It is as difficult to categorize Gautam Bhatia’s latest book, Whitewash, as it is to slot the man himself. He continues to be the maverick he has always been. He is an acclaimed writer and an artist in a community of professional architects. And it is the architect’s deeply felt sense of order that prompts him to make subversive comments about architecture and society through his writings and his fantastical images of built spaces. Above all, there is a deep sense of humanism that underlies his ironic take on life around him.
Whitewash is Bhatia’s 10th book in the last 16 years. The architect, who contributed the term ‘Punjabi baroque’ to the history of Indian architecture and aesthetics, has become increasingly outspoken in recent years about the dissonance in contemporary society.
What spurred Bhatia to write so extensively? He says he realized over the years that designing buildings was only one way to express his ideas. Writing on architecture for him was another way to comment on what he describes as “the messy vitality of Indian culture”. With Whitewash, he has expanded the scope of his commentaries on the changing face of Indian society. The result: A wild, wacky, witty look at contemporary India.
It is a difficult book to describe: not entirely non-fiction, but not exactly fiction either. There is a narrative thread running through it that captures the chaotic contradictions of life in India today.
The material in the book has been culled from the notes that Bhatia kept while travelling on assignments. These have been assembled as in a tabloid, with sections such as editorial content, visuals and advertisements. In the process, he seems to be taking a dig at the media as well. But the format offers him a workable springboard to dash off his feverish fantasies which teeter in the space between the real and the surreal.
There is, for instance, the ghoulish advertisement for ‘Sharma Dynamo Tandoor’. Bhatia’s creative mind ascribes the design to Nazi Konrad Schmidt, “modified” to suit Indian marital conditions. Or, take the bizarre announcements for ‘Sati Ceremony’. They mimic the ads for funeral rituals.
These exceptionally dark ideas, says Bhatia, come from his rage at the world around him. “Take the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. There was a Sikh called Trilok Singh, who had a long association with our family. One day he came to my mother for shelter, accompanied by a little girl. The two of them were the only members left of his large extended family. Writing is a therapy for the hurt I feel,” says Bhatia.
If the ‘ads’ in the book are delirious, the ‘news items’ are even more outrageous. Bhatia observes the media minutely in order to satirize reportage and editorial comments. The datelines show that Bhatia has skipped centuries with felicity to prepare this deadly cocktail tabloid.
But fantasy has always been Bhatia’s forte. He says, “I like to look at an idea differently.” He obviously enjoys subverting conventional notions. Trained in fine arts at a Washington college for his undergraduate studies, Bhatia has always enjoyed drawing. But it was only around 2001 that he started mounting exhibitions of his drawings. In these, he conceptualized bizarre uses of existing landmarks or new buildings. Such as the design of a five-star hotel above India Gate in Delhi, with elevators whizzing up and down the uprights of the arch, or the corporate headquarters of a soft drink company shaped like a Coke bottle.
Bhatia, who prefers to maintain a small architectural practice, likes to introduce subversive elements in his designs as well. But he prefers traditional material such as stone, brick and terracotta. He also likes to experiment with traditional skills. In a school that he is designing at present in Modinagar in Uttar Pradesh, he is exploring the possibility of different traditional bricklaying methods.
But Bhatia is depressed about the limited role an architect gets to play today. “An architect has to make so many compromises to please the client that I am happy undertaking only a limited number of commissions,” he says with a resigned air. Perhaps, that is why writing has become a safety valve for him.
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