Sunday, 29 April 2007

Parable of 20th Century Blacksmith

Parable of 20th Century Blacksmith of Bhal
by Remigius de Souza

ONCE UPON A TIME there lived a blacksmith in a village. He belonged to the Indic Civilisation in the second half of 20th century of Christian Calendar. He lived in a region called Bhal in Saurashtra of Gujarat State in India. In the same region nearby is the place called Lothal; there existed the Indus Civilization in Bronze Age. ‘Bhal’ meant desert in Gujarati language. In Sanskrit it meant forehead. In Indian tongues forehead also indicated ‘fate’.

The caste of blacksmith, untouchable though, had been part of ecology of the Indic civilisation for centuries. They made things (weapons) for the state, and (implements – tools – equipments) for the households, houses, farms and transport. Perhaps the story of smithy goes beyond, even before, the Indo-European race – the Aryans – invaded India.

The people of India were very proud of their past heritage. However in the lasts decades of 20th century, the mining corporation in Damodar Valley almost destroyed the archaeological evidence that an Iron Age perhaps existed in India before the Bronze Age in Indus Civilization. The mining operations partially destroyed the cave and the cave paintings, and whatever remained was left to further destruction due to ‘exposure’ and ‘tremors’ caused by mining.

The blacksmith in the village in Bhal region had no work, for the villagers had resorted to the mechanized farming. They were also using hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. By the end of 20th Century the people of Bhal had successfully destroyed the soil, insects in the soil – water – air. By using imported advance technology of farming, they had successfully stopped further regeneration of flora and fauna which depended on, and helped each other, and accelerated the rate of desertification of their region.

Thus perhaps the region got its name Bhal – desert – in the modernization process; they also destroyed the indigenous seeds which could grow in the prevailing hot dry climate and topography of the region. They were facing a severe water crisis. When all over India the rural – urban population ratio was 76.7:23.3, in Bhal the rural population was 28.2 percent in the beginning of the 1980s.

Moneylenders called the World Bank from Western Civilisation came forward to give a loan to build a mighty dam over River Narmada. It was to enable water supply to Bhal region by irrigation canals. By this action two things were certain: (1) whatever useful top soil was left in the Bhal region would finally turn saline, and the process of desertification would be completed; and (2) the destruction of the tribal culture and the forest – rich in flora and fauna – in the catchments of Narmada valley.

Civilized, superior societies, in earlier times, had killed – annihilated local, ethnic and tribal communities wherever they reached, or take them as slaves, or as service class ― or Shudras (untouchable caste) ― as in Indic civilisation. Our blacksmith belonged to the untouchable caste.
Our blacksmith was jobless while industries of mass production got tax concessions, subsidies, financial aid, services, etc. All that this petite bourgeoisie had: his simple hand tools, his rickety hut, his poverty and his skill. He was excellent craftsman in making guns – as well as for museum pieces. He was a master craftsman.

So he would make a gun. The police – the Law – would pounce on him, catch him for the crime of making a gun, and put him in a jail. When released he would start again to make a gun (perhaps he had customers from the affluent elite Indian society). He was caught again by the law. He was put again in the jail… And this continued until he died rotting in poverty, privation, between the jail and his rickety hut.

This may have been a prelude to the riots, terrorists’ attacks, proliferation of goons and illegal possessions of guns – not only in Gujarat State, but also all over the country; even the Parliament of India was not spared from terrorist attack.

Why should any state/ nation force, face, or fear the threat of war or terrorism from inside or outside if it had cared for the poor and the afflicted due to the capitalist antics, and took right action to rehabilitate them in the changing environment, not theoretically or verbally but actually? On the contrary it should have had friends everywhere.

The Indian State governed the nation by mimetic imitation of their (past) colonial master and (present) neo-colonial masters. The politicians enacted melodrama common in Bollywood movies and Tellywood mega soaps, under the garbs of patriotism and nationalism, to sway the citizens.

