Building future for a billion voices: the best of Indian architecture in 2022
by Jerry ElengicalDec 30, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Sunena V MajuPublished on : May 19, 2023
In 2021, while talking to STIR, Indian architect Ashiesh Shah said, "I strongly believe in the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, describing beauty in imperfection, where asymmetry and asperity play a major role in the spaces I create. I think that wabi-sabi is a philosophy of life, and once one accepts it, everything trickles down to it. My spaces, therefore, are an amalgamation of elements both finished and unfinished, working in tandem with one another." This design language of finding beauty in the incomplete and imperfect, married with the concept of wabi-sabi, has for the longest time been Shah's ethos. Most people who know of him can easily find his fingerprints on his designs, mainly due to their aesthetic sensibilities and contemporary finesse.
Therefore, when I heard that Shah is presenting an exhibition in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha, India, I was torn between the contrast of his atelier's modern design language against the traditional craft culture of the city. Titled STAMBH: Craft, Collaboration and Continuity, the design exhibition showcases and reflects on the creative expression of ongoing explorations in indigenous living craft practices.
The official release stated, "Drawing inspiration from Hindu scriptures, especially the Atharva Veda, where Stambh is described as a cosmic column connecting heaven and earth, the exhibition explores the significance and symbolism of pillars in various forms. From the Mana Stambh (Pillar of Humanity) to the Deep Stambh (Pillar of Light) and Dhwaj Stambh (Flag Staff) in temples, to the Vijaya Stambh (Pillar of Victory) and Kirti Stambh (Pillar of Glory), these pillars have represented strength, glory, faith, and hope for centuries.”
For an exhibition happening as part of Sustain 2023, curated by the G20 Culture Working Group, the theme did sound apt and familiar. But, placing this thought against Shah’s work, my instant reaction was that while that does sound interesting, how will the sophisticated elegance and workmanship of Ashiesh Shah fit amid the cultural diversity of traditional craftsmanship. Adding to this curiosity, the venue for STAMBH was Kala Bhoomi, the Odisha Crafts Museum, which made a stir in 2018 (when it newly opened) for its intriguing museum architecture that employs traditional principles, materials, and construction.
STIR was invited to the preview of STAMBH and I reached Bhubaneswar with many questions and an overwhelming inquisitiveness. The city welcomed me to a 38-degree hot summer day. Coming from the summers of Delhi, the temperature ideally shouldn’t have bothered me but Bhubaneswar is much more humid and you'll feel it. Before witnessing STAMBH, I got to listen to Shah, in conversation with the curator of the exhibition, Lavina Baldota. A thing from the discussion that struck me was when Shah was talking about the rising need for Indian crafts to be more seen and celebrated and how Covid stirred this thought in him. For over nine years, the Atelier Ashiesh Shah has been interested in and has researched new materials that could be used from within the ecosystem of the country, and this interest was further accelerated by the pandemic. "Over the years, I was known for exploring international designs and products in the Indian context. People would expect me to do so. But when the lockdown happened, we couldn’t import anything from other countries. That is when we expanded our workmanship to experiment more with all the possibilities of Indian craftsmanship and crafts. I think that when a larger portion of the design industry started looking inward.”
While that sounded like something to dwell on, it was probably the most honest thing I heard a designer say and I was glad. That one discussion only reinstated the fact that Shah and Baldota were doing this exhibition due to their love for indigenous living craft practices and not for public opinion. Shah mentions STAMBH to be a form that has intrigued him, commenting, “I have always wondered about the genesis of these pillars, of what they originally stood for and what it is that made people want to celebrate and revere them. As I delved into the subject, I started deriving my own connotations and my own interpretations. Though crafts in India have a long history and tradition, I feel they have not had the kind of platform and respect that they deserve. I felt the only way for me to celebrate crafts was to use a form that celebrates design. And that was the real genesis of the idea of this collection of stambhs that fructified in the exhibition STAMBH-Pillars of Sustenance.”
He then adds, "We started with designing objects and the process was very sculptural. For long I was working on drawings with the form of the hiraṇyagarbha, which is the golden womb, the source of the creation of the universe that is oval in form; drawings of the axis mundi, a symbolic line through the centre of the earth connecting the sky and earth; and the whole idea of patterns. These were in my subconscious mind when I started working on them in three-dimensional expressions of sculptural forms. I was very particular about the purity of the form as I felt the minimalism of lines and of the object itself defined my language and practice. That said, the wabi-sabi philosophy was the natural transition when the design moved to the artisan’s workshop and hands.” Shah’s discussion with Baldota, moderated by journalist Gayatri Rangachari Shah, then discussed the need to bring a contemporary voice to traditional crafts, the Atelier’s beliefs of advocating the localisation of resources through a re-contextualisation of Indian craftsmanship, and the inception and journey of STAMBH. When the talk was almost over, someone posed the question—“What happens to the pieces after the exhibition” to which Shah laughed and sarcastically exclaimed, “It might go to a villa in Alibaug!”
