Some concerns with private “mixed use” #redevelopments #Affordability #London #Dockyards

Having visited both Berlin and London this year, I can’t help but think about how the metropolitan centers of the world are constantly reinventing themselves and how redevelopment has become a vital ingredient in keeping these “global cities” alive and kicking!

My friend and guide to London this year, Jhilmil Kishore is a conservation architect and, knowing my interest in housing and cities, she took care to point out to me the transformations in the city. As we strolled the streets, we talked about gentrification and affordability, about the failure of public housing and the increased dependence on the private sector as a provider of services. Not far from her own neighborhood, she showed me the high-end adaptive re-use projects and redevelopments at Southwark and also took me to the fantastically glittering privately-owned and managed business district of Canary Wharf.

Adaptive re-use along the Thames at Southwark near theLondon Bridge

Adaptive re-use along the Thames at Southwark near the London Bridge

More of it...all high-end apartments, offices etc in buldings that were once warehouses to store cargo that got off the ships!

More of it…all high-end apartments, offices etc in buldings that were once warehouses to store cargo that got off the ships!

Canary Wharf, a pretty financial district at the waterside

Canary Wharf, a pretty financial district at the waterside

Lots of suits! (this was a warmish day!)

Lots of suits! (this was a warmish day!)

Transit, offices, malls..the works! All high end!

Transit, offices, malls..the works! All high end!

Since the 2012 Olympics, this part of London has been busy getting a makeover. Experts have noted that public investments have now made surrounding areas attractive for private real estate developers. For instance, the Canary Wharf Group is embarking on a new project also in the dockland areas along the River Thames. They are about to redevelop Woodwharf, currently a 16.8 acre site for light industrial use, into a mixed use area reportedly with “3.1 million sq ft of office space, 1.25 million sq ft of residential development, 200,000 sq ft of retail space, and a 200,000 sq ft hotel” as mentioned in a news report. The residential areas will come up first, to complement the financial district at Canary Wharf. And a new transit line will connect the area to central London.

It’s definitely a positive that the project pushes mixed use as the way to go, but I’m wondering what the thinking is on catering to a range of price bands on residential and rental properties. A mixed use city block really reaches its potential when entrepreneurs, start-ups and mid-size companies can hope to do just as well as big corporates. And when a mix of different kinds of people can live in close proximity to each other. Of course in a city like London, we hope transit can solve some of those issues but I wonder if we rely too heavily on that one thing!

I do accept that developments like the proposed one can benefit other parts of the city, even if not geographically connected but related through a set of networks. Of enormous concern in this case is the impact on the existing communities in these areas. Earlier privately redeveloped areas haven’t really benefited local neighborhoods much, creating very few jobs for locals and usually displacing them as the rents and property prices become unaffordable post redevelopment. This thought provoking piece in the Global Urbanist highlights this aspect and suggests that more social investments are also needed if new developments like these are not to be seen as resentful and hugely traumatic by residents. How accountable is a private developer to do the right thing and create more inclusive neighbourhoods? This is a problem area, unless the city government lays down some ground rules. Once again, I don’t know how it works in London and maybe my UK-based friends can enlighten me.

As an urban planner, I’m always amused to see how planning tools and trends become marketing mantras for the real estate sector. Walkable, transit-oriented, mixed-use, smart, sustainable…all the right catch words for now but it doesn’t always mean the developments are actually being planned that way! In the end, no matter what the current trends are, developments need to see beyond financial returns if they are to have long-term benefits for the city.

Open Letter to AAP and the Public on Continuing Racism in Khirkee Village: Aastha Chauhan, Malini Kochupillai & Friends

ramblinginthecity:

An excellent letter with some really superb solutions. AAP, come on and show your mettle by engaging in positive dialogue instead of protecting goons like every other political party has done in this country!

Originally posted on Kafila:

Guest Post by AASTHA CHAUHAN, MALINI KOCHUPILLAI, and several AFRICAN RESIDENTS OF DELHI

Dear Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, Mr.Yogendra Yadav and Aatishi Marlena,

Being witness to the events occuring in Khirkee this past month, we, a group of artists, architects, activists and local residents have felt  the need to frame an open letter addressed to your party, the AAP & the public. The media-frenzy associated with these events has been accompanied by the usual kind of misinformation and hyperbole. However, in the ensuing noise, the real stories of the underlying racism that afflicts our society and the negative repercussions of the raid on the African residents of the neighborhood, have been lost.  We hope this letter will clarify some facts and put across a few of our concerns.

