The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Built environment in the vernacular

The first issue of the first Bengali magazine on architecture, Nirman, is out. It comes as a surprise in a state where architecture is mistaken for the art of building concrete matchboxes. Unlike Delhi or Mumbai or Ahmedabad, West Bengal does not have a fine tradition of building beautiful houses that harmonise with their environment.

Even more surprising, a young architect named Bijeta Choudhury has taken it upon herself to plan and publish it at considerable personal expense. She says that as a student she used to wonder why no magazine on architecture exists in Bengali. Without any inkling of publishing or any finance to speak of, for two-and-a-half years she has tried hard to give shape to it. She ran around seeking help, only in vain.

But last year while interviewing architect Prabir Mitra, who had designed the VSNL building, she became acquainted with Samir Rakshit, who teaches architecture at Jadavpur University and is also a litterateur. She took about three months to convince him that she was really serious about the project.

Choudhury says that the first issue was more or less her brainchild, but Rakshit insisted that three articles be included on exposing the hoax that feng shui is, on the Burmese pagoda in Eden Gardens and on landscaping.

The lead article this time is on Swabhumi, the heritage park on Narkeldanga Main Road. But instead of taking a critical look at the design, it is a largely descriptive piece that overlooks the flaws in the details of this structure. For though the Swabhumi concept is innovative, the execution leaves much to be desired.

To begin with it looks hastily put together. This gives it a distinctly tacky look, which one certainly cannot say of the gracious buildings which inspired the design. This is not to say that more expensive material should have been used, but perhaps the finish could have been better.

For example, compare the grandeur of the bare columns at the seat of the Sabarna Choudhury clan in Barisha, and the four undernourished Corinthian columns in the Swabhumi courtyard.

Editor Rakshit, who is also on the heritage team of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, says Nirman shall acquire a critical edge from the next issue. Time was running out for the first issue. Increasing awareness about architecture and the role of architects is the aim of the magazine. This is underlined in the editorial. Rakshit says even intellectuals are sadly indifferent to tectonics and aesthetics. Although the Bengal Renaissance revived literature and the visual arts in the state, it never influenced architecture. With the exception of the Santiniketan experiments and the cross-fertilisation of the vernacular and the classical as seen in many stately homes of Bengal, little original work was done. He is happy that the state heritage commission has been set up at last.

The other articles in this issue of Nirman are on interiors and the art of building village houses on the cheap, besides interviews. The next issues will carry articles on architect Dulal Mukherejee. Perhaps, some artist will spare some thought for the Nirman masthead. It is too squat.

Rakshit says he will invite debates on various issues raised in Nirman. He strongly believes that all large projects should be in the public domain and people should have a say in them. Nothing should be imposed. All feedback is welcome.

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