However, the large majority – the illiterate, backward, underdeveloped and the people living below poverty line – in their repeated verdicts led them to face hung parliaments. Predictably they brought their various colours and brands together into alliances ‘to hold power’ but consistently failed ‘to learn from the people.’

One, Bertold Brecht, from the Western Civilisation in the contemporary times (in 1953), wondered with mock innocence:

Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?*

Perhaps this was then a worldwide phenomenon in the era of Industrial Civilisation.

Neither the Indian State, nor the Constitution of India, nor the great Indian Democracy had any instrument, any tool, or could evolve any, which could help and rehabilitate our Blacksmith of Bhal to live with dignity, leave aside to shower on him the state honours for his craft. They had Acts of Law but NO ACTION to maintain equality.

Until recent times the blacksmiths made arrowheads. The Blacksmith of Bhal changed over to making guns with changing times. But like farming and other traditional crafts, his craft also had no official recognition. Similarly the tribal lost their millennia-old skill in archery being illegal; the blockhead bureaucrats thinking in box had no imagination to convert it into sports, hence Indians hardly represented archery at the Olympics.

The Blacksmith, in this story, was a freedom fighter for his right to work and survival; qualitatively no less than Gandhi’s protest in South Africa earlier. But he did not belong to the elite class or high caste. He struggled, fought alone, held his head high in self-respect: He stood taller than any celebrated writers of Constitutions and Laws of any States.

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Remigius de Souza
  • This story was told by the author on the concluding day of the workshop on “Environment, People and Law” organized by the “Centre for Science and Environment” (CSE), New Delhi during 12-16 October 1992. 
  • The story was published in the “Development network”, CDSA, Pune, Jan-March 1994. 
  • This story is of a real person told to the author by a social worker who was working with the farmers in Dholaka – Dhandhuka area in the Gujarat State. This is an updated text.
  • * Quote "Bertold Brecht" is by Michael Wood, ‘At the Movies’, London Review of Books, Vol. 29 No. 6, 22 March 2007. 
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©Remigius de Souza, all rights reserved.

Friday, 20 April 2007


Shankar Kanade, Architect: Illustrated Profile

S. N. Kanade

Man who walks the talk, my friend and guru
By Remigius de Souza

Jalavayu Vihar Township, Bangalore is a unique urban-scape. The township is not an assembly of stereotypical blocks. The varied skyline of the buildings, the shaded lanes that connect to open spaces add to the human scale. There are many elements that are rooted in traditional Indian towns. Perhaps they come from mimetic memory! These photographs show how the inmates have used their skills in plantation to add their signature. In this the complex helps to flower human potential. (This is an updated post.)

Shankar N. Kanade at Jalavayu Vihar

SHANKAR NIVRUTTI KANADE, my classmate, and friend for fifty years, is based in Bangalore and practices architecture and planning with his brother Navanath.

He has been teaching since 1960s, first at the Ahmadabad School of Architecture (now CEPT), later in various colleges in Karnataka. He, with others, founded department of architecture in Hassan in Karnataka. He also set up a course/ curriculum for another college.

The user use their autonomy to add in finishing touches

Kanade, on his own initiative, developed an indigenous construction technology, known as “Chhapadi” in Karnataka. It is highly labour intensive and uses local resources – people and materials. He worked on this system without any institutional support or finance. He designed and built several houses including his own, and mass housing for public sector.

Despite his friends’ advice he never took a patent for this product. Now others are using it. I heard that someone got an award for her/his design that used the technology. But the important factor is the unskilled/ skilled workers have learnt something new and benefited. His “pro-poor” product empowers the poor to earn livelihood.

The gateway holds o.h. water tank
I have seen and experienced some of these houses. When I visited Lohithashwa’s house, my spontaneous response was “I am reminded of India’s rock cut architecture”. I had also visited the house when Lohithashwa had hosted art workshop there, where other arts also flourished. Several artistes – potters, painters, and sculptors – were passionately working: I feel this may be a best, and the most appropriate tribute Kanade ever received for his work.