Our intention is not to encourage confrontation, it is to propose solutions. Delhi is a tough place for all immigrants alike, how will…

View original 2,262 more words

A sporty weekend [2]: Kids do Raahgiri on cycles

After a taste of the Raahgiri experience last Sunday [read about that here], the kids weren’t giving anybody any choice. In fact, the word had spread as it is wont to among the young ones and we had a larger group now. Udai was enthused about the idea of cycling around the Raahgiri route this time and I was requested to figure out the logistics. However, on Sunday morning, we were looking at a very flat front wheel and I was scurrying around in my head for a way to handle this. Our neighbor and friend Deepak came to my rescue, offering an adult’s bicycle from his home, but over and above that ensuring Udai test rode it at home before we loaded it on.

Despite Rahul not being around (and we all miss him sorely), the dads in the group Ananth and Deepak worked overtime as did the mums (Shruti, Preeti, me), dadis (Amma) and masis (Gauri) to ensure the kids had a lot of fun. Quite a bunch they were- Udai (9), Aadyaa (5), Avandeeta (6), Candy (3), Deepika (8) and Priyanka (not yet 1!!). All except the last one cycled the route, the rest of us running alongside in turns. Exhausting, but immensely satisfying, this past Sunday at Raahgiri, Gurgaon.

For those of you not in the know, Raahgiri is the name for a car free route designated for citizens to enjoy the streets in Gurgaon, otherwise known for its traffic congestion, pseudo glitzy mall culture, poor infrastructure and corporate prowess. It’s an effort spearheaded by dedicated citizens and supported by government, a win-win partnership that has inspired many of us to hope for a better world._DSC3863_DSC3873_DSC3876_DSC3883_DSC3886_DSC3888_DSC3892_DSC3896_DSC3907

Thoughts and snapshots from Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon

I was all set to write a raving, positive account of Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon’s initiative along the lines of Bogota’s Cyclovia in which a section of the city’s roads are cordoned off and reclaimed by walkers, joggers, runner, cyclists, skaters, skippers, exercisers, dancers and much much more. However, my enthusiasm was dampened by the account in this morning’s newspaper about the death of a 28-year old executive in Gurgaon who was mowed down by a taxi while cycling to work. Ironic that I should have read that item just as I was gleefully downloading these wonderful pictures (do scroll down to see!) of people running, cycling, skipping, exercising in complete abandon free from the fear of vehicles. But it’s also important to remind us that this is precisely why we are having Raahgiri day in our city. Because we don’t want more pedestrians and cyclists dying or being injured by cars. Because the right to walk or cycle is as much of a right as any other. Because we deserve to be free from the fear of vehicles, we deserve space to be able to walk, cycle, run and just be!

Watching the children run full speed on the roads today, watching the roads teem with young people from the city’s poorer settlements, I was struck by how valued space is for all of us and how we have adjusted to living a life without adequate public space. In fact, many of us don’t really experience public space as we spend our lives stepping out of our cars into our homes and offices, only spending a few hours in segregated, manicured open areas. Public spaces where people from different classes intermingle are important for us to root ourselves in the reality of the world around us. On a day when the Aam Aadmi Party has created history by being the first debutante political party to garner so many seats in Delhi’s elections (28 out of 70), it was fitting to remember that the children from the lower income groups I saw enjoying their time at Raahgiri are the aam admi, the future of our country who we need to pay attention to. They have so much promise and yet they face the toughest challenges. Raahgiri opened my eyes to a lot more than the need to use my car less and care for the environment, it reminded me that the reality is that only an inclusive city can be the true harbinger of prosperity and growth.

Races for kids on at full swing!

Races for kids on at full swing!

Sniffling and riding, enjoying the crisp winter air

Sniffling and riding, enjoying the crisp winter air

Mum, thrilled to see the energy around

Mum, thrilled to see the energy around

 

Nupur's expression says it all!

Nupur’s expression says it all!

 

Dadi with the kiddos, waiting up ahead for us after sprinting some 50m full speed :)

Dadi with the kiddos, waiting up ahead for us after sprinting some 50m full speed :)

Youth brigade, playing cool but actually interested!

Youth brigade, playing cool but actually interested!

 

Check him out, my camera made his conscious!

Check him out, my camera made his conscious!

Did I say it already? Raahgiri was a treat for those who like clicking portraits!

Did I say it already? Raahgiri was a treat for those who like clicking portraits!

Stall owners enjoyed the spectacle

Stall owners enjoyed the spectacle

 

They were making their way to the races. Spot the girl looking straight into the camera lens in a later shot!

They were making their way to the races. Spot the girl looking straight into the camera lens in a later shot!

Yoga class starting up in the foreground, while passers by watch in the background. Watching other people is a great Indian pastime! And a wonderful one too...

