Treading the unfamiliar
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Treading the unfamiliar

A conversation with Bijoy Jain
In an interview with Bijoy Jain, he offers a glimpse into his boundless curiosity to delve into the obscure.

by Mrinalini Ghadiok Jun 04, 2019

WATER

Water. The elixir of life. Water. The essence of existence. Water. The cardinal resource. Water. The most compelling, trenchant and acquiescent medium of state, expression and being. Albeit an architect, Jain is an artist; also in the literal sense, but more interestingly, the kind who can weave ideas, paint thoughts, compose tales and construct apparitions. His works have stamped confirmed impressions in the minds of many and I state that determinedly, for I, and my accompanying colleagues have observed, followed and carefully studied many such illustrations. However, this is the first visit to Jain’s studio for Amit Gupta (Director, STIR), Meghna Mehta (Features Writer, STIR), Praveen Talan (renowned photographer) and myself.

Water. The elixir of life. Image Credit: Mitul Desai

Monsoon has hit Mumbai, and while I belong to the lot that is not very fond of the rains, I cannot but admit that the city is different – grey but vivid, chaotic but calm, unapologetic but energised. We make our way through the notorious concrete jungle negotiating, as well-warned, swarms of cars, to an unassuming street. Situated in a large wall is an equally diffident door. We cross the threshold and instantly a silent gasp catches us all as we grab a moment  to take in what lies before us - a verdant pathway flanked on either side by generously carved abodes, leading straight towards a courtyard. Framed perfectly, a ravishing Champa tree caught in the gentle afternoon drizzle gleams in the distance, patiently awaiting our arrival.

  • Saat Rasta, Mumbai, Maharashtra Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Mumbai Architects
  • Saat Rasta, Mumbai, Maharashtra Image Credit: Srijaya Anumolu
  • Saat Rasta, Mumbai, Maharashtra Image Credit: Srijaya Anumolu
  • Saat Rasta, Mumbai, Maharashtra Image Credit: Giovanni Hänninen

Strapped to three sides of the courtyard on two levels are workspaces occupied by busy craftsmen, large and small installations, sculptures in myriad shapes and forms, prototypes, material samples, and even a lime tank. This is Studio Mumbai. This is the hearth from where many iconic works of contemporary Indian architecture, art and craft have emerged. And this is where we meet Bijoy Jain. A strapping figure in blue linen greets us with a steady baritone. Finding place before the forenamed Champa we embark on a journey – an erudite conversation spotted with contemplation and spangled with rumination.  “My curiosity of what interests me drives me to do something new every day; to consciously engage in an activity, be it music, reading or anything else that I have little idea of what expression it might have,” offers Jain. This exploration of the unfamiliar is his way to discover his own capacity, and also what he inclines his work towards. “My professional training is in architecture, but that is just a conduit for me to communicate something. We communicate through space and we understand space through our five senses, which further become the mechanisms of communication. This is intuitive thought.”

His work is not limited to space. Veering away from the term ‘office’, Jain refers to it as ‘practice’, suggesting the nature of the studio, and more so, the profession as rooted in a service, of course with an economy and an active exchange of economies; but not a business. His practice is the kind to question, analyse, organise and experience, alluding instead to riyaz.

On this mention, he recalls a brief meeting with the revered architect, Geoffrey Bawa in Sri Lanka in 1996. Having been invited for tea to Lunuganga, Jain paused at the entrance to Bawa’s house and looked through the porch at the trees in the distance. “What was of interest to Bawa was that there was too much architecture between him and the view.” Identifying the critical factor as not the landscape or the architecture, but the moment, he adds, “You become the medium of a conversation between the interior and exterior, and architecture becomes one of ethos as opposed to how we are conditioned to view it. Bawa acknowledged the fact that life lived in the tropics was not solely about the interiors but the exterior was as important, if not more.”

ARCHITECTURE

Reflecting on the premise of architecture in India, we discuss that it is an act of creating a shelter; something that one recedes into. “Architecture is shaped by its culture and carries the capacity to represent this culture; similar to wearing a beautiful sari or dhoti,” says Jain. It is indeed a reflection of our time, which is evident in the process of its making and where it lies.

