Delhi: Phoenix City

On the last Wednesday of August, 2012, after a design studio, we went for an event at the Attic, Connaught Place. Renana Jhabvala and Nalini Thakur were talking about professor, architect and artist CSH Jhabvala. The occasion was the launch of his latest book of sketches and writings on Delhi.

Jhabvala is somewhat of a legend at SPA, spoken of reverentially by even the senior-most of our teachers. We were fortunate enough to hear him speak a couple of years ago and were keen to hear more about the incredible man who (we found out soon) had laid the basis for the present curriculum for our college.

The place was alternative looking, the mood warm, the air cold and the room filled with quiet conversation. We planted ourselves on the (best) third row seats only to awkwardly offer them to senior (looking) architects minutes later. Stranded on the side passage, the only place left was in the front row and Renena asked us to come forward.

The scene was set and yet the program was late. We realized why soon enough, though, when the buzzing conversation in the room thickened as two guys carried in this very very old wheelchair-bound man. The quintessential Indian old man, wearing a cotton shirt with big prints, floaters and those khaki pants pulled up the waist, accessorized with retro glasses and a walking stick. He appeared to be the guest of honour everybody was waiting for.

After some negotiation, he quickly decided to shift to the front row and found himself sitting to the left of two young architecture students, us, beaming at him. He broke into our awkward gaze and made conversation. We introduced ourselves. “Ah! I used to teach there once!” And then the verbal diarrhea began: of course we knew who he was, and we had so enjoyed his previous lecture. He just smiled, looking a little perplexed.

We soon realized our error. A very awkward and impudent question from an audience member let us know that Professor Jhabvala was currently in New York. So, who then did we just confuse with our ramblings?

And then it struck us: we were sitting next to Padmashree MM Rana, Nehru’s chosen architect and Jhabvala’s close friend. We remembered Rana’s profile (and photograph) from the Sushant website, and his work was somewhat familiar via Rahul Khanna’s excellent listing.

The two women’s takes on Jhabvala the father and Jhab the professor were interesting. But the real fun began when Renana requested Rana Kaka to share his times with Jhabwala. Rana staunchly refused to make use of the offered microphone and (struggling initially) rose and walked to the podium. 🙂

And then the storytelling began, and everyone was captivated. He spoke of his days at JJ, where they studied Ionic, Doric and Corinthian column capitals for three years, only to culminate in a studio exercise to design roadside kiosks. He also spoke about the library (a long corridor, really) and the constant presence there of a peon, peeping over students’ shoulders, whose only job was to ensure that no books were vandalized!

On one such un-private visit, he came across legendary American Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. Frustrated with his training, Rana wrote to FLW: “I have lost my way in(to?) architecture. How do I dis-educate myself?”

The postal department soon went on strike and all communication was stranded mid way. However, this meant heyday for a philatelist friend of Rana’s, who found ample opportunity to steal all kinds of exotic stamps off of the heaps of letters at the post office. He found a letter with an American postmark addressed to Rana, and graciously forwarded it (after stealing the stamps, of course.)

FLW had written, simply: “If you can arrange to come here, we’ll put you to work.” And so, with help from the princely state of Porbander, Rana became the first Indian Fellow of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. at Taliesin, Wisconsin, USA. In America, he met Jawaharlal Nehru at a formal event during his trip to the country. All Nehru asked him was,” वापस आ रहे हो, या नहीं?” Rana was speechless (a feat, we’re sure!).

When he did return to India some years later, he penned a letter to the Prime minister informing him. Nehru promptly employed him in the planning department for the government. Eventually, though, he did get around to talking about Jhabvala- their reunion, many years later, at Wenger’s. Jhabvala threw a matchbox at Rana’s head to get his attention! (This incident was illustrated with zestful hand movements.)

All this zestful talk was far more than the two words that had been expected of him. Renana was worried and tried to interrupt. But he didn’t care one bit! The incredible zeal in his eyes was only proof of his love for architecture, for urbanity, for the city of Delhi. He was a storyteller and his audience was with him on this joyride, taking new turns with gestures and expressions. We left the venue after the talk, beaming. Little seminar work happened but we slept very well that night.

The first Wednesday morning of October, 2012 found us all together again after an eventful night of seminar work. Our inboxes had a new email about a condolence meeting at school later in the day in the memory of Late MM Rana. We just looked at each other and our hearts sank. We had barely met this charming 93 year old gentleman a couple of weeks ago and now we would never be able to hear more from him. Only during the presentation in school did we find out about the incredible amount of interesting buildings he had designed in and for the city of Delhi. He gave us the Shanti Van, the Bal Bhawan, the Nehru Museum, the Amar Jawaan Jyoti and so many other anonymous buildings that form our experience of the Nehruvian New Delhi.

We wonder how enthused we really are about the world around us and how much better we could ever get. Most of all, we wondered if we would ever attain anything close to his exuberance and energy. We only felt extremely fortunate to have been part of his last architectural public appearance. And even more thankful to our instincts that we recorded the later half of his talk for us to cherish for the rest of our lives.

Rana, you will always be in our minds.

This post co-written by Bhavika, Rohan and Varun.

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