Yoga class starting up in the foreground, while passers by watch in the background. Watching other people is a great Indian pastime! And a wonderful one too…

I meet her often on my walks around my colony. Was so good to see familiar faces at Raahgiri and what a 100-watt smile!

I meet her often on my walks around my colony. Was so good to see familiar faces at Raahgiri and what a 1000-watt smile!

Cool cyclists, cycles, gear....wow!

Cool cyclists, cycles, gear….wow!

 

 

And the pooch had his day too!

And the pooch had his day too!

Watching each other...fun, fun! This is what I meant about the intermingling of people across class barriers. Watching, understanding, empathising, building a more diverse, vibrant society...Raahgiri is an opportunity people!

Watching each other…fun, fun! This is what I meant about the intermingling of people across class barriers. Watching, understanding, empathising, building a more diverse, vibrant society…Raahgiri is an opportunity people!

Loved the enthusiasm of the girls for the races. look at them cheering their friends at the finishing line...safety for girls is another important benefit of well used , well designed, walkable public spaces

Loved the enthusiasm of the girls for the races. look at them cheering their friends at the finishing line…safety for girls is another important benefit of well used , well designed, walkable public spaces

Can you see her?

Can you see her?

Do do mobile!

Do do mobile!

Most colourful bystanders!

Most colourful bystanders!

 

All agog, but not yet ready to join in...

All agog, but not yet ready to join in…

The youngest member of our squad, now tired and on her mum's shoulders!

The youngest member of our squad, now tired and on her mum’s shoulders!

 

And Raahgiri Day goes on...Join us in Gurgaon on any Sunday till March 2014!

And Raahgiri Day goes on…Join us in Gurgaon on any Sunday till March 2014!

 

 

 

 

 

Internal migration and urbanization: Why we need a nuanced view of how these intersect

UNESCO’s Internal Migration in India Initiative launched an important publication yesterday (see here for details). ‘Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India‘ draws focus to an issue we often sweep under the carpet, asking us to confront head-on the issue of India’s large population of internal migrants- some 326 million, close to 30% of India’s population as per estimates by the NSSO. I’ve been working in the area of migration and as an architect and urban planner, I see substantial linkages between urbanization and migration. Linkages that we need to scrutinize minutely if we are to create urban living environments that are equitable and enjoyable to all of us.

ImageTo begin with, we need to understand which urban areas migrants are opting to move to. In this regard, these figures from the report stand out- 43% of Delhi’s population comprises internal migrants. However, it is not just the metros, but cities like Surat (58%), Ludhiana (57%), Faridabad (55%), Nashik (50%), Pune (45%), Lucknow (28%), Patna (27%) and Kanpur (19%) that need to gear up to support migrant populations urgently. Cities often without strong planning and governance frameworks, and low capacities to create and implement sensitive city level planning programs. Yesterday Minister Jairam Ramesh mentioned, for instance, that data from the 2011 census highlights the presence of 3900 Census towns that fulfill various characteristics of being urban but are still managed by gram panchayats! Clearly, these places have no way of understanding or managing the rapid changes they are experiencing and we see a catastrophic impact on social cohesion as well as the environment. There is no doubt, therefore, that urbanization in the country needs to be seen with new eyes and local municipal bodies be strengthened substantially.

In all this, the migrant plays a significant role as a contributor to the economies of the cities that receive them. As we go about our daily lives, whatever we may be busy with, we interact with migrants across social class and from various parts of the country. We are migrants as well, often enough. The discussion at the book launch yesterday therefore, distinguishes between educated migrants that opt to migrate in search of better opportunities (like many of us) and those who need to migrate in order to find paid employment; in other words, they migrate as a survival strategy and this is often termed as distress migration. In that sense, the story of migration into urban India becomes a story of class, in fact another dimension to the class issues that urban Indians are facing on a day to day basis.

I make two observations out of this. As a citizen, I see a keener analysis of migration as a way to develop a more nuanced approach to how we lead our lives in the city. I have written often in this blog about middle class bias, our suspicion of the ‘other’ in our midst (on intolerance here and on the need for idealism here) and also of the shrinking of public spaces that help us interact with people from various walks of life (on community driven public spaces here) and retain our tolerant attitude towards those who are unlike us. Bringing to the fore the stories of migrant families, their experiential journey as they adjust to urban lives is an effective way of highlighting that they are not so much unlike us, their aspirations are not so different, and it may not be unthinkable to treat them in a humane manner and welcome them into the community. A friend told me yesterday that upper class women (madams) in the Durga Puja pandal in my neighborhood had literally shooed away Bengali women who are migrant domestic workers; the same women who are their support system in taking care of their homes, who cook, clean and babysit for them! Clearly, this sort of bias needs to be addressed.

