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Travelling through history and culture: KRVIA students deconstruct the city of Braj

Students of Kamala Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture share the inspiring journey of understanding Braj in Uttar Pradesh, India, through architecture, mythology and daily life.

by Meghna MehtaPublished on : Dec 19, 2019

The intention of travelling and visiting new places for architecture students is to imbibe knowledge from seeing and observing what exists in our own and other cities and countries; to learn from history, culture and our immediate surroundings with a broad sense of social, cultural and regional context.

Believed to be the birth place of Lord Krishna, Janmbhumi at Mathura documented by the students of KRVIA | Braj | Exhibition | KRVIA | STIRworld
Believed to be the birth place of Lord Krishna, Janmbhumi at Mathura documented by the students of KRVIA Image Credit: Courtesy of KRVIA

While architectural documentation is still arguably undervalued, each study conducted in a thorough and focused manner can bring out extraordinary results that may add to the pool of significant knowledge in the field. The students of Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA), Mumbai, India, have analysed and thoroughly documented places such as Braj, Lucknow, Allahabad and Chakrata among others, and presented these works in the form of exhibitions.

Mansi Ganga of Govardhan area documented | Braj | Exhibition | KRVIA | STIRworld
Unique techniques of colour and data documentation used for ‘Mansi Ganga’, Govardhan Image Credit: Courtesy of KRVIA

Braj, also known as Brij or Brijbhoomi, is a region in India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh, though never a clearly defined political region, and is culturally well demarcated. Rohan Shivkumar, one of the professors who travelled with the students to Braj and guided them, explains, “For the past few years, we have been looking at religious landscapes and artefacts and studying the way they affect the everyday lives of communities around them. While in the previous year we had studied the Dargah at Ajmer, the next year we decided to look at the tangible artefacts that lie along a pilgrimage route. The routes we decided to follow were those that exist in the landscape of Braj.”

Radha Syam of Govardhan documented by the students | Braj | Exhibition | KRVIA | STIRworld
Radha Syam of Govardhan documented by the students Image Credit: Courtesy of KRVIA

In Braj, believed to be the land where Lord Krishna was born, four locations were chosen for the studies - Gokul, Vrindavan, Govardhan and Mathura - divided among sets of students. Shirish Joshi, another professor, explains the intent they had in mind, “Schools of architecture in India today follow active programmes for documenting by simply measuring buildings by drawing them as plans, sections, etc. We wanted the students to explore other forms of drawings that retain spatial sensibilities. This could be done by collapsing the conventional Cartesian drawings and populating them with activities and layering them with seasons and a sense of time. The miniature paintings in India are examples of such drawings.”

Joshi further adds, “The intent has been to create drawings that can be accessed by a larger audience that is not necessarily trained as architects. Apart from the usual exposure to the context and the people, for the students, the greatest learning is in how drawings can reach people and how drawing is also a performance.”

Movement and orientation captured by documentation at Vishram Ghat, Mathura | Braj | Exhibition | KRVIA | STIRworld
Movement and orientation captured by documentation at Vishram Ghat of Mathura Image Credit: Courtesy of KRVIA

Annuja Shah, one of the students who led the documentation during her third year B.Arch studies, explains how the process started, “The documentation was a pre-planned part of our architectural design studio. Our semester project was based on the idea of ‘architecture through religion’. That's why Braj seemed to be the most interesting place to go to since it hadn't been documented the same way before.” Before leaving for the study trip, the class did a short project on three religious places in Mumbai - Banganga, Haji Ali and Babulnath. This documentation became a short form exercise to what and how they would go about it in Braj.

The architecture of Braj, due to its traditional, cultural and mythological reverence had multiple adaptations, negations and layering. During their travel to these locations, students observed, noticed and analysed the reflection of these factors on the architecture. The students experienced that almost anywhere one goes, you can hear chants and people singing bhajans (hymns) about Radha and Krishna.

