What happens to heritage? Reflections at Adalaj, near Amdavad

 

Magic of Adalaj vav

A peaceful morning, beautiful clear morning light. My pictures looked like I rendered them monochrome, though I didn’t. Such was the magical ambience of the Adalaj step-well as I entered it last friday.

On our way there from Amdavad airport, we drive past many grand mansions on single family lots. Plenty of plotted development, malls, organised retail in other forms as well as a smattering of multi-story apartment complexes fill our view. Yet, there is plenty of green, wide well-laid out roads. Overall, the impression a visitor gets is of a city that kind of has a grip on things, especially compared to Delhi where we come from!

A bit further on, we drive past fields and vegetable patches, brick factories and ready mix concrete plants…clearly, the hinterland works hard to serve the city here and it seems like a peacefully symbiotic existence without traffic jams and pollution to mar the picture, yet.

Adalaj turns out to be a typical kasba, a busy intersection with many state transport buses going to other towns in Gujarat. Wires criss cross, vendors selling fruit and drinks aplenty. The ubiquitous large greco-roman homes, and the more ordinary run down smaller versions as well. And then, all of a sudden, we drive up to a fence. Right in front of us, is a thriving little temple. It seems busy, too! Confused…(the last time I came here was 12 years ago as an architecture student and my memory takes a while to ignite)…my eyes dart right and I am drawn slowly into the magic of the Adalaj step well. I am vaguely aware of John and Nipesh (my colleagues at work and also fellow-architects with an equal passion for heritage and all things beautiful) moving in the same slow trance. We don’t exchange glances or say anything at all. At our own pace, we all descend, cameras and camera phone at hand down the steps, down and down and into the heart of the ‘baodi’ or ‘vav’ as the locals call it.

Momentary eye-contact with Nipesh as we explore different levels

Awe, wonder, chaos, blankness...heritage viewed through innocent eyes...

 

 

 

 

 

 

A touristy shot for the most un-touristy John..peeking through the jharokha!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spend about an hour there, inside, back up to ground level, over it, around it…we talk in smatterings, we observe the few tourists who do the same kind of walking in and out like we did, but in a speedier check-list kind of manner. There is also a group of schoolkids with their teachers. Eager, young faces, boys about  6 years old, taking in the vav with wonder but also a fair bit of confusion about what they are supposed to see, really.

Which brings me to my point here. To the city dweller and to the professional community of architects, planner and city managers, heritage is  always slightly off priority. Unless we consider major international attractions like the Taj, heritage monuments seem to be placed in the ‘nice to see’ category that implies a neutral attitude (a shrug would describe the attitude perfectly). To me, this does not gel with the sheer beauty and historical ambience of the sites that pepper our cities, nor the fact that many millions live within and alongside spectacular heritage as well (more on that soon!). Neither does it reconcile the reactions of visitors, who  experience and exhibit awe, fascination and admiration as tourists, but would hardly ever visit a heritage site in the city they live in! In the city planning structure, heritage is considered something that can be attended to when all the ‘real’ problems have been addressed. Of course, we know that even the so-called real issues need tremendous time and patience and experimentation to get addressed. That there are never any clear answers in planning because circumstances are constantly evolving and stakeholders numerous. We all talk about an inter-discplinary approach to city planning, but heritage still sits a little outside this inter-disciplinary nexus!

We need to focus on wat is aesthetic, precious and exquisite in our cities

This needs to change. Not only because heritage is precious. Not only because it can be monetised through tourism. But because it is beautiful, and these spaces have meaning. When a child enters a space as special as Adalaj vav, he experiences magic from the past. He sees texture (material, light and shadow), he hears a fresh echoing sound he has never heard before, he wonders why something like this was built, he sees the stagnating water at the bottom, he stares at the carved floral and geometric patterns. He is shaken out of his taken-for-granted everyday urban existence. He, for a few moments, is someone other than the blase, confident and often brash young street-fighter! He is taken back through time, his heartbeat slows down, or quickens.

To me, these are priceless experiences that not just children, but adults in India must not miss out on because we are unable to place heritage into the proper context in our education system, in our understanding of our urban identity, in our tourist itineraries, in our minds.

Try this. This winter, take your family to a heritage site in your city. There has to be one, if not many to choose from. Doesn’t matter if it is small or big, famous or not, listed or not, written about or not. Just go with a small picnic (don’t litter, please!) and spend more time there than it takes to walk around it. Experience the magic and then ask yourself if it was worth it! I don’t know what your answer will be, but I am going to do this all winter and I know my answer will be a resounding YES!

We need better urban spaces to make us happier, more productive individuals…

What makes us happy? This isn’t something we decide for ourselves. Its what the world—our environment—tells us to want. The only really happy people in the world are those who have discarded that standard list and explored what pushes their buttons, independent of the perceptions of their friends, family and colleagues.

