Architecture in contemporary India has not established a dynamic and argumentative relationship with politics of time and culture in a robust way yet. This is not to say architecture and the many studios of design practice in a vacuum of time and space — they do not. There is a substantial number of studios and designers that build in various proportions in India today, that are very sharply aware of the context they live and work in, and at times consciously, and sometimes subconsciously, respond to a politics of place and people. And in the large quantum of built environment that is being churned out in India, if there is a small but critical mass of studios and practices that engage with the politics of people and place, and times around them, it is enough for a field to keep a sensible discourse between poetics and politics going.
However, what is missing is a robust public sphere of discourse around architecture and the built environment. In the 1990s, which many of us have now established as the decade of drastic change and turmoil for contemporary India and its people, and the way they shape their worldview today — saw a rich, even if small, public sphere of discourse, shaping in its days the discussion of the way we shape our buildings, to urban development, conservation, and issues of legislation, public life, and so forth. Something like the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai emerges from that history. Some key books on cities in India — Bombay/Mumbai, Bangalore/ Bengaluru, Delhi, Ahmedabad, emerge during this decade and the one after. Focussed discussions on architecture per se do take a backseat soon, and architectural conversations are subsumed in discussions on cities, history, and environment. This was an important development for that time; however, we lost out on debating architecture on its own terms. Discussing architecture on its own terms, and also not seeing a binary between contemporary ideas and approaches to historical references, was very important. So was talking of cities or history or the environment through the objectsubject of architectural practice and the architectural framework (material and ideas).
Romi Khosla’s The Loneliness of a Long Distant Future (Tulika Books, 2002) and Gautam Bhatia’s Punjabi Baroque (Penguin Books, 1994) are two important books from this period, which have received much less attention than they should have. They brought the architectural object to the centre, discussing it within the absurdities of time (in the case of Bhatia), or the tensed nature of world politics and cultural conflicts (in the case of Khosla). But in 2011 two developments bring the architectural object back to a centre and struggle to develop a language of discourse around architecture, through which to view the world and its politics as well as history, conflict and culture — Rahul Mehrotra’s book Architecture in India since 1990 (Pictor Publishing Pvt. Ltd, 2011) and the coming of DOMUS magazine to India. The fruitful conversations between and around these two, as well asthe debates emerging from these lead to the framing and making of the exhibition State of Architecture: Practices and Processes in India (UDRI and NGMA, 2016) co-curated by Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote, and Kaiwan Mehta. The period following soon thereafterhas been marked by an upsurge of very important books by Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava, Mary Woods, Madhavi Desai, and a range of books on works of senior architects such as I M Kadri, Hasmukh Patel, Christopher Benninger, A P Kanvinde, Mahendra Raj, and recently, Brinda Somaya.
This environment has encouraged some others to once again feel comfortable about or easy about producing public engagements with architecture — such as exhibitions, conferences, discussions, and so on — and one could say that is good, but one also regrets the uninformed approach very often in shaping
them. The State of Architecture (2016) as well as the State of Housing in India: Aspirations, Imaginaries and Realities (2018) shaped an argumentative continuity on the role of architecture, as well as the role of the architect as a professional, as a cultural contributor. The pages of this magazine, as well as the public arena of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and its space for discussions have brought forth important thematics to approach architecture and urban design — viewing new practices, scouting the country on design, looking at generational practices, gender and space, cultural conflict and space, challenging notions of context, reviewing modes of practice and what we call ‘design’, including reviewing the space and practice of discourse itself. Public sphere has to be shaped out of an informed engagement with the field; it can never be outside the broader and ideological understanding of practice. It is after all also a professional engagement — with love and passion for building a space of discourse, one needs to have a professional approach and an educated one. Personal fantasies or commercial enterprises use the public arena as a handmaiden for promotion: the narrow-minded agenda of the self or a clique, glitter of commerce and limelight. These are not at the service of building a vibrant field of practice, they never can contribute to the lives of individuals and studios as they struggle in the everyday world of practice and context. One hopes that as attractive form is adopted and grabbed, people would pay attention to the labour of building content, in the process of shaping a public sphere of discourse around architecture, cities, history, and people.
The public arena for debating practice is most vital to the shape of a field and the journey of many individuals participating in the production of this field — as practice, but also as discourse. And it maybe time that we develop a professionalism towards the understanding of fields of discourse, the making and shaping of spaces of exhibition and conversation that engage publics, networks of practice, and the world of ideas in an ever-active cauldron of cultural and political extractions and interventions.