by Samta Nadeem, Zohra KhanJun 02, 2023
The onset of Indian summers for many of us is about gorging on luscious mangoes on rooftops with family, the clan coming together in afternoons, huddled in shade to indulge in light banter and activities like drying masalas, preparing pickles, and women and girls oiling and braiding one another’s hair. Shifting one's gaze to the Indian streets, countless squares (chauraha or chowks) pepper the cities where locals converge for conversations over tea. Though a public space, one associates with it a sense of belonging. One thing common to both these spectacles, particular to the Indian subcontinent, is a design icon—vernacular in its making, and versatile in its usage. It is the woven bed traditionally referred to as a charpai (which means four-legged). A flatbed of woven webbing using natural fibre ropes stretched on a wooden frame—four strong vertical posts connected by four horizontal members—charpai is a modest everyday furniture whose existence goes as far back as 5000 years. Muslim Maghrebi scholar and explorer Ibn Battuta, in the 1300s, described charpai's inherent flexibility saying "when one lies down on it, there is no need for anything to make it pliable, for it is pliable in itself."
The India Pavilion at the ongoing London Design Biennale takes the form of a deconstructed charpai, enclosing within it a chowk-like setup. Erected on the River Terrace of the Somerset House, the project is the result of a collaboration between studio archohm and The Design Village. While one is a multi-disciplinary architectural practice, the other is a design school. Both are based out of Noida, India, and helmed by Indian architect Sourabh Gupta. Practitioners from studio archohm worked with students from the design institute and local artisans to create what they refer to as "a multi-sensory evocation of the essence of a contemporary Indian city chowk, through the visual metaphor of a charpai." STIR visited the pavilion on the opening day of the biennale, and spoke to the design team to know more about the driving idea of the project.
Touching upon why a charpai inspired the team to experiment it spatially, Mridu Sahai, co-founder of The Design Village, told STIR, “A charpai is a symbol of resilience, whether it's a trampoline or a bed to spread masalas on or just a leisure bed, or even a deathbed. We feel that all collaborations happen on a charpai and thereby on a chowk; charpai is like a mini chowk in itself. Taking the idea from there, we created this large urban sculpture so that people can experience the beauty of its making.” Sahai asked us if we have ever seen the underside of a charpai, and how light filtering through the charpai weaves creates patterns on the floor. The pavilion design, according to her, is an exploded iteration of this fickle encounter.
Contrary to London’s seemingly perpetual grey weather, the quintessential need of the sun to experience the space was quite complex, but fortunately it shone brightly this day, though sun’s arrival was a bit delayed. Set against the neoclassical backdrop of the Somerset House, closely tied ropes holding together horizontal and vertical steel posts compose the skin of the permeable chowk. Two larger than life puppeteers greet the visitors before the pavilion’s entrance, their movements beautifully scored on an immersive poem being played in the background. “Acche aam kab aayenge?” (which translates to "when will good mangoes come?”), recounts the beauty of Indian summers, of blistering heat and stormy skies, pre monsoon rain and petichor, the importance of mangoes transcending the idea of a fruit to a symbol of wealth in India, and the omnipresent desire of people to eat good mangoes, a fruit whose natural continuum is affected because of the climate crisis. What appears to be a dialogue between people and the mango fruit, the following are a few lines from the narration:
Narratives of frivolous enjoyment and homemade pickles, pre-monsoon rain brings memories
Rain lovers eagerly await to get absorbed in maati ki khushboo, the petrichor
Yet their golden fingers flick in motion, arey ye acche aam kab aayenge?
Within the chowk, amidst the interwoven chorus of Alphonso, Kesar, Langda, Chausa, Safeda, Totapuri, Neelam, Dasheri, I am embodied in more than a 1000 forms.
I am capable, practically inescapable.
For me to exist, the climate is indispensable, for what they care about is acche aam kab aayenge?
