Coerced Harmony (A Tour)Hammad Abid (MFA TX 2021)
Recollecting these memories of Nani’s (grandma’s) house is one way of bridging the gap between my homeland in India and Providence, RI, where I am living today. The gap between past and present, however, remains.
1. The City
Across a bustling intersection from one of many desolate post offices, a pale blue sign welcomes pedestrians and travelers to a new city and wishes them safety. A towering, red-stone statue of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the author of India’s constitution, stands under an enormous dome. It signifies the history of the city—a history of lost identity, which here becomes a relic, a forgotten antique that passing commuters don’t give a thought to.
Hapur, or Panscheel Nagar, was gifted by the Indian ruler Daulat Scindia to a French general, Pierre Cuillier Perron, at the end of 18th century. Its name has been changed many times to demonstrate its progress from a small village to a large district. But has Hapur really improved? Or do political leaders, assuring progress, deceive the people, who cling onto their hope?
2. The Neighborhood
Entering Nani’s neighborhood, the whole scenario changes. Past the outer facade of this city, the glorified statue, delving deeper, we find traces of the past in a neighborhood which is trying hard to retain its identity in this post-colonial rule. Here, modernity shifts into a rustic ruin. Huge buildings, wind pavilions, and high parapet walls create an uneven skyline, shading each other and the streets where people are walking by. Layer upon layer of textures cover the immense structures, their strong walls withstanding the age of time, harboring untold stories of past generations, of a culture from the days when objects were designed to last. The materials hold true to the buildings’ roots. They value the stories they tell.
One building stands out among the ruins, proclaiming a time of rich culture, portraying the story of the people who once lived there. The contrast of aging texture on the building, of the florally decorated enclosure, and the plastic tank on the wall give a sense of crisis, a feeling of displacement of time—as if all the textures are competing. The sunlight and building work together to demand attention; the light shining down acts as a spotlight, illuminating the building’s design and shouting out its history of local pride.
3. Nani’s House
Heading north we can see a bullock-drawn cart standing patiently next to the latest imported car. The past and the present coexist on this street. One house, like all the other houses fairly old, has an especially warm feeling to it. Its massive architectural dome emphasizes the oneness of God. The minimalist floral symbols overlaid at the top reinforce the communication of a period of time which one can’t understand or doesn't want to understand or which does not exist. In spite of its strength, and no matter how long it has survived, this house is being engulfed by commercialization, as the external baithak—connected common spaces—have been rented out to local businesses.
Various types of limestone, pressed for thousands of years and having been formed in different times and environments, come together in this structure, now creating a geologic harmony. Is this the final destination for all these rocks or is the rest of their journey yet to come? Arrangements of patterns, spiral, lattice, grid, checkerboards, and scallops cover the landscape dynamically, overlaying the construction of space, enforcing a communication between many architectural nuances.
Wire networks wrap around the house like a spider web, transforming it and strangling it as it becomes something new. The wooden door, lined with metal knobs and carvings, remains strong, having guarded the house for generations. The rustic battle scars on the doors show their painstaking journey of facing the elements of nature to fortify the home. Above and on either side of the doorway are tiny, empty stages for oil lamps, which long ago took their final bow—abandoning the form of shelter to stand alone without the function of luminescence.
A step inside the door leads into darkness; only the silhouette of another arch is in sight. It’s bisected by rays of light coming from two different light sources, running along the ground and dividing the space into two paths. Unaware of the history of the division, the visitor faces the dilemma of choosing one. The gradual shift between outside and inside is marked by the change in the space interacting with light values. Journeying inside, the visitor is absorbed into a transitory thematic quality, is adopted into the home’s history itself—portraying the extremes co-existing in the same place, like yin and yang, with one being experienced only due to the presence of the other and vice versa. The presence of darkness can be felt by the absence of light and the presence of light can be felt by the presence of darkness. Choosing the right path, one moves along gradually, the seductive unfolding of space feeding a sense of curiosity, until the darkness is engulfed by the sunlight and a clear sky, which at last marks the arrival in a courtyard.
5. The Courtyard
Bathed in sunlight, the courtyard brings the occupants into daily contact with nature and the supernatural. The courtyard is a window into nature, its open sky area offering sunlight, ventilation, connection, and privacy. Blurring the boundaries of inside and outside, the courtyard reinforces the connection with the passage of time and changes of season. The movement of the sun from dawn to dusk speaks to daylight’s role in instigating the rhythm of life: getting up and going to bed, setting up work and rest schedules. The sun’s angles are carefully considered when deciding the size, shape, and orientation of windows and architectural forms.
The courtyard is multifunctional: it is sometimes the family’s communication center, or a small piece of nature, a home for plants. It is also an extension of the kitchen, for activities like chopping, drying, and cleaning. On days with fair weather, even the cooking would take place in the courtyard. However the confusion of an identity crisis lurks in this courtyard—in the combining of different materials and the new structure and material taking over the old. The web of electricity wire crawls into the courtyard, reaching inside the house, trying to transform it and adapt this piece of old architecture to fit the modern world, in spite of its shortcomings.
Just beyond the courtyard is the kitchen, full of pots and utensils, which communicate through their design and material the glory of a culture where things were built to last and could be recycled to emerge as new. By contrast, the plastic bottle replacing the oil lamp opposes these old traditions. The decaying texture on the wall tells the story of the labor and sweat of generations of people cooking here.
On the left side of the courtyard is the hall used to store household items. Here, the beauty of time and ephemerality are revealed in the decaying tools and furniture. On the right lies a room whose textiles, layout, and furniture have been changed many times, as it harbored different generations of the same family. An indent built in the wall still holds traces of the past, no matter how much its function changes. This space was built for an oil lamp, for objects and treasures of the household. However, the objects sitting on it now do not fit organically into the indent. The ceiling, constructed from beams of wood, is another relic of the past. One of the wires from the web has crept into the room; the blades of an electric fan spin on the ceiling, while a traditional woven fan lies idle in the corner of the room. Another relic from the past can be seen on the door. The locking mechanism which still holds its ground, protecting the family, but is something of a teaser for the modern takeover.
The stairs to the second floor of the building switch direction like the tail of a whale flipping its body, leading to an open area with clear sky. The whole space is built like a labyrinth that blurs the boundaries between indoors and out. Negative spaces built into the wall act as tiny windows to the past, narrating the story of a culture in which women stayed behind the veil. These tiny windows allowed women to look through the walls, to interact with the world.
7. Dual Identity
Various paradoxes operate in this space, which has its own timeline in which all the things are decaying at different rates. The house is built to last and constantly exposed to the elements. But it is juxtaposed with the presence of plastic. A part of the disposable culture, the plastic will degrade with the weather, but will last longer than the house, in spite of their divergent designs. Amid the different stages of aging and varying stages of degradation there are also plants—live and translating the outdoors to the indoors, flipping the time on its head as they become stronger and bigger with exposure to the sun and the water, which break down both the home and plastic.