Architect Gita Balakrishnan is a Kolkata-based architect and founder of Ethos that is working towards instilling architecture and its impact in everyone related to the fraternity and bringing together architects, students, and professionals working in the built environment. Shehas taken the responsibility on her shoulders to initiate the communication around Design and started moving in the direction with support from peers, friends, and family. She has articulated a campaign called WALK for ARCAUSE embarking on a 1700km walk from Kolkata to Delhi rooting for the importance of Good Design. She is working towards upliftment of the profession and creating awareness about it amongst people and in areas where the term architecture and architect do not exist.
The campaign Walk for Arcause aims to spread awareness amongst people about the role a good design plays in enhancing the quality of life. She and her team at Ethos believe in the necessity of taking the conversation around sustainable and thoughtful design to the masses instead of sticking to the elite designer circle. The walk will craft an opportunity to interact with different communities on a personal level and identify the required areas for action. The identified situations are further intended to be discussed with various architects and designers to curate a solution for these communities. It brings focus to architects and their social responsibility.
On the way architect, Gita Balakrishnan conducts some ‘Chai pe Charcha’ or ‘Mera Ghar’ sessions where she interacts with the locals discussing simple things and building practices they need to adapt for building construction. The walk aims to bring to the limelight the contributions of the architecture and design fraternity through different programs and interactions along the way.
One interesting patch on her 1700km long Walk for Arcause journey is Madhya Pradesh accounting for around 700kms out of the total. The architect spent more than 30 days in MP exploring different heritage sites, meeting ample professionals, visiting certain NGOs, and interacting with school-going children to educate them about the design process and to get enlightened about their living conditions.
Here is the conversation our TDJ Correspondent had with Architect Gita Balakrishnan about her time in Madhya Pradesh.
Q The route from Kolkata to Delhi covered the largest distance of 700kms walking through Madhya Pradesh. Was it the demand of the route or the thought-through approach?
My intention was to walk to the capital, and I am based out of Kolkata. If I had taken the straight route to New Delhi, I wouldn’t have covered the seven states that I am touching now. Through the route, I wanted to touch as many geographical and cultural contexts as possible. The different engagement programs along the way shed light on the Architecture and Design fraternity, their contributions and role in society, and issues that they aim to address through design. Every step taken is a new lesson learned. Learning from communities, cities, institutions, organizations, climatic conditions, landscape, built and unbuilt environments, and formal and informal settings will allow the two-decade-long efforts of Ethos to come full circle. I have been elaborating on Design as a career choice through interactions at schools along the way. This has become a movement and several institutions of Architecture and Design across the country are now taking Design as a career to schools in their vicinity. ‘Mera Ghar’, an interactive module for educating laypersons on common building practices has triggered insightful discussions in smaller towns and villages. I am also traversing certain stretches of the route during the night to emphasize the need for safety in our cities.
Q The Walk for Arcause gallery entails your visits to many architectural heritage sites. Share with us all the places you explored and what were the experiences or encounters that might act as a catalyst for the initiative of this walk?
The route was dotted with many marvels of historical significance, big, small, known, and unknown. I began with a visit to the oldest thatch huts at Antpur, a village in the Hooghly District, and the terracotta temples of Bishnupur in West Bengal. In Jharkhand, I visited the Palamu Fort which is an ancient site situated at the heart of Palamu. The natural heritage of Betla and Panna are equal assets to our biodiversity. In Madhya Pradesh, I interacted with a temple priest on the banks of the River Satna across which lies the Madhavgarh fort. I certainly couldn’t have missed the magnificent Khajuraho Temples when I neared Panna. Built-in memory of Maharaja Chhattrasal’s wife Rani Kamlapati, the Maharani Kamlapati Cenotaph exemplifies the rich Bundeli art with its interior decorated with foliage patterns made using fresco technique. Built over 150 years ago with certain sections going back as much as 300 years, the Alipura Palace is an enchanting monument now serving as a heritage hotel. I visited the Jhansi Fort in Uttar Pradesh which played a crucial role in the revolution of 1857 and has been a witness to the fiery battle led by Rani Laxmi Bai. Besides this, I also visited a very old and dilapidated church in the Dudhi district. I recently visited the pride of Gwalior, the Gwalior Fort which has the reputation of being one of the most formidable forts in India. Thanks to a little additional time in Gwalior, I could also pay a visit to the Jai Vilas Palace, which is a symbol of age-old Indian culture and opulence, preserved to the modern-day. I crossed many bridges, old and new. While we all agree that these gems need to be preserved, restoration can never happen in isolation. A holistic development including the entire precinct, revitalizing the public spaces around, and ensuring benefit to local economies are key to a sustainable restoration project. For instance, the preservation and promotion of the Khajuraho temples have brought livelihood to the local communities in the vicinity.
Q How was your experience interacting with young minds on the way or while your school visits?
It is always a pleasure to interact with young minds. For younger children, I have been trying to stimulate their minds by talking about ‘Design in Nature’, and for older students (8th grade and above), I have been presenting ‘Design as a Career’ where they are exposed to many of the career opportunities available in the design field The sketching exercises with children made them reflect on their own homes, visualizing, detailing and pointing out what they liked the most, etc. I was surprised by their observations and ability to represent their spaces and talk about them in such depth! I am also taking back postcards that they fondly sketched for me.
Q Why was visiting NGOs or other workshops an active part of your walk?
I fondly recall my memories at Madhabpur, a village in West Bengal where I was moved by the reception I got from their Self Help Group who didn’t even know me or expect anything of me. Despite their worries, they sang and danced with me and interacted with such affection. I left with a heavy heart, hoping to find answers to some of their issues with the involvement of my fraternity. Organizations such as Deepshikha and Asha in Jharkhand are doing exceptional work towards ensuring a more inclusive society for all and equal opportunities for vulnerable communities. I have learned a lot from their valuable insights. It is important to learn from organizations that have been working towards creating a more inclusive society. We are already making note of potential research and built interventions along the way and are approaching prospective partners for support. Post the walk, fellowships will be conceptualized to engage young designers in context-specific interventions over a few months. Hence, the initiative will not conclude with the walk but will only be a beginning to touch lives through design from the actions of many.
Q How would you define the state of architecture as a profession in Madhya Pradesh?
I was pleasantly surprised to notice architects who left their towns to study elsewhere but had returned to their hometowns to work. I am talking about smaller cities and towns. It was a pleasure to meet so many young architects in cities like Satna, Rewa, Sidhi, etc. This way, they can serve and give back to their society while being aware of their local needs better. It is a great opportunity to take from the traditional wisdom while evolving with changing times to develop strategies that are rooted in local sensibilities as well as keep up with modern-day needs.
Q Share an experience that had a certain impact or made you think, while you were an MP.
Not just MP but I notice the skyline of the smaller cities, towns, and even villages to be moving towards uniformity and often losing identity. But in the vernacular styles, I have seen great variety as I moved through different regions, thatch roofs, Rammed Earth walls, Khaprail roofs, and bamboo constructions to name a few. It is also interesting to note the change of soil color from a reddish tint in Jharkhand to a more sand-like fine soil as I entered Uttar Pradesh and the same reflecting in the color of brick and mud walls. In regions such as Joypur with an abundant forest reserve, I noticed extensive use of wood for furniture, similarly in regions known for clay works and pottery, I noticed clay roof tiles.
The Walk for Arcause is just the beginning of an initiative to impact lives through good design and uplift the state of the profession.