The township features traditional lanes
 I also visited his high-density township – “Jalavayu Vihar”; it is not built with the same technology mentioned above. At its ‘core’ is the ‘primordial image’ of Indian towns, but it’s not a prototype.

Plantation added by the user
 It has gates, shaded lanes, and multilevel open spaces, which give relief visually and physically from high-density development. Kanade brothers use and mold the Fifth Dimension of light of the tropical India, as building material.

The major material is local granite

When I returned there were friends gathered at Kanade's home. Architect Sanjay Mohe asked, ‘What did Remi see?’ Absentmindedly I replied, ‘Remi saw tiny honeybees busy’.

Kanade brothers use tropical sun to best advantage
There were honeybees smaller than house flies. They are harmless, and like common sparrows they make their homes in the snitches. Unlike beehives, they build small vessels to store honey, supported with wax tie bars. I was reminded of Aldo van Eyck who said, “… City is a big house”.

Movement through different scales

When Kanade came to Mumbai to study architecture, from his village in Sholapur district on the border of Maharashtra - Karnataka states, for some time he, with two other friends, lived in a slum in Santacruz. They called their home, “Chandramauli”, meaning a hut where moonlight penetrates through its roof (so also rainwater). Sounds romantic while reading!

Kanade's architecture is user-friendly

In some other country, Kanade would have received invitation form every college and association of architects. But who takes notice here? He is neither a foreigner nor foreign returned. Perhaps there is no budget provided for such luxury. What about his students and apprentices, who might have joined teaching?

Multiple uses of open spaces
Kanade never mentioned in decades that there is some research in ‘Building Technology’ going on in any college. While teaching the juniors in Ahmedabad, he gave exercises that took them to carpentry workshop.

Play of shade and light everywhere

Crores of Rupees are invested in establishment, infrastructure and running the colleges, besides the youth energy and their creativity that is spent on the campuses. [I raised this issue in my article, “Letters and Number plus Things to Make”, published in the JIIA, January2000 (edited version), and in ARCHeFUNDA, September 2000, (full text) edited by Prof. Harimohan Pillai.

Open spaces are connected lanes
What is the result? I heard that some highbrow management students asked the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus to give them a model of “social banking” like his “Gramin Bank”. So that they could ‘copy-paste’ – ‘cut-paste’ in their dissertations and theses, to add to their credibility. They want ready answers! That’s education, youth creativity and energy!

There is movement in skyline too!
When we say architecture in India, it is a tail end or an extension of western architecture, which is not ‘universal’ in India. Kanade, of course, is a follower of the western trend that took place in India, now for more than hundred years.

Shankar and Navanath Kanade at Jalavayu Vihar

I personally may not agree on many established points regarding education, architecture and aesthetics, which I made public in my paper “Architecture and Biodiversity in India”. By their silence, my friends – Kanades and others, and the Indian fraternity of architects about this paper, I believe it remains controversial. The simplistic reason, I guess is the status quo attitude of educationists, which is typical of the bureaucrats. Yet, Kanade’s contribution to the building technology remains unique.
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Remigius de Souza

Sunday, 8 April 2007

How bamboo is neglected in India

How bamboo is neglected in India
by Remigius de Souza

Urban elite Indian is familiar with bamboo: a decorative garden plant. The slum dwellers use bamboo household implements brought from their native villages. The children, perhaps, due to the sticks fixed on the kites.

It is said that there are 1000 uses of bamboo. But, knowingly or unknowingly, we, the educated, come in contact with bamboo through its product – paper.

In this conference (see the note bellow) the major emphasis is on economics, commerce and trade of bamboo, and botany for its mass plantation. We, however, have not paid much attention to the uses of bamboo. We take them for granted.