Second, only by being able to understand the type of migrants in a specific city can city planners hope to cater to the needs of the future. Cities like Gurgaon may have, unfortunately, missed the boat. But all those new urban areas scattered across the nation might benefit hugely from research that creates fine and nuanced distinctions between circular/seasonal migrants and more permanent ones, as well as from studies that map migrant consumption choices  of both goods and services.  Urbanizing areas need to have in place systems to monitor incoming migrants. It is debatable, but perhaps the Aadhaar could be a means of tracking data as well as providing portable services to migrants, as was discussed at yesterday’s event.

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

My research focuses on housing, which is one of the most challenging issues cities are facing today. Nuanced data on migration (in addition to other forms of data on employment, labour, industry, demographics, etc),  is imperative to be able to decide what sort of housing must be planned in a city- how much rental and how much ownership, what sort of affordability slabs must these be in, etc. The role of governments in this is critical, as land is a crucial resource. The earlier we recognize the urgency of this need and use it to create new data collection, analysis and planning systems for upcoming urban areas, the better we will be able to reap the benefits of urbanization, as indeed as a nation we should and will.

The hidden jewel of Dhanachuli #heritage #architecture

It is a running joke between me and my husband Rahul that I’m not really interested in travel destinations that do not involve foraging around among ruins. I vehemently denied this the last time we discussed a possible vacation. I love the beaches and the cruise ships, the road trips and the backpacking just as much as everything else, I said. But I can tell you I was delighted and amused in equal parts when Sumant mentioned a visit to the abandoned ruins of the original Dhanachuli village during the first evening of our weekend getaway to Te Aroha earlier this month!

Our planned excursion was delayed by a day thanks to nightly precipitation that left the path wet and slippery, but we were determined to go. Sunday morning found an enthusiastic group (comprising Vijay, Vibha, Aaditya and me guided by Sumant and a kind and generous staffer from Te Aroha) making its way down into the beautiful valley. Shortly after we had crossed the existing settlement that hugs the road, we got a taste of what was in store for us. An abandoned home, colonial in its proportions and bearing, but with the wooden carved doors and windows characteristic of the original homes in these parts. The stop vetted my appetite for more. I could see from Sumant’s expressions that this was the tip of the iceberg and an excitement gripped me for what was in store further below._DSC2261

Eave detail

Eave detail

Carved door with typical colonial arch

Carved door with typical colonial arch

Exquisite door

Exquisite door

Facade. I find the fusion charming, though the intricate carving doesnt quite fit the robust proportions of this house, do they?

Facade. I find the fusion charming, though the intricate carving doesn’t quite fit the robust proportions of this house, do they?

Detail

Detail. I would surmise this is a relatively newer home and the carvings aren’t as intricate as the older ones. Perhaps the type of wood available changed, perhaps the better craftsmen were no longer available…

Port hole?

Port hole?

Wood structure, slate tile roofing and then lots of grass drying on top...great pic to make a section of the roofing huh, architect friends?

Wood structure, slate tile roofing and then lots of grass drying on top…great pic to make a section of the roofing huh, architect friends?

A glimpse into the valley we were descending into....

A glimpse into the valley we were descending into….

After maybe twenty minutes of walking alongside fields of corn, cabbage and peas, we started seeing the first homes in the settlement below. I was struck by the play of light on the beautiful stone masonry on these homes. Some roofs were caved in and the roofs were overgrown with grass. Hindu symbols like the trishul were clearly visible. Our sense of anticipation heightened and soon we were rewarded with the beautiful sight of the little cluster of original village homes that we had trekked all the way to see._DSC2305

Delightful glimpse of the cozy original settlement

Delightful glimpse of the cozy original settlement

The story goes that upper caste Hindus from the plains, from areas as far as Rajasthan and Gujarat, escaped forced conversion to Islam and moved into hilly terrain. The homes in the village therefore date back to anywhere between 150 and 200 years. Here, they settled down, amassing large land holdings and building these beautiful homes using local materials and the skills of local wood craftsmen from the Jhonsari community. However, they influenced the craftsmen substantially in the motifs they would use, typically snakes, fish, elephant and various other revered Hindu symbols with hints of Islam-influenced motifs as well. And in the shape of the niches, which are exactly like Rajasthani jharokhas. We could see Islamic influences in the types of arches used as well as in the typical geometric patterns of the carvings on some of the doors and windows. We stared, stitching the narrative of this fascinating time in history in our heads, imagining what it must be like for families who made this drastic move and how they must have hankered for small motifs and icons that served as reminders to what they left behind, that became a fragile but intensely beautiful link to their shared history and identity.

