From a Labyrinth into a Maze: Narendra Dengle

Of Intuitions & Ideas on Architecture

(For the Collegium, New Delhi, August 10, 2013)

From their name it is never clear if it represents one person or two or a group or even a tendency or preference, an ideology or political convenience, or, whether it continues to exist or it existed sometime in the 16-17 century BCE, because the title of the firm – I have come to believe – it is that – is Shodh-Pratishodh Ass,

1
( Diagram 1)

does not give a clue to its gender or whether it is in fact a firm of architects or associates or it is simply an ass. On closer inspection, I know that there are several variations of this title and these appear in Sanskrit, Persian, and many other Indian languages including English, which is of course Indian. It could mean shodh-vishodh (search-research) or shodh-pratishodh (search-counter search). Since Prati has many connotations, it could mean ‘every’ like in prati-kshana – every moment – or it could also mean ‘counter’ like in pratihalla- counter attack, pratikaar- resistance, etc. I take it that it hints at search and research without necessarily exposing the strategy for either. It could be gentle exploration or aggressive interrogation; but I let it rest at that at the moment. True to our tradition, no one has maintained records of the changes in the title of the firm, when it was redefined, or it was found more appropriate to the times, to be explained in another language for what purpose, but the fact remains that the meaning of shodh-pratishod had retained its essential core meaning throughout the changes. The ASS seems to be the latest tail attached to it probably in the last century appearing only in the anglicised version; but their greatest work was in the realm of the public sphere in equitable architecture creating a useful public space which we lack so desperately even in the 21st century; although it is unbuilt, it looks from the sketches without lettering or captions, or symbols, which I discovered as part of my struggle in researching through a file of notes, write ups, drawings, sketches, discs, tapes etc; that were methodically kept in a wonderfully crafted wooden box

2
(Diagram 2)

by the SPA (and honestly, it has no connection with the SPA New Delhi whatsoever) led me to believe that it might have been a public toilet or even a hamam, definitely not a parlour, but one could never be certain of it because the uses change with time and intention and the perception alters the representation of the object, and also because it looked like a blossoming flower, without fragrance, of course, on the lines of the Bilbao, but one that might be a museum of ideas on mysticism because it did not show up too many windows. The notes showed enormous research carried out by them, collection of narratives, and notes on activism etc. The set of elaborate drawings that I discovered are in fragments,

(Diagram 3)
(Diagram 3)

not all of them were found in one place; the major lot was found in the attic of an old house in Konkan, which I happened to visit and explore, and the references took me to some cities in the country, which are poles apart and have no outward similarity in cultures, and the literature that was wonderfully illustrated in colour and ink, not dissimilar to what one finds in odisshi patta chitras,

4
(Diagram 4)

that narrate operas, plays and poetry, as well as, in some other cities outside this country including in Spain, Portugal, England, France, the Netherlands, villages in Sri Lanka and the Middle and South East Asia, from where upon visiting, I was told, that the material though in poor state and fragments, being too precious had to be placed in some archive that is well secure and since no one organised such matters better than the developed world these had secretly found passage there, however, no one there quite knew the precise significance of it, or exactly what the fuss was about its preciousness, and to whom really it mattered, but they had magnanimously agreed to do the undertaker’s job and look after what came to them and preserve it like taxidermists; but the drawings that I discovered were in earthen natural colours with resins, and rice paste, very firmly applied on sheets made up of fine split bamboo that looked like an iPad, which had weathered with age and it was difficult to connect the letters into sentences and further connect them to diagrams because of the gaps left by organic erosion of paint , like in Gaitonde’s works, or wonderful patches on walls due to dampness,

