottery, would work with masons on each project, share his tiffin with them and use a wooden stick as his pencil. He sketched on the ground to explain his plan. If he wasn’t happy with a construction, he would immediately tear it down. Each of the homes Gandhi built, including actress Asha Parekh’s stone bungalow at Juhu, were products of a happy marriage between art and architecture.
Today, though, this marriage is being battered by builders, bulldozers and bahus. Fifteen years after this maverick Parsi architect died in a car accident, most of his built works (except for Jain House in Lonavla and the Bajaj House) have either been renovated or destroyed. One bungalow in Versova was used recently as the set for a saas-bahu soap. It is now a party venue, replete with a bar that glows in the beam of UV lights. Of course, none of these elements, including high-pitched melodrama and alcohol, is in tune with Gandhi’s organic philosophy.

Thankfully, evidence of the pristine genius of this Gandhi, whom even Google scarcely knows about, will not be completely lost to commerce. Come August 18, Nari Gandhi’s death anniversary, a book will be released at the Sir JJ School of Architecture, where he studied for five years before leaving for Taliesin. Here, after training under Llyod Wright (whom Ayn Rand would visit and who is said to have inspired the character of Howard Roark in Fountainhead), Gandhi studied pottery at the Kent State University. Through his early works, the vegetarian artist carried on the legacy of Wright.

Close to a hundred photographs of eight of Gandhi’s built works will be featured in the new monograph titled Nari Gandhi. An adaptation of an unpublished tribute conceived of in 1994, the new book has been revived, redesigned and published by architects Y D Pitkar and Pranav Upasani. It includes analytical essays on Nari’s life and works by the Canada-based architect-poet-calligrapher H Masud Taj.

Fifteen years ago, Taj, who had sleepovers at many of the houses designed by Gandhi, emerged with a short essay and a long poem titled ‘Domain of Inbetween’ (which is being published in its original calligraphed form). “The poem occurred inadvertently (as all my poems do) while I stayed in those houses. So while the poem is not about them, the houses were catalysts that caused a lifetime of my reflecting-buildingteaching architecture, to crystallise into a long poem,’’ says Taj.

While designing the book, many asked Y D Pitkar to embellish the photos with descriptive text, but he found that exercise fictitious. “It’s like asking a poet to explain his poem on the next page, pathologically,’’ says Pitkar, who as an architecture student, would follow Gandhi everywhere. Once, when Gandhi asked him, “What do you want?’’, Pitkar said, “I like your work, sir.’’ Immediately, Gandhi shot back, “Then, go see my work.’’

That was vintage Gandhi. Though people love to seek out the late architect’s religious, simple and reserved personality in his organic works, designer Pranav Upasani insists on seeing the two sides of the architect separately. “The poem may be nothing like the poet,’’ Upasani quotes Osho. “It takes a lot of courage to be like Gandhi,’’ adds Upasani, who hasn’t met the legend but knows all his built works. “He was very sensitive towards nature,’’ continues Upasani, adding that the boulders for Gandhi’s Versova home came from a blasting site near the Western Express Highway in Malad.

A close friend and patron of Gandhi, whom the architect did not charge for any of his five works, says Gandhi loved the Himalayas. He would take off for two months every year. “Once when I gifted him shoes from Switzerland, he thanked me saying, ‘I can now trek the mountains,’ ‘’ says the friend who asked not to be named.

Gandhi hated interference in the creative process and demanded total faith from his clients, who did not always find his designs practical. Once, this very friend added glass to his doors to keep pigeons out. Gandhi was so enraged that he refused to set foot in the house for two years. Another time, a client phoned him in a fit of rage when her kitchen was flooded. “You should be calling the plumber, then. Not me,’’ he said, and hung up.

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