First glimpses of these spectacular houses

First glimpses of these spectacular houses

I found the elevation interesting. The bottom floor is for animals, so you ascend the dwelling itself through a single flight of stairs entered through that tall arch. This row of homes are perfectly symmetrical too!

I found the elevation interesting. The bottom floor is for animals, so you ascend the dwelling itself through a single flight of stairs entered through that tall arch. This row of homes are perfectly symmetrical too!

The carvings on these older homes are more intricate and diverse in terms of patterns and motifs

The carvings on these older homes are more intricate and diverse in terms of patterns and motifs.

Love this pic! Thanks Aaditya :)

Love this pic! Thanks Aaditya :)

Sumant...Framed!

Sumant…Framed!

Bare and simple interiors as you would expect in a rural home

Bare and simple interiors as you would expect in a rural home

_DSC2433

Many of the homes are already completely ruined

Many of the homes are already completely ruined

Living heritage!

Living heritage

This particular house took my breath away with the detailing

This particular house took my breath away with the detailing

_DSC2444

Notice the geometric patterns like the floor patterns in Mughal architecture

And this arch....

And this arch….

Delightful nuances of life

Delightful nuances of life

There would have been an archaeologist’s pleasure in walking through these ruined homes, but it wasn’t just history we were looking at. We found occupied homes as well in this little hamlet. Cows tied in the lower level under the exquisitely carved windows. A dish antenna screwed onto one of of the carved panels. This is living heritage, a cultural landscape that deserves attention. The contrast of the abandoned homes, to the ones that were used only for storage and the few that were still lived in told a story of economic change and loss of patience. Families had migrated up the valley towards the road, where livelihoods could be found catering to the tourists that passed by on their way to Mukteshwar as well as to the locals who lived in the village still. These homes still stood because they mean something to these people. Some are even propped up by new wooden pillars in a bid to save the roofs from caving in, but clearly no new investments are being made here.

The pictures clearly show that there is value in this heritage–the value of craft, architecture, a slice of history, a way of life. One way to conserve this heritage is to buy these beautifully carved frames and doors from these owners and cart them off, to be lovingly restored and installed in a swank, elegant and even opulent residence or heritage hotel in Delhi, or Mumbai. The other option is to find a way to conserve these homes in their original location, involving the local community in an effort that would not only augment revenue through targeted tourism and a renewable of the crafts, but also renew their bond with their rapidly disappearing material culture. A culture that spoke the language of wood and stone rather than brick and reinforced cement concrete and one that had space in it for art.

Sumant mentioned he would be happy to support, in part, a group of enthusiasts who could get together to showcase this delightful slice of heritage. Filmmakers, conservationists, artists and people engaged with the concept of responsible and sustainable tourism can join hands to save this hamlet from destruction. I think it is a fantastic seed of an idea that we could develop into a more meaningful pursuit.

A commitment towards equitable, sustainable growth #kumaon #tourism

My links with Kumaon go back to my school days, when my parents were associated with an NGO called Kassar Trust near Bageshwar and would make frequent trips to hold health camps and plan health-related interventions for mountain villages that had unique problems. In my teen years and into my early twenties, I gathered that life in Kumaon’s charming landscape was hard, especially for women who were often left coping as single parents as the menfolk migrated to the plains in search if employment. In our visits, we observed that Kassar Trust focused on empowering women to be able to take decisions in a stringent hierarchy of both caste and gender; decisions that could impact their lives hugely like signing up for better hand pumps and improve water access or build toilets in their homes. Further, they emphasized that the village people demand accountability from servants of the State and demand access to healthcare, education, etc. My parents and the NGO they worked with were convinced that this is the route to long-term and sustainable progress.

It's like watching a gigantic water colour, being up in the hills!

It’s like watching a gigantic water colour, being up in the hills! View from Te Aroha, Dhanachuli

Graced by a glimpse of the mighty Himayan range on the one clear day among many misty, cloudy ones

Graced by a glimpse of the mighty Himalayan range on the one clear day among many misty, cloudy ones. View from Te Aroha, Dhanachuli

In the aftermath of the recent floods that devastated parts of Uttarakhand, especially the Garwal region, I read articles by several notable experts that suggested that the state of Uttarakhand was born out of pressure from grassroots movements, many led by women. The editorials suggested that the ecological nightmare created by rampant and negligent development and construction and the apathetic and corrupt governance of the State was a betrayal of the local people who fought for and believed in a vision of a smaller, better governed, more productive State that would prioritize the happiness of its people, ecological balance and equitable growth over large investments that might be less sensitive. Knowing what I know of Kumaonis, I could well imagine the determination and perseverance of these shy but tenacious people in wanting more for themselves.

