Dayanita Singh brings home the light of BV Doshi through the Portrait of a House

As the Pritzker Prize winning architect turns 94, we celebrate the discovery of some of his poignant conversations chronicled in a remarkable new book of photography.

by Soumya MukerjiPublished on : Aug 26, 2021

It is impossible to articulate the entire magnitude of some people. Reams and reams of print and reels of photography have been dedicated to Pritzker Laureate Dr. Balkrishna V Doshi, and yet, his story is never quite complete. But where the best of words may falter and what the sharpest cameras cannot capture, a playful romance of the two mediums may more effortlessly achieve to a great extent. 

On a serendipitous afternoon that happened to be World Photography Day, I spoke with photographer Dayanita Singh to observe the Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi. Exquisite, delicate details from the legendary Indian architect’s home in Ahmedabad poured out from the book of photographs, offering an essence far beyond pedagogy or poetic musing alone. While much has been written about the architect's studio, Sangath, Singh travelled to photograph the 94-year-old’s home, Kamala House, in 2018, followed by conversations over Zoom last year in lockdown that led to this unplanned essay.

A slim volume clothed in midnight blue, the book just as the house, is a tender education in love and light – often one interchanging forms with the other – both one and the same. The house becomes the book and the book, the house of emotions. On the cover, Doshi smiles with a disarming simplicity, inspired by Singh’s own childlike lens.

Far from intimidating or larger-than-life, the form of the book itself reflects the fluidity of Doshi’s principles | Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi by Dayanita Singh  | STIRworld
Far from intimidating or larger-than-life, the form of the book itself reflects the fluidity of Doshi’s principles

“Whether it is a chair, an object or a person, I cannot shoot till I really connect with the subject,” shares the artist, adding that nothing drives her more than intuition. Perhaps that explains the nature of the intimate conversations between the author and the architect: one of student and teacher interchanging, friends in interpretation, strangers in keen observation, children exploring each other's eyes and play, poets philosophising in a parlance rare...

Excerpts and observations:

Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi: an open book | Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi by Dayanita Singh  | STIRworld
Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi: an open book

Love and light

Dayanita Singh (DS): I feel that architecture reveals itself in the relationships that it builds between people…these elements turn Kamala House not only into a house of light, but also into a house of love, and I think its architecture has a lot to do with the kind of relationships that developed in it. So for me, the family album is more a portrait of Kamala House than any beautiful image one could take of the structure. And I wonder whether it might be time to think differently about how architecture is photographed…

Through the photographs one realises that there's less structure or furniture, there's more family. She clicks conversations, she flows with the continuum and follows the nuanced interplay of light and shadow that creates the house. 

Light is the shaper of the Kamala House | Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi by Dayanita Singh | STIRworld
Light is the shaper of the Kamala House

BV Doshi (BVD): Light is a line. It becomes a surface and then a volume, and with various intensities it travels. Light is immaterial, unmeasurable; you can neither catch not contain it. It is fluid without volume or dimension. It is invisible unless there are floating particles that you can notice. It penetrates through pinholes, but no sooner than it hits a surface it spreads in any form that it has – fluid, invisible, yet representing the objects it hits. This is the miracle of light.

One of the most powerful portraits is that of Doshi watching his wife Kamala affectionately as she sings hymns. She is in the light and he is in shadow. 

DS: It’s been 60 years?

BVD: 65 years. 1955, yes. 


Stillness

BVD: How do you have a conversation with a still photograph?

DS: That’s why I wish I could make a photograph where somebody could actually hear this conversation. Whenever I see my photographs after I get home, and I’m sure it will happen, especially in this situation, I get a little depressed, because I have shared something special in that…

BVD: And nobody is listening. 

The pages stay still on turning, they do not flap or flip heavy or light, just like the calm and comforting conversations in the book | Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi by Dayanita Singh | STIRworld
The pages stay still on turning, not flapping heavy nor flipping too light, just like the calm conversations they contain

Ease and vulnerability 

There's a languorous way about the house woven by warm, homely comfort and Raja Ravi Verma-esque renditions of the many women that make Doshi’s family. The younger members often assume a horizontal position or sit along staircase platforms created for rest and conversation midway. Tapestry with Le Corbusier's design adapted by the noted textile designer, Rajen Chaudhari, hangs easy in one of the photographs and the pet peahen saunters casually in and out of others. This ease also flows into the dialogue itself, with paradoxical phrases such as a “wild garden” featuring most naturally in speech.

