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Bhuj: Art / Architecture / History.

Bhuj: Art / Architecture / History, by Azhar Tyabji. Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2006. 304 pages, 146 colour and 129 black-and-white photographs, 15 maps. Rs 3543/US$ 85.


This book is a much-needed text in the world of architecture, especially in India. Architecture in India is either dealt with as the handmaiden of real estate and development, or it is raised to a romantic pedestal by eulogizing historical buildings, where often their only worth is their age. Cities have been discussed by architects usually as the physical development of the place, often nostalgically, but simultaneously paving the way for ruthless changes in the urban landscape, since the past is altogether treated as something distant and already an unrecoverable loss. Other works such as literary and narrative texts, are more interestingly integrated in the understanding of cities than those produced by architects or self-styled urban historians. In this chaos of books on cities, architectural heritage, and conservation, the book by Tyabji has a very sharp intervention and criticism to make.

The most crucial aspect of the book is the fact that the author is a practising professional in the area of planning and development, and the text in many ways purely emerges from his work during the reconstruction process in Bhuj after the earthquake in 2001. Yet, the text is not a mere documentation of his experiences but includes ruminations on the critical and theoretical questions on a range of issues--from culture to politics and economics--that he faced, probably very much in his personal capacity, while working in, and on, Bhuj. The result is not a conventional book but a collection of about six essays or monologues, punctuated by interviews compiled during an oral history exercise. This brings one to the next most crucial characteristic of this book--it considers ethnography or socio-political studies as practically central to the development process, rather than as a lip-service exercise to make planning activities appear generous. And from the book it is clear that though Tyabji has not completely resolved his struggle, one can rest assured that his concern and direction are well founded and genuine. Also clear in the introduction is the fact that the author knows what he wishes to achieve, ideally, and that the book is part of his struggle and process, a process that could change many existing systems, if taken seriously.

The book starts with a chapter on the history of Bhuj, and in a very classical way progresses chronologically, but the interventions of interviews then structurally start interfering with and readjusting the chronological narrative. That narrative too has constant references to places, sites, and people; many of us have struggled to discuss or write history in a more inclusive manner, but this book achieves it in several ways. Besides the amalgamation of history and archival writing with stories and references to people and places, the range of material referred to also raises interest. And the text simultaneously ruminates on issues like monarchy, neighbourhood in a city, and modernization. Therefore, what starts off as a history exercise gradually becomes a much richer story-telling endeavour. But a story to what purpose? Well, this brings us to the third and possibly the most crucial question of this book, in the chapter "The City Resculpted", of how places and especially cities change, undergo development, and metamorphose.

Bhuj presents a very special context to address the above question. Most times we discuss development as a process that is always an antithesis to the past; simultaneously imagining the past to be this constant category or structure that has never changed, can never change, but can only be destroyed. This kind of argument is very detrimental to cities since it makes one imagine that there is no space for development to take place without destruction, and hence there can never be a conversation between what exists and what will come. In the case of Bhuj, the destruction was natural; so obviously the development activity would tend to come in like a stamping activity that would erase the already lost past and create the city anew. Here the tasks and responsibilities of planners and developers are multifold compared to those for development in cities under general circumstances. At one level one realizes that the physical space and geography which is the anchor to knowing, understanding, and remembering a city is destroyed at many levels by the earthquake, but what one can also realize, and which emerges in this book, is how the physical and geographical space exists much beyond its material self. Interviews with people in Bhuj present the memory of history through festivals, stories of marriage and other processions, lost or transformed craftsmanship; all these are important registers not just of the history of a place, but very much its physical culture, too.

In a simplistic manner, one could say that the past, especially the physical-visual-spatial past, exists in the many photographs found in archives and private collections, but that is only one small and restricted realm of existence. It is heartening to note that one of the six chapters in this book is on the nature of photography as a technique and cultural science, especially in the colonial context. Most texts that ruminate on cities use photographs as obvious truths, much like architectural drawings. The fact that this book discusses photography as a cultural science and not a purely rational technique, brings in the crucial question of how we deal with archival material, and what nature of material can give us what kind of a "past". The other important question to ask, while discussing conservation, is: which past do we wish to go to. This is precisely the question I raised earlier, whether the past can be considered a static object, or it itself has many and changing versions. So some pictures in the book are discussed to show how an imagined past conjures up an image very different to the reconstructed past in the photograph.

In a book like this, a chapter on craftsmanship, craft, architectural materiality, ornamentation, construction, etc., becomes very important; and the author has covered the subject fairly exhaustively--discussing interesting issues like migration, economic relationships between different craftsmen communities and the resulting visual cultures, and so on. In this chapter and others, architecture drawings are attractively employed, but not explored for their representative or historical significance.

The other interesting chapter, which probably is specific to the place, discusses processions in the city. Here the procession, or the navigation, through a place, an urban setting, becomes an interesting way of recreating or restructuring the physical and cultural past of the city. The overlaying of old narrated processional routes onto a contemporary map of the city is a very informative and interesting exercise.

The last essay discuses the role of institutions in the reconstruction process, and offers ideas for rebuilding the city, anchoring in its cultural heritage or pasts. This short essay, along with the Epilogue, hits upon all the usual dilemmas that conservation practice in India has been juggling with; obviously here the question of responsible urban development and restructuring is much more important than conserving one building or precinct. Interestingly, the author also enters into the question of the applicability of historical and ethnographic research to planning and civic action, and he goes into the details of some practical issues regarding the application of such research to restructuring endeavours.

This book elaborates on the very important structural deviations that planning and development processes will need to undertake. To use the author's phrase, "constructing critical portraits of the city" should become crucial to metropolitan development, and this book does not just talk about it but well indicates a methodology for its practice.
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Author:Mehta, Kaiwan
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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