A house – shelter – though a basic need, where bamboo has contributed to a great extend, throughout ages, we take for granted its use in housing. The statistics, whether real or on paper, of housing shortage in India, and the housing action to remove the shortage have never matched until now. This, however, being a departmental issue, may not be ‘our’ concern!

Few institutions have started to make bamboo articles for useful or decorative purposes mainly to appeal the urban elite, for example, a bamboo briefcase. We don’t see them in use except sometimes in the handicrafts emporiums.

For centuries the majority – more than 80 percent – in India use it for houses and equipments for the household, farming and family vocations. The number of uses if counted will go in several thousands in all the regions in India.

Why then bamboo remains neglected in India? Why it has now attracted their attention? These are two sides of the same coin: the one is ‘they’, and the other is ‘we’. They use it for the ‘shelter’; we use it for the paper. These interests are at the cross-purposes.

The ‘heads’ for the ruling class, the ‘tails’ for the skeletons of the Western Ghats or Sahyadri, Satpura, Vindhya, Nilgiris, Himalayas and the lakhs of square kilometres of the countryside, which is devalued in the inflationary market.

If ‘they’ have to be motivated to plant bamboo, then ‘we’ must have to study with ‘Riyaz’ – rigorous practice – to learn what bamboo is, and its many thousand uses in the interest of people and the country’s economy.

The coconut is ‘Kalpavriksha’ – wish tree – for us, and has its place in our culture; it’s more than just a commodity!

The bamboo is the God-blessed plant, ‘Jeevan Sangeet’ – music of life – symbolized by Krishna’s primeval flute, a part of our culture; though it may not so for the western culture. In China, Japan… the whole of Southeast Asia bamboo has reached higher levels in arts and handicrafts.

We in general, and the architects and engineers in particular, are not sufficiently familiar with bamboo, perhaps except as scaffolding material that is now being replaced by steel.

Though bamboo (and soil too), are universal building materials in India, the professionals call them ‘non-conventional’. Why? Because it doesn’t grow in Britain / Europe. The cement, steel, aluminium… are ‘conventional’ for us ever since they were imported, along with their education system, by the British.

Ironically, for the last two centuries, and even after the Independence, the majority of the Indian people have been following sustainable living; thankfully they have been kept away, or deprived of, and exploited by this imported education. The time only can tell us if it is for the better or worst ends!

Bamboo remains neglected because it is ‘their’ material. Because it is neither the part of our education curriculum nor their. Europeans, however, recognise humble ‘thatch’ as a building material in their education and practice, and is use by the very rich as well as the poor. If anything, we should blame our slave mentality or snobbery for the neglect of bamboo.

Now that the western people are doing research, and even tried bamboo plantation in the gardens (under artificial conditions), we too must recognise bamboo, otherwise we shall be called backward.

Certainly there is research going on, for example, in Deharadoon, besides elsewhere, but unfortunately it doesn’t reach the masses. Bollywood gossip about its stars, and their styles, even information about their under-garments, reach the masses more efficiently!

It is indeed nice of Maharashtra Education Department now to include bamboo in the primary and secondary school textbooks. But the lessons also must be taught and learnt in the out-side-class-rooms on the ground.

It is still more important to include bamboo and soil in the curriculum of architecture and engineering. On one side we talk-talk-talk of housing shortage, on the other side the education of the professionals is not people-oriented. The rational behind the talk, policy and practice is lame, is in partisan interest that amounts to hypocrisy.

I, therefore, suggest two resolutions before the conference:

1. Bamboo and soil must be included in the education curriculum of higher / technical education in architecture and engineering.

2. Bamboo must be brought under regulation and rationing as an essential commodity for distribution for various uses – industry, handicrafts and housing. It should be made available to the forest dwellers, villagers, and the slum dwellers in cities and towns for self-help housing, and the artisans (who generally belong to the SCs – the schedule castes) at fair price.