Shortly after the discussion, we changed locations to witness Shah’s choreography of Indian craft which for days had been stirring my mind. Kala Bhoomi is a 20-minute ride from the hotel, which meant 20 mins of being able to absorb slices of Bhubaneswar. I had only heard stories of Odisha, the Temple City of India with the best display of Kalinga architectural style, Odissi dance and music, and the many traditional craft practices of the state. But when Baldota mentioned earlier that the state has almost 50 crafts, practised among its tribes, I was surprised. While I knew about the origins of Pattachitra painting, Jhoti chita art and Ikat fabric from Odisha, travelling to see STAMBH also introduced me to many more crafts that I was previously unversed with. The beauty of Shah’s presentation, extended beyond the exhibition, and to Bhubaneswar, while we were primarily there for STAMBH, in every conversation with Shah and Baldota, we were absorbing parts of the lesser-known crafts culture of the city, which would otherwise stay just a tourist spot for many. It is this side of contemporary designers who want to bring indigenous and infamous art and crafts to a wider audience, raise awareness and bring it the long-due appreciation it deserves, that I can get on board with (even if the pieces themselves end up in an Alibaug villa in the future). The conversation needs to start somewhere.
'An art sanctum' was my first impression of Kala Bhoomi. Shaped from red laterite—a local favourite—and roofed with traditional half-round pot tiles, Kala Bhoomi is a physical manifestation of its name, a Hindi word that translates to mean 'land of art.' The museum architecture of Kala Bhoomi is a rare spectacle in the Indian context. Museums in India have for years borrowed from the Western idea of making art an object that is to be enjoyed. If it weren’t for the global audience, I would never want to call Kala Bhoomi 'a museum' because in this space art becomes sacred, as defined in Indian culture and mythologies and transcends to mean more than the white box of a gallery. While walking through the slightly damp (even though it was a hot day) red stone pathway covered by pergolas with thick climbers on it, I was reminded of a quote by Jim Morrison, that STIR's Editor-in-Chief Amit Gupta introduced to me a few days ago, "It is wrong to assume that art needs the spectator in order to be. The film runs on without an eye. The spectator cannot exist without it. It ensures his existence." At Kala Bhoomi, you don’t validate the art, the art validates you. It is a space where architecture is not built for its users but for the art, craft and culture that inhabits it and I don’t think there’s any better way to experience what art is to Indian culture than this.
It is with these thoughts and explorations that you walk towards Shah's STAMBH. To be entirely honest, in a space such as this, that speaks for itself through waterbodies with natural green water, traditional planters, many many jackfruit and mango trees, open-air theatres, individual pavilions connected by narrow verandas and courtyards, it is easy for contemporary design to feel foreign and extremely hard to fit in and hence the closer we got to the exhibition, I became all the more curious and anxious. A few steps across the green garden space was a pavilion, lit in warm light where pillars of about five/six feet stood spread around a courtyard in a semi-open space.
Once the language was set, once we knew the geometry—inspired by cosmic ancient Indian geometry and primitive indigenous forms of gods and goddesses—the story of the pillars started. – Ashiesh Shah
"Once the drawings developed into a form and object, it was obvious that one could find a way to magnify them. The moment we started placing the objects vertically we realised very quickly that these were pillars waiting to happen. Then we worked backwards—as when we placed them vertically, we realised we had to tweak the form in order to make them stackable. This is how the stambhs were designed.” The words by Shah earlier occurred to me. STAMBH didn’t happen overnight or suddenly when a designer decided to start vocalising craft. It happened gradually, over the years, by questioning where it fits in the design language of a contemporary designer, by debating how to present them to an audience, without blurring its authenticity and finally from wanting to look inwards—towards Indian craft culture.
Our walkthrough started with the Naga Raincoat Stambh, made from handwoven natural fibre ‘raincoats’ using Nagaland’s weaving techniques that have been practised since time immemorial. The Atelier shares, “A legend mentions Longkongla, who, with her magical powers, created the clothing that distinguishes different clans. The Enhiye weatherproof cloak stands out amongst the state’s many remarkable crafts. It’s made from elephant grass that’s dried for days and then soaked again, till strands of the tender leaves hang free, for weaving on a wooden frame. The finished braided garment is worn keeping strips of free-flowing palm leaves on the outer side, thus protecting wearers from inclement weather.” The Naga Stambh is a sculptural art that also functions as a lamp. We then moved to Coconut Shell Dumroo Stambh which can shapeshift as individual forms and stools. The Coconut Shell Damroo Stambh, inspired by the crafts of Goa and Maharashtra, is a marriage of materials, the combination of coconut shells and brass creating a sculptural, minimalist pillar.