I see that around me everyday, not just among other women like me, who have young children and who are either living with a compromised career situation or have given up their careers altogether for an indefinite period of time. I see the same even among hardcore corporates, friends who are in senior management at banks, financial institutions, IT companies, BPOs, FMCG companies, retail, etc etc. Everyone complains wanting more out of life to make them happy. You ask what they need and there are two types of responses. The first is predictably the better pay package, better car, house, partner, job opportunity, etc. The other is the escapist reponse- i want to do something different, i’m bored!

In all fairness, its fine to be cribby and its great to have aspirations. But I wonder how many of my friends are actually chasing things that will make them happy? I know, for sure, that many are aspiring for what they think they ‘should’….and since its the accepted norm, they don’t think further. And every so often you meet the soul who has arrived and got everything he aspired for! And he’s unhappy too! And at a complete loss why!

To come to the point, I wonder how all this angst and misdirected energy impacts productivity in our urban environments. As a planner, I see a direct correlation between our urban environments and the state of mind of urban professionals, especially those who are bright, creative and have the capacity for greater output. It’s pretty simple, really!

Bright, young people need spaces to interact, recreate and renew their energies. Our cities don’t give us those. We don’t have places to play. Public sports complexes are all but absent and few and far between in Indian cities. We don’t have large green spaces that are safe and well maintained. If they exist, they are difficult to access and fenced, gated- you probably need to drive several kilometres to get to the entry gate even when you can see the park right in front of you, which usually destroys the motivation to go there again! Entertainment destinations other than the mall are simply not there! You have to really jiggle your brains to think of stuff to do with friends that doesn’t involve going to a movie or shopping or other equally mind numbing non-interactive activities!! Hey, I love to shop and watch movies, but we need much more variety in our cities. We also need a more vibrant night life culture. Thinking, creative adults need to meet other exciting people in a variety of spaces to spark new ideas and create new productive and enjoyable relationships (it would also answer the question many of my girl friends ask often- ‘where are all the fun, good looking guys?’).

Cities are much much more than mere concentrations of people. By being concentrated, we can not only be a lot more efficient about how to service them, we can reap a hundred-fold benefit from the concentration of the creative energies of these people. In Gurgaon (where I live) I feel its a downright shame that the country’s most dense settlement of educated people live in the most unstimulating urban environment possible. There aren’t even sidewalks,. so we’re too scared to ask for more!

In my mind’s eye, I visualize a Gurgaon where young and old have great opportunities to spend their leisure time. Where business can be done outdoors on a sunny winter day. Where children benefit from the presence of nature right in the centre of the city. Where aquariums, museums and zoos enrich knowledge and create talking points related to sustainability and the environment in a much better way that trade fairs and lectures! Where schools and schoolchildren , businesses and employees, citizens et al feel a sense of pride and fulfillment in living here!

Where we have half a chance of asking ourselves ‘what makes me happy’ and not fearing that the answers will open a Pandora’s Box of expectations that our urban environments will never let us meet. I don’t know how, but I crave to change things! Help!

We buy what we eat, we eat what we buy!

We tried the newly opened Spar Hypermarket in Gurgaon today. Like all trysts with super (oops!-hyper) markets, I went in with a list of about ten items and came out with a cart full of shopping. Call it the advantages of choice or you can question whether we really need all the stuff we buy!

Which brings me to my observation about the contents of the shopping cart of the average urban shopper family. Today’s informal survey (sample size 50- yup the new place was buzzing) showed me that a whopping 50-60% of the average carts comprised of chips, namkeen, maggi, aerated drinks, maida biscuits, etc. Of course, to some extent, cart contents did mirror the family composition, but not hugely. For a city that comprises educated salaried reasonable well read people and considering the astounding amount of health related information being belted out to us, I kept wondering that the future is bleak. Very bleak. South Asians, that is US, have the highest risk of diabetes and heart diseases and all the related health problems in the world. The WHO has lowered BMI standards for us and now we need to be thinner and more halth conscious than ever before if we are to expect to lead reasonably normal healthy and happy lives.

Those shopping carts reflected no awareness of this health epidemic, larger than dengue, chikunguniya, swine flu and what have you, that we indians are facing today. Worse, the carts probably reflected apathy, or worse, escapism of these harsh realities. At this time, the planning commission, the government, economists and civil society are waging battles over how poverty should be defined and what the appropriate calorie intake of urban and rural Indians should be to quality them as poor or not poor. At the same time, urban India is wolfing down the excess calories in all the wrong types of food with no thought for their own individual futures, leave alone the collective future of our civilisation.

We need to question our lifestyles in many ways, including what we are buying and eating and how much of it. No harm in a bit of fun, but seriously, when will we learn to take responsibility for ourselves?