Architecture as Weak Thought: Gandhi Inhabits Nothingness.
--M.K. Gandhi, excerpt from "Akash (Ether?)", Key to Health, 1948 (1)
THAT THE INDIAN POLITICAL LEADER AND nonviolent revolutionary Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi thought almost obsessively about his own body is only too well known. And yet, for all the care and thought that he lavished on his own body, the irony is that in a few instances Gandhi's very sense of his own embodiment may have been predicated on his conspicuous withdrawal from architecture. In other words, in the Gandhian imagination it occasionally took relinquishing one's own dwelling circumstances and stepping out into "akash" or the sky, to hearken towards one's own corporeality.
Or so one hesitatingly surmises after repeatedly parsing through Gandhi's 1942 essay titled "Akash". He penned that essay as a part of a larger volume titled Key to Health while he was imprisoned at the Aga Khan Palace following the launch of the Quit India movement. (2) Already, a decade earlier in 1932, Gandhi had written about akash to his nephew Narandas, while he was imprisoned in the Yeravada Jail. (3) "In 1931," he reminisced in that letter, "I was filled with sudden enthusiasm during the last month of my stay in jail. Why should I not give time to watch that [akash] which, to the outward eye, instantaneously reveals the presence of God?" (4) Indeed, so taken in with akash was Gandhi that he could not turn himself away from staring at it at night. He gazed at the sky because he wished to quench "the thirst which was awakened ... for a knowledge of the heavens." (5)
If he returned, then, to contemplating akash in 1942, Gandhi did so because he, by his own admission, once again had the time to do so. As he mentioned in the introduction to Key to Health, "the present enforced rest offers me such an opportunity and I am taking advantage of it." (6) More pertinently, Gandhi confided in his introduction that "anyone who observes the rules of health mentioned in this book will find that he [sic] has got in it a real key to unlock the gates leading him to health. He will not need to knock at the doors of doctors or vaidyas from day to day." (7)
At the very least, then, Gandhi wrote about the sky at the Aga Khan Palace in 1942 because he was concerned about the bodily health of his followers. The freeing up of the body from its vestments led, as Gandhi observed in "Akash", to the enjoyment of "the maximum amount of health". (8) If, on the one hand, an increase in material possessions such as heavy furniture, chairs, tables, sofas, bedsteads and innumerable looking-glasses, engendered feelings of suffocation, on the other hand, decreasing material possessions and thereby becoming more exposed to the element akash, saved one "from the complications of life". (9) In other words, the more one increased contact between oneself and the ethereal nothingness called akash, the more peaceful one became in a bodily sense.
And yet, notwithstanding such an immediate interpretation of 'Akash" as a text devoted to an ethereal nothingness and the bodily peace that comes with an exposure to it, weaker thoughts arise at a second remove, in subsequent readings. Going beyond merely engaging with the diminution of architecture and clothes, as a means towards establishing the existence of an ether that was nothing at all, one also begins to discern how, in "Akash", the relegation of clothes and architecture into the background may have served to mark or inaugurate the body as a more immediate, relevant foreground. Gandhi's body, one could argue, did not so much precede the retrenchment of architecture and clothes in his imagination. Rather, it was the very act of explicitly diminishing or decentring the value of architecture and clothes that raised the curtain, in the first instance, on the body as a centre, or as a site of Gandhian healthful practice.
Such a weak, second reading of "Akash" is certainly in keeping with the larger arc of Gandhi's political attempts at enhancing the visibility of his own body. In this regard, one could turn towards the anthropologist Joseph Alter's now classic Gandhi's Body: Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism, to learn more about Gandhi's attempts at conspicuously emplacing his own body, with its proclivities and desires, at the hub of his efforts at bringing about social and political change in late imperial India. (10) As Alter observes, "while working toward reform on a national scale, Gandhi often delineated the problem of action in terms of a discrete microphysics of self-discipline required of those involved. Even when writing about national and international events he seems to have been preoccupied with himself, with his [embodied] subjectivity in the context of dramatic sociopolitical change." (11) Rather than arriving at Gandhi from the vantages of his ideas, which could be divested of their material basis, one could, as Alter suggests, begin with the microphysics of self-discipline of Gandhi's incarnate, material self. (12) In other words, one could begin with Gandhi's emphasis on his own visible body as a material locus of struggles, to make better sense of his Indian nationalist project.