(Note: This is a translation of the talk given by the author in Marathi on 23 April 1995 at the First Bamboo Conference (in Marathi) held at Narayangaon, District Pune, on April 22-23, 1995. The elite and the rich farmers attended the conference. Predictably the suggestions were not adopted in the resolution.)

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Remigius de Souza
69, 243, S B Marg, Mumbai 400028 India

Monday, 2 April 2007

Tiger god and Project tiger India

Tiger god and 'Project tiger' India

by Remigius de Souza
Project Tiger is entangled in some misinformation and controversies. The message does not reach the people, the real affected people – the forest dwellers, the peasants and the tribal. For those who could read or see news, it remains at information level: neither has it sunk nor their way of living changes. The discourse remains at the elite/ activist circles.

The Warli tribe, for example, in the backyard of Mumbai, or the Dangi tribe in the Dangs in Gujarat, worship “Tiger god” for millennia. They have not heard of Project Tiger.

Some say the census method is faulty; some say census results are not reliable; some say the number of tigers is rising; some say the poachers are still active… the contradictory news that filters through media makes one doubt its authenticity.

In my native village in Konkan, the world-known biodiversity hot spot, there were tigers (I use this as common name.) in the nearby hills, so also there were wild boras, foxes and many more species. In past sixty years, the forest cover has depleted, subsoil water table has gone deeper (at 2500 – 3000 mm annual rainfall), and the tigers have vanished – either dead, killed or migrated to other places. This is lower part of Western Ghats, where hills in some places reach to the shore of Arabian Sea.

As one follows Western Ghats from south to north, one could witness more and more deforestation nearer Mumbai. In Raigad District most of the hills are barren. Once it had highest tree cover in Maharashtra. According to Prof. Chhatrapti Singh (Indian Law Institute, New Delhi), the deforestation has accelerated at higher rate after the Independence.

Science research, so also conservation, stresses study of fauna compared to flora. Botanists know their discipline is neglected. Perhaps when the prospects of bio-fuel fuel up, when George W. Bush do push for it, when the biotechnology firms smell the prospect for profits, the governments in the Third World Countries will order the starving peasants to produce mass-mono-culture of, such as ‘Jatropha’, a common wild plant to make money (See: New Scientist, 3 February 2007, p. 15). In our native tongue there is saying, ‘in a barren (without trees) village, “Erand” (Marathi for Jatropha) dominates’. We used to use its seeds as a torch by lighting them.

It is a chain of reactions, or vicious circle of development and progress: no tree cover, no water, no wild life – no tigers; more deaths of peasants / tribal by malnutrition or by starvation or by suicides, or by killings by legal terrorism by governments (as in Nadigram few days ago) giving rise to counter-terrorism through riots – strikes – the burning of public property. People have no water to drink or for farming.

In Northern part of India and in Bangladesh, nearly 500 million people are affected by water polluted by arsenic poisoning and several harmful metals, says Dipankar Chakraborti, the scientist, now with Jadavpur University in Kolkata, West Bengal (“Drinking at the west’s toxic well”, New Scientist, April 1, 2006, p.48-49). It is vital to take care of people to take care of trees to take care of water; the three are interlinked.


It is vital to take care of people to take care of trees to take care of water; the three are interlinked. I wrote “Project Water Parks” (The Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects, Vol. 70 Issue 07 August 2005 p.16-19), as a tool to learn Water by self-access. As anything that carries title “PROJECT” carries credibility, I add it to I add it to Water Parks.


Indian context calls for reckoning India’s environmental and cultural biodiversity, if architecture truly speaks / represents time and place. See my document. Architecture and Biodiversity in India where I propose holistic education.

ON THE JUDGEMENT DAY, if I am called for trial, I shall testify, unlike Albert Spears, “I have read from the country-wide-open-book, that’s India, not Wikipedia. I believe that the source of all knowledge is the nature, and Life is larger than all arts, sciences, philosophies and religions, of all times, all put together. I have left my testimony in the public domain.” May the judgment day come soon, earliest the best!

Remigius de Souza