The performative spectacle leads you to the entrance of the pavilion where the title Chowk and Charpai: an Urban Living Room, is stenciled on a wall, erected centrally within the space. Making one’s way inside, the gaze turns to the charpai weave ushering a fascinating rain of shadows inside. Here extended line patterns paint the floor ahead, and as Sahai shares, the space revels in a chaotic play of light and volume, something which is often seen in Indian architecture. Intrigued to know how sunlight renders the desired atmosphere and connects back to the idea of an urban chowk, we nudged Sourabh Gupta for this thoughts. “If you bring architecture as a tool (pavilion) to represent India,” he says, “it cannot be done without bringing the context of culture and climate of India; and both work around the sun. The idea of sitting in shade, in an Indian street / square needed an exaggerated play of light and shade. It would bring the reality and response one needs to truly fulfil the gesture. The south London sun also playfully lives these conversations; these chats with the chai and charpai.” Gupta has previously authored various thought-provoking pieces for STIR, which includes his observations on the choreography between light and the built environment, his favourite books spent reading during the quarantine, and his experience of visiting the architecture of Peter Zumthor. These articles are available for read here
Adding to the conversation on light and architecture, Sahai tells STIR, “The pavilion is like a sunshade with all qualities of typical indigenous architecture, which we really wanted to experience on an urban scale, and therefore we blew it out of proportion.”
The enclosing walls in the centre of the pavilion are dotted by rows of terracotta cups (kulhad) on their outer facade. On inside, these walls showcase mini renditions of traditional puppets as decorative elements, in addition to an arrangement of tangled ropes set before visuals of India’s congested urbanity—an attempt to emulate the cables of streets and markets running amok. The setup flows into a tea tasting experience with the cups, "a testimony to the comforting warmth of Indian hospitality and craft," as stated by the design team. Tea drinking being a strong cultural catalyst in India, and charpai, a distinguished visual icon across the Indian subcontinent, one observes that while both these elements encourage the subaltern voice, these are slowly diminishing. Is the design team inspired to retain these cultural drivers through a contemporary expression, or does it call for a new form of space (with or without the chai and charpai), we ask?
"If you look at a typical Indian marketplace,” Sahai explains, “when the global brands arrive, the quintessential Indian things get lost because every place in the world starts looking the same. Maybe yes, it is also about the nostalgia of the chai being a comfort drink enjoyed sitting on a charpai, but our idea is to question how we could bring it in today’s time. […] Due to globalisation, I think it is time to hold our ground and really have these small things to go back to the Indian way of living. To be a little more frugal in your life, to reuse, and repair rather than buying new things. Our idea has been to start such conversations and to reflect on how some of the world's problems can be solved by living the Indian way.”
The earthen cups themselves have very different meanings depending on the knowledge and experience of the viewers who see them. While someone from the subcontinent would recognise it as a utensil, what does it mean to a largely European eye? These are contemplations that are best suited for the kind of chapralis that the India Pavilion is referencing.
Designed as a multi-layered sensorial experience, the India Pavilion is a result of various collaborations. In its essence, it is a crossover of practice and pedagogy. Together with 40 students from The Design Village, studio archohm engaged with Boond Fragrances—a perfumery in Kannauj, a city in northern India, to develop notes of petrichor to waft within and around the pavilion. The performative layer introduced with the pavilion-sized puppeteers came from the collaboration with New Delhi-based Kayakalp Trust – a not for profit organisation that uses puppetry as a medium of behavioural change communication.
Describing another key layer, Gupta shares, “The terrace overlooking the Thames gets an Indian object that does cast deeper taller shadows at night with its lighting, overwhelming the imperial facades of the Somerset House.”
Inside the maze of exaggerated charpai weaves, one could hear the humdrum of Indian streets. As artefacts of rest amid the billowing restlessness, urban furniture created using the same materials of pavilion are peppered both inside and outside. As per studio archohm, these act as physical ambassadors and find a place in other pavilions at the biennale.
If one looks at the object and the place through the culture of tea drinking, one observes a meeting of two vastly disparate entities—the British and the Indian tea. One is robust, slightly bitter, yet best enjoyed as is; the other is an indulgently exotic beverage whose bitterness is pacified by milk, sugar, and desi masalas (traditional condiments). Also, there is something profoundly powerful about setting up a tea station or a chai tapri at the Somerset House. Tea is a deeply political object, even within the UK where it was one of the most heavily taxed exports at one point in time. While not a very big political claim is being made through the pavilion, one can't help but contemplate a deeper narrative.