A valued lesson was learnt while building in the Himalayas. Studio Mumbai had to schedule the construction of their project as per the working cycles of native farmers, to accommodate their farming practices and facilitate preserving their own homes when not occupied. “That is when I started to adjust our methods and began to tune my work to these factors. Observe carefully – many people migrate back to their homes during the monsoons or for the festive season. This is when they take a break from earning livelihoods and return to their landscapes. Having served their personal space, they come back to tend to their work. Therefore, this becomes the favoured time to build, from November till just before Holi,” claims Jain.

  • Leti 360 Resort, Uttarakhand Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Mumbai Architects
  • Leti 360 Resort, Uttarakhand Image Credit: Courtesy Studio Mumbai Architects
  • Leti 360 Resort, Uttarakhand Image Credit: Courtesy Studio Mumbai Architects
  • Leti 360 Resort, Uttarakhand Image Credit: Courtesy Studio Mumbai Architects

He may work on his own clock, but he definitely does deliver the most spectacular works, and we are curious to find out what it is that really sets him apart. Albeit an architect, Jain’s explorations take him beyond the realm of the built construct to the practice of art. And we cannot help but wonder how the boundless curiosity to delve into the obscure informs his work.

“I grew up in Juhu, at a time when the area was dense with coconut trees. There was a private water tank nearby (it still exists), where we used to play.  For our very first project in architecture school, we were asked to design a playground and I built that very water tank, barely knowing what I was doing. However, when I did build it, I felt sheer pleasure.  I still remember every detail of making that artefact, as if it were tattooed in my mind.” Jain prompts us to take note that the first project designed by most architects is seminal to their practices. I cannot help but agree. If there was one work I would single out from the five years of formal architectural education I received, It would have to be the very first – a tiny residence located off the New York Highline!

Gupta and I ask in unison, “What is the relevance of this water tank in your work?” to which Jain responds discernibly, “For me, work begins with the origin of water – by its presence or absence, its existence is a must.” Jain is native to the sea-embracing city of Mumbai and to me, this is a critical factor for his affinity to water. He insists that is just happenchance, but does credit the fact that he was a ‘caesarean baby’ and had to be ‘pulled out’. “Maybe I was drowning,” he says.

  • Copper House, Chondi, Maharashtra Image Credit: Mitul Desai
  • Copper House, Chondi, MaharashtraImage Credit: Hélène Binet

“I have always been comfortable with water, and am definitely more receptive to recognising this medium as a primary presence. Water is that connection to something that goes much deeper below our feet, without which there is nothing. In its absence, it becomes a provocation. Its search then allows me to anticipate possibilities and engage with it,” says Jain.

Before explaining further about his own tryst with the liquid state of matter, Jain draws our attention to the works of Louis Kahn, known to the world as the ‘master of light’. Jain refers to the National Assembly building in Dhaka as Kahn’s seminal work and paints fascinating imagery of its construction, careful to mention it as a personal theory.

OBSERVING THE CONSTRUCT

On a recent trip to Dhaka, Jain visited the distinguished site. Like most architects, he was familiar with the building’s plans, sections, drawings and images, but walking around the complex, he found moments when the design would just give away and become indecipherable. “I noticed that everywhere I looked, every detail I noticed, be it the handrail or the expansion joint, there was nothing in that magnitude, the largeness of that sheer physical scale, that Kahn had not touched. He was acutely aware of the presence of every micron in that space,” describes Jain. However, heading to the top of the Parliament building he began to notice that things were different. Kahn died before the project was complete and the roof of the main assembly hall was pieced together from sketches that were left in his tread. Jain’s inquiry into the affixing of this piece props up another fascinating question: How does one close something from the place it has been entered?

Sitting for dinner at a fellow architect’s studio, Jain looked out of the window and saw the Parliament building sitting atop a hill. It was a moment of revelation as he asked himself, “What is the material that made that project?”

“It was not brick or concrete. It was water.”

