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regular-article-logo Thursday, 13 June 2024

Mnemonic tiles

Cities joined by floor patterns and light

Ruchir Joshi Published 07.02.23, 04:34 AM

In a house in Goa, I’m suddenly mesmerised by the play of light on the floor. The house belongs to friends who live here only part of the time and they’ve invited me to stay for a few days while they are away. The house is just over a hundred years old and it has recently undergone loving and sensitive refurbishment. Like many Goan bourgeois houses, thecasa consists of twinned sloping roofs, one a fair bit higher than the other. The front of the house, the living room, the dining room and the bedrooms sit under the higher roof, which is a full thirty feet at its peak, while the back of the house, with the kitchen and the back rooms, is covered by beams and tiles that slant up to a mere fifteen feet or so. Across the roofs, the ranks of Mangalore tiles are interrupted by tiles of clear glass that let in small amounts of sunlight, the beams of light sidling across the space from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.

If the roof here is made from tiles developed in Mangalore in the 19th century by the missionary, Georg Plebst, the floor is covered by Minton tiles of the kind that was first made in Staffordshire in England in the late 18th century. These small, hexagonal pieces come in a few basic colours — Venetian red, yellow ochre and black; there are smaller components in the shape of diamonds or narrow rectangles that help make patterns and fill up awkward spaces. In my friends’ house, I notice that each room has a distinct pattern made from this palette. In the small passage and the back porch, where the old tiles must have deteriorated, there are larger, modern, local tiles made from the same colours forming similar patterns. The difference between the old floors and the new ones is very discernible: the matte sheen of the old tiles is quite different; the way water dries on the two surfaces also varies; although both are smooth, they feel different underfoot, with the older tiles slightly rounded at the joints, imparting the feel of padding to the soles of the feet.

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Just as a person’s deep memory reacts to smells and tastes perhaps first experienced in pre-verbal infancy, so does it get triggered off by textures and colours. It takes me a few minutes to locate the familiarity of the old tiles and the light falling on them and, then, I manage to place it. My mamabari (my maternal grandparents’ house) sits in Raja Mehta Ni Pol in old Ahmedabad about a thousand kilometres north from Goa. The vertically half-divided mini-haveli was as different as you could get from a modern, one-bedroom flat in 1960s Lake Gardens. Arriving there after a dusty train trip, the first thing that welcomed you was the cool stone floor of the courtyard which was contiguous with the kitchen and the eating area that had never seen a dining table. You sat on wooden patlas to eat, with all sorts of new smells competing for your attention; the freshly cooking food, the strange but sweet tasting water, the cowdung and scooter-engine wafts outside the grille door with the wooden frame. The steep narrow stairs and bannisters were made of wood and going up them always felt like an adventure into the innards of a small ship; it was always pleasurable when you reached a landing illuminated with a window with glass panes coloured green, orange, blue and red. It was always a surprise when you reached the second floor at the top and it gave on to a really large room. It was in this room that the floor consisted of a sea of the very same tessellated Minton hexagons, but almost entirely in Venetian red.

The air and heat in dry, inland Ahmedabad are very different from those in tropical Goa but in my mind the two places are joined by the tiles and the spots of light falling on them through narrow openings and windows of coloured glass. Though built quite differently, the houses in old Ahmedabad were tasked with the same mission as the old Goa houses — to ensconce the habitants from the brutal heat outside. To achieve this primary goal, architects and builders in the west of the country working with the colonial market clearly used somewhat similar designs and some of the same materials.

Across the years, that seemingly vast floor on the top of my mama’s house shrank a bit in my perception. What was fascinating, however, was that the structural geriatrification of the haveli meant that the floor began to develop undulations, small ones at first and then quite seriously visible dips and dunes of red tiling, with individual pieces just peeling off from time to time.

The Ahmedabad of those days was actually different from Calcutta at both ends of the architectural spectrum. For someone with no roots in North Calcutta nor any experience of it, the old pols and houses were fascinating relics of a still-present past. On the other hand, my turgidly unimaginative, design-backward hometown had nothing to compare to the marvels of contemporary architecture with which Ahmedabad was replete. As a child, I remember taking the autorickshaw from the lanes of the old city to the new colonies sprouting on the other side of the Sabarmati where one was immersed in a completely new kind of built environment. I remember being taken into the recently constructed School of Architecture (as the Centre for Environment Planning & Technology was then known) and the National Institute of Design, into private bungalows built with the most beautiful lines, all completely devoid of decorative curlicues. That was when I first heard the foreign names, Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Bernard Cohen, and joined with them the Indian ones, B.V. Doshi, Gira Sarabhai, Achyut Kanvinde and Charles Correa. The red floor of my grandparents’ house provides a direct mnemonic gateway to my first experience of modern building design.

Looking at the beautifully preserved tile floor in Correa’s native Goa, marking the fact that we’ve recently said goodbye to Doshi, I can’t help but think of the days of sunlight that have passed over the incomplete, derailed, diverted and perverted dreams and hopes of that time of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Feeling the floor underfoot, I can’t help but hope that the time of the great concrete tsunami might also be imperceptibly coming to a close, bringing with it fresh compulsions that force us to find sustainable ways of marrying the old and the new.

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