(Diagram 5)
(Diagram 5)

but one could still hold this tablet against the sun to shield oneself from the scorching sun of the Greeshma rutu of the Vaishakh month. The texture of the tablet and the weave of the mats used for walls in the houses of Majouli in Assam had a close similarity, although the latter belonged to huts that were lifted off the ground to extend a warm welcome to the ‘mother’, who entered these shelters to transform them beyond recognition, during her monsoon visits to the place, as the Brahmaputra ferociously swelled and redefined, what we understand as geography, and it became terrorising like the Minotaur whom Theseus had to fight and kill to free his young countrymen, by entering a dangerous labyrinth that was frightening as it was intriguing, full of surprises, challenges, and adventures , and far from being predictable, and then return to Athens to found it, so that his ship might be conserved for posterity telling stories about his romance & adventures, and to drive home the fact that he indeed was not a mythical figure, and in the process to make Aristotle postulate four causes that would make it certain of the ship’s authenticity and its connection with Theseus, which Aristotle termed Formal, Material, Efficiency, and Final or End causes, which would vouch for the form of the vessel, material used for it, its purpose of sailing, and the craft and craft traditions of making it, and reading it one wondered how Aristotle could have missed out on spirit as the prime cause, as one would know from the story of Hayvadan, an insightful play by Girish Karnad on subtlety of meanings embedded in identity, which is formal and yet spiritual, but Aristotle might have known that no philosopher would have the last word on philosophy and that one day a young researcher by the name McEwen would point out, who his master’s master-Socrates’ real ancestor was, the fact, that architects all over the world had also forgotten, as nothing else but their discipline herself; that architecture was even before philosophy would also mean she – all creative things are attributes of Prakruti – so it is a she – was the mother of philosophy, (and to imagine that architects only thought her to be the mother of all arts!) and naturally the offspring too must acquire the same genetic characteristics, and Aristotle knew that he would never have the luxury or the honour (with exceptions these have become synonymous) of having the last word or the laugh, which must be the right of capitalists putting up skyscrapers and calling them humble abodes, while dominating national economies and business, albeit for a short duration, before they are exposed for their economic arrogance and scant disregard for social and environmental equity, and become a laughing stock, or neighbour’s envy, and yet schools of architecture, which never taught how to design humble abodes into skyscrapers, as also temples, churches, mosques and so forth, would now be fantasising their syllabi to accommodate the case, duly backing it by covering up with doctored data on sustainability and green stuff and also believing it, giving them environmental credits and badges, which can be worn on uniforms like military generals of oppressive rules, but I am sure that these bright young minds will surely outlast them to go into inward labyrinths rather than engage with such façades of pretensions to decode ancient and valid values for contemporary meanings and make or break new grounds. ‘kayam swarup is the antr swarup!’

The file is so rich in content that it makes minds run in multi- directions earnestly and yet wonderfully connecting varied touchstones, looking for more clues into which despite running the risk of stretching your patience and perhaps even drawing wrath, I must proceed to tell you about the discoveries, since I am unable to sing any popular familiar tunes to an enlightened lot of listeners and also because of my ignorance or inadequacy of my research which has dumped them into ‘limitations’, let me go on a bit more with the ‘scope’ of my research, which is exposed by the holes in the colours left by famished moths and the process of ageing, in the sketches of this famous SPA. There, one witnesses two simultaneous movements; one that of connecting the discovered material through a narrative and second, the movement triggered within oneself. Making them even tougher to cohere is a sketch probably more recent is that of a Grasshopper perching the Rhino in the Elephant grass, before a wonderfully built bamboo hut tied in cane being roofed by the team of shodh-pratishod. Is this my hope and guess or do I really see it that way? I am not sure if the sketch is authentic because the latest technology can create, acquire, destroy, fake, erode, juxtapose, clone, etc; without being worried about any ethical questions. The other, which is a writing in rice paste, leaving finger impressions, is eaten away by rodents but some letters that are visible tell me ‘Ma’ and with a gap ‘nishad

6
(Diagram 6)

in Devanagari script. My researcher’s mind is alert and my professional mind is expert at drawing rapid conclusions, racing with time, because my buildings have to be ready before time and must be conscious of a whole lot of financial resources that go into it as ahuti if the act is to be called yajnya. Although I Know from Kant that time is sequential as against space is simultaneous, I also know from Borges that it might be ‘in fact an infinite series of times in grooming, dizzying net of divergent and parallel times’; now whatever does it mean?? But in the meanwhile, I am led to conclude through negation that MaNishad connect to Māņdūkya Upanișad