On the colourful side of the pavilion are the Channapatna Stambhs. The Jaipur Blue Pottery stambh is a mixed media sculptural piece which uses hand-painted wooden plates along with Jaipur Blue Pottery, celebrating the exceptional skills of the artisans. The Channapatna red and blue Stambhs adorn The Channapatna ‘toy-making’ craft tradition introduced and promoted by Tipu Sultan in the 18th century. They are crafted as brightly coloured convex and concave beads, enabling versatile uses as sculpture or light fixtures, which can be combined into pillars or used individually. Moving further, in the corridor are the Moonshadow Longpi Stambh and New Moon Marble Stambh.“ Attributed to Goddess Panthobi, the Manipur Pottery tradition is most famously practised in Longpi village of the state’s Ukhrul District. Unusual for not relying on a potter’s wheel, the craft combines 'Humnali', a special clay, with black serpentinite stone, in a 3:2 ratio. The mixture is shaped by hand, before being placed in a kiln for between five to nine hours. The Moonshadow Longpi Stambh extends this traditional craft with size, through a trio of vases that stack vertically,” shared the Atelier. The New Moon Marble Stambh, made from the superlative skills of Rajasthan's artisans, is a six-foot sculpture made from a single block of stone, and also a composite of three functional design objects.
From the pottery and marble stambhs, we move on to the metal ones. From the copperware craft of Maharashtra, the Copper Damroo Stambh is a composite of four individual copper perch stools. The lean centre of the stools radiates outwards to form bulbous edges, appearing as a protruding kaan (ear). The Multi-ball Brass Stambh is crafted from hand-beaten brass, and standing at five feet is reminiscent of the moons. Its solid structure showcases the skill of its makers, the gleaming brass finish adding timeless elegance.
Kansa, a unique alloy of copper and tin, is a revered form of metalworking practised in India for centuries—the Nilamadhaba Temple to Lord Neela Madhab in Odisha forms a prominent site of the craft. Drawing from this and Anish Kapoor’s Taratantara work, the Kantilo Stambh, has a contrasting, evenly-beaten exterior with hidden golden elliptical ends that grab attention, countering the parent form’s monotones. One of the most unique stambhs from the collection is the Dhokra Stambh, the craft of which has been seen in Shah’s early works as well. Dhokra, from Chhattisgarh's Bastar District, is a non-ferrous metal casting process using a lost wax casting technique and has been practised for several centuries. The Dhokra Stambh explores scale, form, and finish. It is composed of a series of four baskets which, when uncovered, reveals an array of textures, and can be purposed into perch stools.
Furthermore, spread across the other spaces of the pavilion is the Raw Crystal Mini Stambh which utilises handpicked pure crystal stone, and is delicately carved from a single piece of semi-precious clear quartz. The Monoform Candle Stambh is composed of a series of candle holders, in the form of wide bowls, each punctuated with grooves, vegan leather cording, and brass plates. The White Metal Patrawork Stambh has four silver-clad metal stools and central spheres with a textured and hammered look.
The Multi-Crescent Bone Stambh is a vertical stacking of three perch stools, where crescent-shaped forms are connected with discs–a play of form and proportion. The craft of stambh comes from the exquisite crafts skills of artisan clusters in Jodhpur who have long been celebrated for their intricate bone carving technique, where the bone is heated in furnaces to remove excess fibres and extensions.
The Bastar Stambh is an assemblage in a black wrought iron of three chairs and a table, fitting with one another to create a six-foot tall stackable stambh. Each piece is a playful narrative and celebrates the ancient traditional technique of miniature silhouette cut-outs, an iron-ore-based craft passed through generations of Gondi and Maria tribes of Chhattisgarh. The Samaya Kerala Stambh presents a traditional function—the deepmala—in a contemporary format. The stambh is a tall structure inspired by Constantin Brancusi’s work, intertwined with the deepastambhs seen at the entrance of Kerala temples.
As we were walking around the exhibition, absorbing stories of each of the stambhs and anecdotes related to them, the sun slowly started setting in front of us. At dusk, the stambhs which embody lighting design lit up the space. The Sholapith Stambh, inspired by the plinths in Puri’s Jagannath Temple and the Talisman Blown Glass Stambh composed of an elliptical glass globule had to be one of the most intriguing ones among all. At Kala Bhoomi, you aren't just seeing the stambhs, you experience them against the backdrop of classical music from tablas and sitars, played by local musicians in the space. Though each stambh is an individual object, it’ll engrave itself in your mind like folklore. Tomorrow, you might see them in their altered functionality at a modern penthouse on top of a skyscraper or at a vacation home in the mountains, but at STAMBH, these 'objects' are a living story—one that strives to be heard and remembered.
Walking back to the entrance, I had the urge to walk through the red-stoned pathway with my bare feet, feeling the dampness of the earth. There was a strong breeze and soft natural light surrounding the space. Shah was right in saying "looking inwards." While those sounded like two simple words placed together, they took on a new meaning when put against the pillars of Kala Bhoomi and STAMBH of Atelier Ashiesh Shah.
The exhibition 'Sustain: The Craft Idiom' is a specially curated cultural project for the 2nd G20 CWG meeting (May 14-17, 2023) in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. The theme of the exhibition is predicated on and reflective of the second priority of the Culture Working Group (CWG) - 'Harnessing Living Heritage for a Sustainable Future.' The exhibition is being held at Kala Bhoomi - Odisha Crafts Museum from May 16-22, 2023. 'Sustain: The Craft Idiom' is composed of three constituent experiences—Stambh, Akshara and demonstrations by master artisans and teachers.
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