Every Ghat (steps to the water) has many myths and stories believed by the people there. For example, it is believed that Krishna killed the demon Keshi at the Keshi Ghat because he had been terrorising the city of Vrindavan in the form of a horse. The water of this river is, therefore, considered to be very sacred and people take holy dips in this water, even though it is now polluted.

Vishram Ghat, which is an important site in Mathura, goes by the legend that Krishna rested there after killing his uncle, King Kansa. So after every death that takes place in the city, the bodies are brought there to rest before being cremated.

Nishi Modi, a student who was part of the core team, further explains how the students documented the place on site, “while we were there, we used to go to site early in the morning to document the rituals and morning aarti (a religious ritual). Then we would observe people's daily life there throughout the day and attend the evening rituals too. On site modes of documentation were photography, drawing plans and sections of the built form and sketching.” Shah further adds, “And then we would return to the hotel in the evening and try out a full panel of five A2 sheets for each site to see what technique of representation works best. We would then have reviews with the professors on those drawings in the hotel in the evening.”

Govindji at Vrindavan documented by the students | Braj | Exhibition | KRVIA | STIRworld
Govindji at Vrindavan documented by the students using a unique colour scheme Image Credit: Courtesy of KRVIA

It was interesting to see that each place and its landscape related back to its own history and how it was built. Some temples were built on a high mound believed to be made by disciples of Krishna, some were recently made in RCC (reinforced cement concrete) while some were small niches in a wall or a tree that people would worship.

In most places, one would see one main temple that almost became the most important structure in its context, some in the form of a small shrine or a tree or a forest. Multiple places have posters and hoardings of Krishna, souvenirs being sold outside temples or people chanting the words Radhe Radhe while walking on the road.

Shah adds, “The temples there aren’t merely temples – it's the people, the rituals, the culture and everyday life there which formed the architecture of the place.”

Shivkumar explains, “While documenting the sites at Braj, they looked at the spatial manifestations that exist on the ground, the narratives - whether mythical, historical or those from the everyday lives of the areas, and the rituals that pilgrims were involved in. To represent the pilgrimage, the studio borrowed from the distortion of space that miniature paintings often deployed, along with techniques borrowed from orthographic architectural drawing techniques and comic books.”

After returning from their travel, multiple reviews with the faculty were conducted to rectify mistakes and forms that were not working out for a particular site. While most decisions were taken by the students, a core committee of seven students stayed in constant touch with the professors to keep them updated. The intention was to choose a drawing technique that explains the ‘architecture, ritual and the body (people)’ of the site. In the pursuit of communicating the thoughts most accurately and aptly, the students explored and experimented a lot with drawing forms, techniques and colour palettes.

People, activities and movements become the focus of documentation of Bankey Bihari of Vrindavan | Braj | Exhibition | KRVIA | STIRworld
People, activities and movements become the focus of documentation of Bankey Bihari of Vrindavan Image Credit: Courtesy of KRVIA

The entire process made the students realise how religion was deeply intertwined in people's changing lives and daily activities. There were multiple takeaways and valuable learnings through the various conversations they had with the people there while documenting the areas. Modi says, “For example, we resolved that we as architects must learn how to respect their beliefs while designing spaces for them, even if we may have found them to be extremely superstitious.”

Govind Kund, Govardhan | Braj | Exhibition | KRVIA | STIRworld
The fabric around the Govind Kund, Govardhan with temples documented Image Credit: Courtesy of KRVIA

Explaining what travelling has meant to them as students, they say, “We think without experiencing what it feels like to be in the middle of a crowd during the aarti, or at the bank of the river, or experiencing the life of the people there, it may be difficult to work on the studio project. At the end, whatever we design is for the people. And if we don't know who these people are, how they live, we can't really design good architecture for them.”

Apart from being displayed at the KRVIA school, the exhibition Braj was exhibited at the Lilavati Lalbhai Library, CEPT, Ahmedabad and Kalakriti, a contemporary art gallery in Hyderabad.

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