What, then, in the light of Gandhi's Body, to make of the various forms of marginalization that were occasioned, of necessity, by Gandhi's conspicuous acts of centring his own body? What to make of an entire array of entities such as architecture, clothes and even human subjectivities and forms of collectivization, whose marginality and invisibility became the very conditions of possibility for the emergence of the visibility of Gandhi's body? What, for instance, are the prospects for writing histories of architecture as a weak, faintly discernible, decentred artefact in Gandhi's imagination? Should one explore the manner in which architecture itself may have emerged as a kind of marginalized phenomenon in Gandhi's imagination, or as a phenomenon that he forcefully relegated to the marginal spaces of domesticity and interiority, in favour of foregrounding his more pressing, centralized concerns about community and living in the open? Or, on the contrary, should one engage with the manner in which architecture could in and of itself have belonged within Gandhi's weaker thoughts? Putting it differently, should one engage with architecture as a marginal site where the more well-established, stable, semantic and semiological systems and fixities of Gandhi's thinking, became weakened over time?
As disappointing as it might sound, an examination of the architecture of Gandhi's residences dating to the mid-1930s in the village of Segaon (renamed Sevagram) in the Wardha district brings one no closer to answering the aforementioned questions. Instead, an examination of those residences, which were built between 1936 and 1937, only serves to heighten one's sense of puzzlement. Those residences in Segaon, known today as Adi Niwas and Bapu Kuti, have their own peculiar stories to tell (figures 1 and 2).
Adi Niwas and Bapu Kuti were designed by Gandhi's follower, the British spiritualist Madeleine Slade (1892-1982) who was also known as Mirabehn. In July 1936, when the hexagenerian Gandhi shifted to Segaon to personally oversee constructive village improvement work, he initially stayed in Adi Niwas. The Gandhi archive dating to the time provides some evidence related to the construction of that structure. Gandhi ordained that the construction of that hut was to not exceed Rs 100. (13) Moreover, he forsook the expense of having partitions made within his hut, even as he asserted his need for a bare, indispensable minimum dwelling (figure 3). (14) The architecture of Adi Niwas, in that sense, was a parsimonious one.
Unlike the un-partitioned plan of Adi Niwas, the plan of Bapu Kuti was, as we shall see, a more elaborate one. In late 1936, when Gandhi's health deteriorated, Slade refashioned a nearby hut that she had built for herself, to accommodate him. This second hut, Bapu Kuti, was, as Slade claimed in her autobiography The Spirit's Pilgrimage, "a proper cottage for Bapu". (15)
At a plinth area of roughly 80 square metres, this "proper cottage" was not particularly large. However, in spite of the relative meagreness of its size, when one peers at a 1954 construction drawing of that structure, one notes the generosity with which Slade had allocated functions inside its enclosed walls (figure 4). Within the confines of Bapu Kuti's thick exterior mud walls, as essayed in the 1954 plan, one finds, among other functions, a verandah, a living room, a store room, a lavatory and even a massage room. Moreover, the living room itself was divided into three portions, with a central seating area for Gandhi, flanked by the walls of two subsidiary spaces on either side (figure 5).
Setting aside this elaborate architecture of Bapu Kuti for the time being, let us pay attention to Gandhi's own activities in Wardha dating to the late colonial period. As it turns out, the Gandhi who stayed in Segaon in the mid-1930s may not have been entirely unlike the person who wrote 'Akash" nearly seven years later in the Aga Khan Palace. In this regard, in 2004, I interviewed two Gandhians in Wardha-Dr Vibha Gupta and the late Professor Thakurdas Bung (1917-2013). They spoke about the outdoors. While Dr Gupta drew from what she had heard from Gandhians since childhood to suggest that Gandhi was like a soldier who mostly lived outside his huts, Professor Bung, who stayed at the time in Segaon, gently suggested that I should not be studying the interior architecture of his huts at all; rather, I should be studying the whole of the environment outside the hut. (16)
Whatever else Bapu Kuti may have been in terms of its interior architectural arrangements then, there is something to be said about imagining it in a negative sense, that is, as a place to be relinquished. Insofar as one pays heed to Dr Gupta and Professor Bung's narrations, one cannot entirely envisage Bapu Kuti independent of its relation to Gandhi's periodic withdrawals from it. In other words, remove the Gandhians' allusions to Gandhi's withdrawal from the architecture of Segaon in the 1930s, and one is left devoid of a knowable, Gandhian way of experiencing that very architecture.
And yet, it is one thing to say that one can, in keeping with the accounts of Gandhians, at best study Bapu Kuti in a negative sense, that is, as a place to be left behind in favour of a wider, more expansive akash. It is, or can be, quite another thing to pay attention to Bapu Kuti as a self-abnegating form of architecture in its own right. While in the former instance one places emphasis on its redundancy as a place to inhabit, in the latter instance one studies the extent to which that building verges, against the grain of its own materiality, on becoming nothing at all, or more specifically, on dissipating itself into a wider, more expansive akash. In other words, in the latter instance, one explores the extent to which an experience of the interiors of Bapu Kuti distantly approximates an experience of an outdoor akash.