My recent trips to Kumaon have left me with a curiosity to know more about the development of the region and how it is perceived by locals. On one hand, this fruit growing belt appears enchantingly prosperous. You do not see, on the face of it, huge signs of poverty. However, there is more to it than meets the eye. I gleaned some insights from Deepa, who with her husband Ashish runs an enchanting resort called the Himalayan Village, Sonapani tucked away into the hills near the village of Satoli a little beyond Ramgarh and Nathuakhan. Deepa and Ashish have been running The Himalayan Village for a decade now. Cut off from the hordes (you have to trek to get there), they have made their life there and have fantastic insights into the lives of the Kumaoni people. Sitting there amid the beautiful wild flowers with a breathtaking view of the pine scented slopes, I was disheartened to hear about the caste biases that still prevail, the corruption that prevents government schemes from reaching the villagers. Deepa runs a small sewing centre from her property where local women learn to make bags and other small handicraft items that are then marketed and sold by Deepa through various channels. We heard of an upper caste woman, who was freshly widowed but faced criticism from her family when she joined the centre in a bid to be financially independent. We heard about low caste women who politely declined to participate in savings schemes, preferring to focus on ensuring their family gets decent nutrition. Lower caste families usually have very small land holdings and are subsistence farmers. Eloquent and honest, Deepa’s stories painted alive the conditions of women here, still leading tough lives, still tenacious and persevering. I know I will return to Sonapani, the history of which goes back over 100 years and which is the site of an ancient and therapeutic spring, to experience more, hear more, learn more and perhaps even do more…

The breathtaking view from The Himalayan Village Sonapani, a manicured wilderness...could imagine my children here, running free and wild!

The breathtaking view from The Himalayan Village Sonapani, a manicured wilderness…could imagine my children here, running free and wild!

The resort is as much about the people as the place. Deepa in here element, making us feel so at home!

The resort is as much about the people as the place. Deepa in here element, making us feel so at home!

Caught our fancy...these large colourful spiders all over the property...click, click, click is all we heard for a while!

Caught our fancy…these large colourful spiders all over the property…click, click, click is all we heard for a while!

Charming details

Charming details

Bringing up children here...the mommy in me was impressed, charmed, worried...all at once. But so reassured to see people practice a philosophy so few of us have the courage to..inspired, Deepa!

Bringing up children here…the mommy in me was impressed, charmed, worried…all at once. But so reassured to see people practice a philosophy so few of us have the courage to..inspired, Deepa!

As we drove back from Satoli to Dhanachuli, we observed other contradictions worth thinking about. While this region is not exactly overrun by tourists, many from the plains are beginning to populate these hillsides with second homes. Corrupting village pradhans to acquire land and using insensitive construction practices to build gigantic structures that are barely occupied for a few weeks a year seems like a recipe for disaster to me. As we drove through a protected forest on the way, I could see that year’s abundant monsoon has left the region greener and more thickly forested than before. Sumant Batra who kindly invited us to Te Aroha in Dhanachuli pointed out to us that the monsoons had other impacts too. Nature has had its way with irresponsible developments and we saw more than one spectacular collapse among properties that had been built in concrete using massive retaining wall structures, that had involved large scale and illegal felling of trees and in general been built with scant respect to the local conditions. It angered me, this sort of greed that not only disregards the ecology and culture of the region but actively endangers the lives and property of local villagers!

Clearly, the future of the region lies in empowering local communities with knowledge and power. It is a long road ahead, but I do know that if local governance is possible anywhere, it is in the hills where people are deeply connected to their roots and understand the devastating impact of pushing Mother Nature to the brink. We mustn’t lose hope, perhaps.

There are many ways by which you and me can contribute. By visiting regions like Kumaon in a responsible way, realizing full well that tourism if done rightly can be a strong economic backbone to address issues of poverty and inequity. By ensuring that as corporates and individuals we give back to the society and support genuine not for profits that work to empower local communities in the area. By falling in love with the mountains, again and again!

Chavath in Goa Day 3: The joy of Au revoir, till we meet again!

Those familiar with the classical arts in India would understand that it is vital for the tempo to reach a crescendo, like the taan in a Hindustani vocal musical recital, before the climax is achieved and the experience of the rasik (connoisseur) draws to a joyful end, which itself is a state that anticipates the experience of yet another cycle of beauty.