“The work is not an assembly of beams and columns, it is an extrusion, a subtraction – a massive block of concrete meant to mimic stone that has been laid with a marble grid over it on an X and Y plane.” “How do you measure something that is immeasurable?” “You apply a grid.”

Jain’s description is vivid and captivating, defining the project as sitting on top of a rock in the midst of a flood. “What you see resting as the water, for me, is the settling of the (Gangetic) floodplain.” The hypothesis has Kahn entering the project from above, using the water to excavate and cut through the rock. The grid becomes a measuring system allowing Kahn to navigate inside as he hollows through the spaces within. This supports the idea that water came in from above and touched everything. “It is about the capacity of our consciousness, to be able to transfer ourselves into an energy field. This is where Kahn was resonating from - the riyaz of anticipation, whatever that might be.”

  • National Assembly, Dhaka, Bangaladesh by Louis Kahn Image Credit: Raymond Meier
  • Water Image Credit: Mitul Desai
  • Earth Image Credit: Mitul Desai

THE PRACTICE OF MAKING

There are a number of works by Jain that can be termed as important milestones in his journey. Of those that have piqued my curiosity, the Tara House and Palmyra House seize the top of the list. “The Tara House is about the water tank and everything else is ancillary,” he declares casually. Dug deep into the ground, the fulcrum of the project is subterranean. The tank holds the ground’s sweet water, which is pushed up when the tide comes in, salt water being heavier, or when the monsoon pours down. Thus, the water level alters with changing cycles of nature.

The Palmyra House, on the other hand, is the product of a writer’s block, and almost autobiographical. Located in Alibaug, the site was dotted with existing wells and aqueducts used to water the plantations. All their plinths were kept intact and those that had fallen were resuscitated. Thus, the infrastructure was already present. “The timber frame,” claims Jain, “is only an overlay that can collapse at any time, leaving the agrarian landscape unscathed.” Carefully positioning itself amidst a grove, the house straddles a water body, splitting the functions into two structures. “The exterior is the main part of the house, where you can take refuge,” he presents; but the middle also offers asylum, “At one point when I get to the edge of the water, that is the moment when there is nothing between me and the view.”

Losing sight of the physical context can offer relief, but can one truly disengage from the assertions that surround them? Do we de-contextualise ourselves to attain universality or do we become ambiguous in our working?

  • Plan, Palmyra House, Nandgaon, Maharashtra Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Mumbai Architects
  • Palmyra House, Nandgaon, Maharashtra Image Credit: Hélène Binet
  • Section, Tara House, Kashid, Maharashtra Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Mumbai Architects
  • Tara House, Kashid, Maharashtra Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Mumbai Architects
  • Tara House, Kashid, Maharashtra Image Credit: Hélène Binet

Some of the current works at the studio are outside the boundaries of Jain’s own continent. “We are working on a project in Japan and another in France and nothing has changed from the way we work here. The process remains the same, only the framework that governs it varies. Maintaining the spirit of the core intact, components around it are readjusted to enable a space within, like a cradle. By going to the source, one is automatically in and out of context, both,” explains Jain. “Context is not geographical, it has to be one of interconnected energies,” he adds. Referencing an 84-year old man that he works with closely, Jain describes a gripping relationship between material, craft and the craftsman. Like the daily ritual of lighting a lamp, this man begins his day with a piece of stone and can create any imaginable artefact. “When he marks the stone, he knows its potential, and at the same time, the stone communicates to him what its potential can be. There is a mutual exchange of affection.” Pointing towards a multitude of stone sculptures that dot the courtyard, he says, “It is not true that we are losing our craft, it is fundamentally inherent in us; we have just become lazy (about affection).”

We discuss how eventually it is not about the skill or precision with which something is made, but rather the manner of how it is made. A bamboo weaver stretches and rolls dried reed into fine threads behind us. Winding yarn around his hand, he prepares to string a stool. Others stain long pieces of bamboo with natural indigo dye. These components will come together to make stools for the project in Japan. We see a sample that has been readied – the workmanship is beyond impeccable, each element laid over the other in a delicate choreography of layers. Made entirely by hand, the stool is a direct representation of our capacities, but more so, illustrative of the role of the hand in creating these elements.