That Bapu Kuti is no sealed, airtight volume is evident enough as one enters it in the daytime. The building has clerestory openings which run virtually uninterrupted along the higher reaches of its external and internal walls (figure 6). While these unshuttered openings are protected from the harsh Wardha sun by the wide eaves of the hut, they also allow a diffused form of daylight to enter and air to circulate. Moreover, these unshuttered openings on the exterior faces of Bapu Kuti are only to be matched by the presence of wider openings above the interior walls of the structure, that further draw light and ventilation into the deeper reaches of the hut (figure 7).
These openings within Bapu Kuti are intriguing, not least because they have been recreated in buildings dating to a later time in Gandhian Wardha. For instance, in Maganwadi, in the nearby city of Wardha, one can see that a hut belonging to Gandhi's follower Joseph Kumarappa (1892-1960) has a band of clerestory openings (figures 8 and 9). In Kumarappa's hut (constructed c. 1938) the high gable ends are virtually transformed into permeable screens, enabling air and light to travel freely into the structure, almost entirely negating the enclosed nature of the structure at the lower level. The architecture of Kumarappa's hut is comparable to the architecture of the nearby building of the Magan Sangrahalaya which has clerestory openings, giving it greater openness at the upper level (figure 10).
What, then, in the light of such clerestory openings, to make of the Gandhian architecture of Wardha? As much as one feels obliged to chronicle the withdrawal of Gandhi's body from that architecture into the healthful plenitude of an outside akash, one also at once feels compelled to narrate the ingress of tendrils of that plenitude into the body of the self-same architecture. While the very existence of Gandhi's sense of his own embodiment may have been predicated on his conspicuous departure from the architecture of Wardha, it also bears saying that the existence of that same architecture as a Gandhian artefact may have been predicated on its capacity to become suffused with akash. In as much as Gandhi believed in relinquishing his own dwelling circumstances so as to rouse his own corporeality in an open akash, he may as well have continued to stay within the bounds of an architecture in Wardha that spontaneously verged on weakening itself and dissolving itself into a limitless akash.
All images in this essay are courtesy the author. Figure 4 is a reproduction of a plan originally published in International Exhibition on Low-Cost Housing, New Delhi, 20th January to 5th March 1954: Exhibition Souvenir brought out by Ministry of Works, Housing and Supply, Government of India, 1954. It has been recreated by la: Journal of Landscape Architecture, India.
(1) M.K. Gandhi, 'Akash (Ether?)", in Key to Health, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Trust, 1948, pp. 47-50.
(2) According to the publisher of Key to Health, "Gandhiji wrote these chapters while he was confined in the Aga Khan Palace at Poona during 1942-1944. As the manuscript indicates he began to pen them on 27-8-1942 and completed them on 18-12-1942." Subsequently, Gandhi "took time to go through them again and again till the treatment was to his full satisfaction". From "A Word by the Publisher", in Gandhi, Key to Health, p. 3.
(3) M.K. Gandhi, "Watching the Heavens" (April 11, 1932), in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (online edition, henceforth CWMGO), Vol. 55, New Delhi: Publications Division, pp. 223-27.
(4) Ibid., p. 224.
(6) Gandhi, Key to Health, p. 4.
(8) Ibid., p. 48.
(9) Ibid., p. 49
(10) Joseph Alter, Gandhi's Body: Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
(11) Ibid., p. 7.
(12) Ibid., p. 16.
(13) M.K. Gandhi, "My Idea of Living in a Village", CWMGO, Vol. 68, pp. 308-9.
(14) M.K. Gandhi, "Letter to Mira Behn" (May 24, 1936), CWMGO, Vol. 69, pp. 33-34.
(15) Mirabehn, The Spirit's Pilgrimage, London: Lowe and Brydon, 1960, p. 208.
(16) Dr Vibha Gupta and Professor Thakurdas Bung in discussion with the author, October 2004.
Caption: 1 and 2 Adi Niwas and Bapu Kuti, designed by Madeleine Slade for Gandhi, in Segaon (Sevagram), Wardha.
Caption: 3 The interiors of Adi Niwas are minimalist and contain no partitions.
Caption: 4 Ground floor plan of Bapu Kuti, which is more elaborate in design than Adi Niwas.
Caption: 5 The central seating area in Bapu Kuti.
Caption: 6 Clerestory openings in the upper reaches of the internal walls at Bapu Kuti that allow plenty of air and sunlight to come in.
Caption: 7 Wider openings above the interior walls of Bapu Kuti provide ventilation in the deeper reaches of the hut.
Caption: 8-10 The usage of clerestory openings in Bapu Kuti is replicated in Gandhian Joseph Kumarappa's home and Magan Sangrahalaya in Wardha.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Publication:||Marg, A Magazine of the Arts|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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