Reshaping our cities
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If there’s one feature common to most metro cities today, it’s that parts of them are always under construction. Blue tarpaulin sheets sway on scaffolding above, while residents on the roads below are stuck in unending traffic jams caused by road diversions made to accommodate construction work.
It’s a bit like Alvy Singer’s exaggerated childhood memory in Annie Hall (1977), of being brought up under the roller-coaster section of Coney Island—except that here, our houses are sometimes dangerously close to Metro train corridors and flyovers. At other times, old buildings give way to new ones, or just give way as widened roads take over.
As monuments fight their own battles to remain relevant and alive via organizations like the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), lesser-known everyday examples of buildings that resulted from important architectural movements have largely been left unnoticed. You pass them by every day, you’ve lived in some of them, and you’ve probably grown up watching movies in some.
Now four Instagram activists are pitching in, helping keep our forlorn structures relevant and alive amid rapid change.
In Delhi, the Safal vegetable and Mother Dairy milk booths came up as early signposts of modern India, each of their textured concrete, geometric walls engraved with a specific serial number. Mila Samdub, a 25-year-old Delhi resident, started rediscovering such familiar, omnipresent examples when he returned to the city in January after a few years in the US, where he was studying creative writing, and started documenting their history and significance in an Instagram account called @delhimodernism. “I’m not trained in architecture or urban design, but I observed that when someone talks about architectural history in Delhi, people only think of the colonial Lutyens’ buildings and not other modernist structures,” he says.
A programmes manager at the KHOJ International Artists Association, Samdub’s Instagram account peaked in activity around May and June, when the demolition of the iconic Hall of Nations exhibition centre in Pragati Maidan was in the news. Samdub would populate the @delhimodernism feed with evocative photographs and captions of the building’s details—spiral staircases hugging large, cylindrical pillars, with triangular geometric bearings above. “A temple to a future that no longer has any adherents,” a caption read.
Other descriptions would have little nuggets of information: The caption to a photograph of the concrete textures of Nehru Place’s old Paras Cinema tells you that it used to seat 1,200 people and that it has been in disuse since 2007.
Where possible, he also documents the year a structure was built, and the names of its architects.
“Instagram doesn’t readily lend itself to such a project, but it is also like a big archive of people’s feelings and that’s what I’m interested in,” Samdub says, pointing out the decontextualized nature of how images are consumed on Instagram. You may be scrolling through photographs of a friend’s plate of food, a celebrity at an exotic location, a piña colada on the beach— and suddenly, you’ll encounter a bulky modernist building in a dusty corner of Delhi. “I’m interested not in the architecture specifically as much as in the sort of feeling that certain architectural spaces allow for,” he says.
The Instagram project @calcuttahouses, started in 2013, is the brainchild of photographer Siddhartha Hajra, graphic designer Sayan Dutta, and Manish Golder, who runs a digital production agency. The idea developed after a series of long conversations on the changing face of the neighbourhoods they grew up in. “We are not engaging with individual aspects of the houses or architecture (styles), as much as the feel of the neighbourhood,” says Golder.
In addition to photographs, graphic illustration-interpretations of some home elements—be it the balustrade of a home with a cat on Rash Behari Avenue, or a window in Gariahat—also populate the @calcuttahouses Instagram feed. Contextual or informative captions are rare. “This is because the focus is on the visuals,” says Golder, adding that what they are doing is “a visual documentation of the houses as characters— almost like portraiture”. Witnessing the speed with which old houses were being replaced by “generic utilitarian apartment buildings”, says Hajra, made them want to document the structures in some form before they disappeared. While the only strikingly common architectural style is art deco, most old houses in Kolkata also tend to have a mix of everything—from Corinthian columns to Rajasthani grill work, the group notes.
“Instagram and smartphone photography absolutely dovetailed with our need for an immediate, focused and unobtrusive approach,” Golder says. Hajra adds that the trio is still in the process of figuring out a more participatory approach to documenting the sites. “That is the larger aim,” he says.
In Chennai, @housesofmylapore has already made strides towards an open-to-all, participatory documentation process. The Instagram (and Facebook) account, run since 2015 by architects Tahaer Zoyab, Anupriya Subbian, Uttara Chockalingam and architect-photographer Naveena Munnuswamy, also organizes regular walks around the Mylapore neighbourhood along with a small core support team. “The easiest way for us to get people to participate, either formally or informally, is through photography,” says Zoyab. Students, residents, photographers, historians and others who attend their heritage walks are duly credited when their image is used on the @housesofmylapore account, says Subbian. Zoyab says people who come for their walks notice and photograph details of the colony that they would otherwise never notice.
One such detail is the courtyards of homes which have a special space for house sparrows and their nests. “Their population has been rapidly decreasing in Chennai, but these houses have skylights and courtyards for natural light, and the wooden cornice surrounding the courtyard has small holes for the sparrows to nest,” says Subbian. “Sparrows make their homes here even to this date.”
@housesofmylapore aims to be the one-stop source of information on houses in Mylapore—a neighbourhood which, Zoyab says, has developed in “ecologically sensitive” ways so far. They plan to spread across different areas of Chennai, like Triplicane, another historically and culturally rich neighbourhood. In order to make these efforts financially sustainable, the group has started charging Rs400 per head for every walk and is selling posters and merchandise inspired by the architectural elements of Mylapore’s buildings.
“Using social media (as the platform for documentation) is opening the conversation in new and different ways,” says Zoyab. Students from schools and colleges engage with their posts, and regularly approach them to study the neighbourhood and its heritage. “(The aim is) also about suggesting that there is much value in these structures, and to address stakeholders with some power, to see this value,” he says.
Mumbai-based photographer Kuber Shah is documenting “the eclectic architecture of Mumbai”. But in his @doorsofmumbai, this manifests less as the activism seen in @housesofmylapore and more as art. When Shah returned to Mumbai in 2014 after 14 years in Germany, he wanted to show the world the variety of architecture that his city could boast of.
But the financial capital’s unprecedented urbanization had left most old structures stressed under the pressure of wires, hoardings and cellular towers. “Buildings are also crumbling due to erratic laws and lack of funds (for maintenance),” Shah says. In contrast, the aesthetics of the @doorsofmumbai account is distinctly soft, clean and pastel. You could be looking at building facades from any part of the world, were it not for the giveaway names and addresses engraved on some of the structures.
The idea, Shah says, is to show Mumbai’s structures in what would have been their original glory. His account is an archive of artistic renditions of “a structure as it may have looked in the era that it was built in”, he adds. The Harkishandas Hospital Building in Girgaon is one that especially impressed him.
“This looks right out of a picture postcard!” reads a comment on this particular post on Instagram.
“I’ll send it to you, give me your address,” Shah replies.
Whatever the fate of such buildings, such visual mementos from these archivists are here to stay.