The last day of chavath in Goa feels like this. The family turns out in the best clothes and prepares to enjoy to the fullest even as the mind prepares to big adieu to Ganapati by immersing the God into the waters at the end of the day. Till next year….

I will focus on two experiences of this day that I particularly enjoyed this time round on our trip to Goa. The first is the ritual of taking a trip out to the fields to cut a bunch of rice stalks from the fields. At this time of the year, the rice fields are an electric green and the short stalks of rice stand in still water, imbuing the countryside with a sheen of magical greenery that contrasts and yet blends with the deeper green of the coconut palm skyline.

Nave, tender stalks of rice standing in the marshy fields

Nave, tender stalks of rice standing in the marshy fields

Goa's Green, a salve for the soul!

Goa’s Green, a salve for the soul!

We all trundled into Rohit’s van, a few of us adults and the entire gang of kids! Snehit, Saurabh and Udai were led on by Raunak, the oldest of the lot. Aadyaa tagged along, happy to be part of an adventure. We drove a short distance to the fields nearby, where a few families were engaged in wading out into the field and acquiring the nave, which was subsequently received into the house with pomp and ceremony. This time, Neela kaki did the aarti of the three young boys, washing their feet first, putting a teeka on them and also showing them the reflection of their faces in a shallow plate of water that had been made auspicious by the addition of kumkum and rice. This particular step of the aarti is unique to the Western coast in India, it seems. I’m married into a north Indian family and I haven’t seen anyone do this reflection stuff in these parts. The entire ritual of bringing in the nave seems to be another way, like the matoli, to connect the festival of chavath to the agricultural traditions of the community.

All watching the process of collecting the stalks of rice

All watching the process of collecting the stalks of rice

From a Catholic's fields, but then rice feeds everyone, right? :)

From a Catholic’s fields, but then rice feeds everyone, right? :)

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At some point, Aadyaa decides to adjust her dupatta...

At some point, Aadyaa decides to adjust her dupatta…

Anuja, Nandan kaka and Rohit light an auspicious lamp

Anuja, Nandan kaka and Rohit light an auspicious lamp

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Ushering in the nave, back at home

Ushering in the nave, back at home

Neela kaki in action....

Neela kaki in action….

Kids chilling at home after the little excursion...how cute they are...Snehit, Udai and Saurabh

Kids chilling at home after the little excursion…how cute they are…Snehit, Udai and Saurabh

And these two together are cute too....Saurabh and Aadyaa

And these two together are cute too….Saurabh and Aadyaa

The other tradition unique that may be unique to Goa happens towards the end of the day. Each house in the vaddo (a unit of the village) is visited by a group of singers comprised of a few people from every Hindu household from the vaddo. Our house is the last in the vaddo and so we wait a long time for this group of people to turn up, spending the afternoon preparing the prasad and neatly distributing it into 50-60 portions to distribute later. Even after they have sung the aartiyo so many times over, or perhaps because of that, the sheer energy they bring to the singing fills the air with an electric pulse of joyful energy. This time, I took video clips of their singing, that you can see here.

I found this tradition fascinating. In Rahul’s village in Rajasthan, ladies from the village come in to sing auspicious songs at daybreak during weddings and this is a great form of community participation. In Goa, the ritual of singing the final aarti not just with members of your family but with the larger family that is the village community takes relationships onto a new platform. These are people you may not know very well, but in the socio-economical construct of the village, they are your extended support structure and a certain level of interaction accompanied by the requisite dose of mutual respect is expected. By dedicating a person or two from your home (Viraj and Rohit took turns to go from our family this year) to join this group of singers, villagers create a collective identity that extends into their lives, tying the community together in an intangible manner. Yes, this group is a male group and this sort of distinction between the duties of men and women is also a mark of the traditional functioning of a Goan village that have remained intact through generations.

After the guests leave, the family carried the idol of Ganapati into the living room and we danced around Ganya, showering him with laayo (puffed rice, considered auspicious in most parts of the country). Watch my kakis and even the kiddos Udai and Snehit participate with gusto at close to midnight in this video clip of our little send off ritual. Udai saw this business to its end, insisting on going all the way to the immersion ghaat till he watched our little Ganapati sink into the waters to the sounds of more firecrackers and shouts of “Morya! Morya! Ganapati Bappa Morya!”

Goodbye Goa! We will be back for more, next year!

Ramuli kaka carrying our Ganapati out into the living room for his send off ritual

Ramuli kaka carrying our Ganapati out into the living room for his send off ritual

Our little jig around Ganapati. Check out the video link as well!

Our little jig around Ganapati. Check out the video link as well!