  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan
  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan
  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan
  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan
  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan
  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan
  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan
  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan
  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan

“Why is the hand an important tool in how we make things?” Jain responds to his own rhetoric, “I have come to recognise this as a means for communications. It was the hand that drew us out of the womb. It was through the hand that we first communicated, in an action of affection.”

Conveying this emotion from the bearer to the product translates to energy. Citing the example of carpenters in Rajasthan, Jain recalls stories that he would often hear of drought-hit lands. “The severity of the conditions and the paucity of resources would drive these carpenters to use paper mache, clay, cotton rags and various other mixtures to copy that one single copper vessel in the village. The prevalent situation would compel them to contract and expand ideas that would lead to innovation and creation.” Jain adds, “The motivation for the product was not the product itself.”

  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan
  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan
  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan
  • Working with the Hands Image Credit: Pravin Talan

On the other hand, today, the availability and accessibility to products that feed our requirements are immense. While this may dilute the motivation to innovate in how one does at times of desperation, it is also a time when one can complement the other and thus, coexist.

“When I look at what I built 10 years ago, it is difficult to build like that again. It is done and one has to move on.” Having said that, Jain often references historical instances of building. What strikes interesting is not the material or process with which they are built, but the source of the story that they weave. He talks of Fatehpur Sikri and its tribute to life in death, not by analysing its geometry, but by peeling the skin to reveal the dire need for Akbar to build this mausoleum. “Imagine yourself as Akbar; as someone who perceives himself to be next only to god. This invincible figure was conquered by the death of his sons, a loss unfathomable.” Jain goes on to explain Akbar’s meeting with Salim Chishti, “Chishti was like Akbar’s modern-day shrink. He provoked his mind, and it is the dialogue between them that led the emperor on a journey of reflection. Fatehpur Sikri was a device of this rumination, as was the Akbarnama, in which Akbar melded two disparate religions into a single text.”

“I postulate what could have occurred. Besides the tangible factors such as plans, elevations, mathematics or geometries, these stories become an additional mechanism to look at things that help me to decipher the archaeology, context and relevance of a place,” says Jain. Akbar’s path is illustrative of our discussion. “We have to have the will to conceive of a place. For us to do the work our ancestors did, we have to work with the same imagination, surpassing the tangible to recognise the intangible and think bigger than our human sense. It is then that we can amalgamate differences.”

This draws us back to our earlier conversation – the core needs to remain intact, while we revolve our work around it. “We can build as well as Fatehpur Sikri has been built. It is still very much available to us,” says Jain. 

“Why don’t we do more of it then?” I ask, and the response is rather spontaneous, “The will to imagine is greater than imagination itself.”

Bijoy Jain Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Mumbai Architects

Silence finds its place and we all nod. We are products of the industrial world, and there is no denying that. Even Jain accepts it with a full heart, but he encourages us to question ourselves as to what it means to be a part of it and how it has shaped or influenced us. As we walk around the studio, it is as exhilarating to see the work of the hand, as it is overwhelming to realise its fading.

However, it enables us to sense the affection with which articles are made, appreciate the sensibilities with which they are conceived and perhaps now understand the intuition that drives these forces. Many trains have passed the nearby station, the rain has come and gone and come again, the sky has darkened and the birds have withdrawn to their nests. The day comes to a close, as does this conversation, for now, for there are many thoughts and much energy yet to be exchanged.

(The article was first published in Issue#20 of mondo*arc india – an initiative by STIR.)

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About Author

Mrinalini Ghadiok

Mrinalini Ghadiok

Ghadiok is an architect by training, visualizer by heart and writer by passion. Having worked in the fields of architecture, lighting design, historical research and writing for more than a decade, she is driven by her passion for exceptional design and the narrative that choreographs its experience. As the editor of mondo*arc india journal and now STIRworld, she continues her foray in design journalism and publishing.

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