Architecture, says Doshi, is not really the design but the ability to create life through it | Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi by Dayanita Singh | STIRworld
Architecture, says Doshi, is not really the design but the ability to create life through it

BVD: There is no formality to the place. So how can you create a space that can control or create moods? How do you give people a chance to become themselves, lose themselves, in a place? Where does formality become informality to the point of almost intimacy? That is the purpose of architecture. Architecture is not really the design. Architecture is a way of creating moods, creating situations, images and stories. It makes you begin to talk about things which you never thought of talking about. Even your posture can generate a certain thought. If you sit straight and the spine is vertical, you begin to be conscious of yourself. If you sit on the floor and relax and start talking, that posture is like a Michelangelo sculpture where the Mother is carrying Christ. So your posture has to become almost malleable. The air has to move. Your breath has to become slow.

In these conversations, Doshi emphasises that it is important for an architect to think about all the angles at which the human body can move, consider partial movement and pauses while planning a space.

BVD: I think nobody ever wants to sit on a chair…Do you allow people to become themselves or live their lives in their own way? Then it is living. In architecture, do you create things where you allow people to play the game, become themselves? You trigger in them something that declares, ‘I can be myself’. And your photographs have that animation. 

A peahen roams about the house freely; Doshi believes it is the essence of the deity Krishna that blesses his home | Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi by Dayanita Singh | STIRworld
A peahen roams about the house freely; Doshi believes it is the essence of the deity Krishna that blesses his home

In the house, there are no imposing structures or sharp edges characteristic of modernism, and this is reflected in Singh’s compositions that embrace the immense life and possibilities in these open expanses.

DS: When people think of modernism, they think of very straight, very clean lines, and in your houses there are these…beautiful cut-away spaces. 

BVD: There is no framing in these houses. There are no edges, there are no ends. There is no frame and you are not taking a picture in a precise, defined space. You are taking in the fluid space. So that fluid space helps to look at gestures. And it is infinite. You get a much larger canvas which you cannot measure. 

Windows form an important element in shapeshifting and regulating the mood and scope of a space | Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi by Dayanita Singh | STIRworld
Windows form an important element in shapeshifting and regulating the mood and scope of a space

Blunders

At one point, the architect reminisces his days of working with Corbusier, who was not too forgiving of mistakes. Doshi, however, decided to make these blunders an important part of his own craft.

BVD: I came to Ahmedabad to supervise construction for him (Corbusier). I made a lot of blunders, but I knew what to do with blunders. 

DS: Oh, is that the secret?

BVD: Then you say you are reinventing out of a residue. I look at my life as a residue. The advantages are that you can modify it. It is a malleable residue. I look at life that way. In all my designs I leave a gap somewhere for the residue. I call it breathing. That is where life comes from. Because that little thing is why life is and life is not measurable. But that is what you must search for, all the time. Then you’re free. 

In all my designs I leave a gap somewhere for the residue. I call it breathing. That is where life comes from. – BV Doshi

The architect has his share of quirks too that are revealed by a particularly interesting photograph: all his awards and certificates adorn the bathroom walls.

Meanwhile, Singh is occupied, even fascinated by everyone’s hands dancing and intertwining, reminiscent somewhat of the trees in sakhibhava (friendly play) in Vrindavan, India.

This is a 152-page exploration that upholds timeless wisdom, simplicity and the love of family on its spine, and affirms the intimacy of touch and relaxation so significant in the current human context when the pandemic has left us parched.

A spread brings alive the classic columns and vast spaces between the staircases meant for rest and dialogue | Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi by Dayanita Singh | STIRworld
A spread brings alive the classic columns, and vast spaces between the staircases meant for rest and dialogue

The expansive parts of text assist you in the first half of the book. Once you've crossed the threshold, the pictures take you by the hand silently, showing all with short deliberations under each. Elements as diagonals, cavities, columns and apertures dot the prints and the dialogue which appear not as separate but one story.

From Kamala House, the conversation moves to Maneesha House, which the architect picks as a subject of self-criticism – the hallmark of a true craftsman. Smatterings of sketches appear every now and then, and the minimalist book design by Rukminee Guha Thakurta allows a seamless platform for this easy exchange of evocative thoughts. The book ends with an effervescent afterword by the author's mother, Noni Singh, who muses the caves of Ellora and the miracle of awakening, nature, and places that are yantras – instruments that change you from the inside, wordlessly.

In conclusion, I must borrow one of the lines that describes a photograph where the family is close together, as it also perfectly sums up the play between Doshi's words and Singh's photographs: 

They're together but there is air. They are touching but there's no pressure between them. There is joy.

Dayanita Singh and BV Doshi walk through the former's photography exhibit last year | Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi by Dayanita Singh | STIRworld
Dayanita Singh and BV Doshi during a walk through the former's photography exhibit Image: Courtesy of Gallery WHITE

(Portrait of a House, Conversations with BV Doshi, published by Spontaneous Books, is available via Sangath, Gallery WHITE and Offset Projects)

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