 

Chavath in Goa Day 2: Ganapati Bappa arrives!

We arrived in the ancestral home in our village Kalapur close to lunch time. Anookaka, who is my father’s older brother and was the senior most male member of the family present had gone ahead early and performed the pooja to ensconce our beloved Ganapati in his beautiful altar. When we walked in, we were greeted by his resplendent presence and beatific smile!

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My cousin Nimish in traditional attire paying his respects to the deity

My cousin Nimish in traditional attire paying his respects to the deity

Through the morning, male members of the Naik family offered doorva (a specific type of grass considered auspicious) to Ganapati as an offering. By tradition, an upanayan ceremony is performed for Brahmin boys about the age of 7 to formally adorn him with the sacred thread. All boys who had their upanayan ceremonies done took turns to change into traditional savle attire (dhoti, bare chest, sacred thread and angavastram) and offer dhruv to the deity. Last year, we attended Arnav’s upanayan in Goa. For those of you curious to see what that ceremony is like, here’s a link to my blog post from then.

We all sat around and talked some more. Then we assembled for the aartis, sang them and finally, ate lunch together. Lunch is a traditional spread, the few days in the year when Goan Brahmins remain absolutely vegetarian. Coconut, kokum, ambade and whole bunch of local seasonal vegetables are used to cook traditional delicacies like khatkhate, kokum kadhi, chanyache tonaak, phodi, bhaji, papad, etc.

Talking, playing on phones, giggling....

Talking, playing on phones, giggling….two generations of boys!

All set to sing!

All set to sing!

Fruits and modaks for prasad

Fruits and modaks for prasad

Unneer! The mouse who is Lord Ganesh's vehicle is sculpted out of flour. Kids and older people excited about this small artistic creation!

Unneer! The mouse who is Lord Ganesh’s vehicle is sculpted out of flour. Kids and older people excited about this small artistic creation!

Bonding on a full tummy.... :)

Bonding on a full tummy…. :)

Us with Ajjee!

Us with Ajjee!

Family portrait on the front steps

Family portrait on the front steps

Posing!

Posing!

Chavath in Goa Day 1: Dedicated to Gouri-Mahadev and easy bonding!

This is a day for bonding and easing into the celebrations. As per tradition, married ladies fast on this day, in empathy with Parvati or Gouri, Ganesh’s mother. This is a day dedicated to the Goddess and to Mahadev or Shiv, her husband and also our family deity.

My camera’s roving eye found various groups of people in conversation, in camaraderie over activities like cooking or decorating or, in the case of the children, on burning firecrackers! Looking back at the pictures I clicked, I see how the young and old come together, how barriers come down as people ease their guard, how the ritual activities of a family festival take over a rhythm of their own and individual moods, opinions and priorities take a backseat. It is this transformation that grips me each time I come to Goa for Chavath. I revel in the slowing down of the pace of life, in the inversion of priorities away from the self and into the realm of family, community, ritual and perhaps even faith.

Rashmi kaki creating a small, lovely rangoli

Rashmi kaki creating a small, lovely rangoli

Cousins posing....a series

Cousins posing….a series

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mamas, mavshis, kiddos...

mamas, mavshis, kiddos…

Favorite mama!

Favorite mama!

My little girl...

My little girl…

My aunts sat together, peeling and cutting vegetables and also sharing memories and planning the menu for the next two days. Ajjee sort of oversaw what they were doing, out of sheer force of habit because this is what she has been doing for the last forty odd years! We cousins swapped stories, clicked pictures and ‘Whatsapped’ them to each other and to other cousins far away.

All my kakis, working, chatting, having fun!

All my kakis, working, chatting, having fun!

Ajji the matriarch presided over the session!

Ajji the matriarch presided over the session!

All smiles!

All smiles!

Ajjee, no words, only a big big hug!

Ajjee, no words, only a big big hug!

As evening came, we gathered to sing together. The aarti, to me, is the crescendo towards which the events move. The chaal, best described as the rhythmic tune, in which we sing the aartiyo in Goa are distinct from those in Maharashtra. More musical and complex rather than merely chanted, participating in the aarti is as much about skill as gusto. We all enjoy this bit immensely, as you can see in this video. The kids particularly charm me with their enthusiasm!

Udai sitting right up front in the aarti config!

Udai sitting right up front in the aarti config!

Saurabh on the cymbals

Saurabh on the cymbals

The entire household, from the youngest to the oldest participates in the aarti

The entire household, from the youngest to the oldest participates in the aarti

The kids utilize the evening to do what they enjoy the most- Fog, or firecrackers! See the joy on their faces!

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