(Diagram 7)
(Diagram 7)

because it cannot be Muņdaka Upanișad neither can it be the seven notes of music sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa with the missing sa re ga pa dha sa for nishad is written in full; it cannot be Muņdaka Upanișad because it is Ma and not Mu and then the content is very close to what one finds in Māņdūkya Upanișad, however, the interest of the Shodh-pratishod in Upanișadic literature itself is intriguing. In the labyrinth the walls often appear to be identical and if un-focussed one does not have an idea where exactly one might be, or how much area might still be uncovered before one arrives at the centre. My spontaneous choice-less choice for traversing principle is for the Upanishadic trail and not the probability of the music trail, although equally engaging if I were a musician, that would show like the Dhwanyaloka of Anandawardhana (9th century BCE) which centuries before Croce (early 20th century CE) pointed out that there exists another source of knowledge, which was independent of logical or intuitive and that was aesthetic. The Upanishadic trail smells of sadhus, but more of intelligence and peace, yes, even peace must have a characteristic smell without which it cannot draw you to its ambit, besides, it must, after all, be user friendly. I don’t find any crowds on this trail, but I hear echoes of chants, and hymns and these are resonating like the primordial naad that is lingering in space from deep inside me; I hope you remember the labyrinth I am experiencing is across times and memories and without physical transportation to another locale as I can actually feel the four quarters of my consciousness- not really- in any case not the fourth – the first enumerated as the waking state, the second the dream state, the third is the dreamless state and the fourth-the fourth is rock-steady – the incomprehensible, undescribable, unattached, unfettered – to any of the previous three states, it is in a way an alien quarter; but the grasshopper on rhino – at the thatch hut- tells me its existence in a quaint way, which I cannot, or am forever forbidden to put in words, and the inevitable existence of the four quarters of consciousness, which exist despite the others and yet cannot exist without the others and without whose direct, indirect and subtle contributions, I am unable to make sense of anything except in a linear- ego-centric-entirely memory dependent way- especially the fact that I exist and yet I do not.

(Diagram 8)
(Diagram 8)

Somewhere here I would then find the FLW hat (Diagram 8) which he wore to attend a felicitation in his honour, which said, ‘here is the greatest living American architect.’ To which our man not exactly famous for politeness growled under his hat, ‘Why American only?? And, why only living??!!!’

Going to the centre of the labyrinth, through the works of the SPA, instead of finding a demon, a monster what I find is the presence of an enormous ego. The experience of ego comes through the scale of the centre. Presently, as one comes closer, it dissolves itself in the meeting of the two- almost like the ‘two birds always united, cling to the same tree –one of the two eats the sweet fruit, and the other looks on without eating’– as in Śvetāśvatara Upanișd. The path back from the labyrinth is not the same as I entered, to my surprise, and I discover it has turned into a maze. I have now to find my way anew. If Abhimanyu was given a lesson into how to penetrate the chakravyha by Krshna in his mother’s womb and had to miss out on how to return after demolishing the chakravyuha, I find that the fact that the labyrinth has evaporated and has transformed into a maze I must now find ways and means of solving its complexity and emerge comfortably at the other end, aesthetically, and knowledge of history may not be adequate for me to undertake the task.

Making sense cannot be a visual process alone, neither entirely through dependence on sensory perceptions, or mugging up and adhering to ideologies, all of which have failed to give us a drishti in our studies of architecture. Why should the much revered awesome Unite’ d’Habitation in Marseille, be considered, not awesome but awful by the locals? Is there a total disconnect between what we have been conditioned to believe what is great stuff from what actually is? The fact that the waking state interlaces the dream state or even the dreamless can actually be witnessed by one and all, like I did as a student witnessing a blackboard type of a lecture on physics in school days suppressing continuous yawns until I read the stuff written by an enlightened physicist, who made it so interesting and could not have written it himself except with the assistance of the fourth quarter of consciousness- which was enjoyable as it was illuminating, but since he had yet to scientifically prove it, he instead played the piano in the meanwhile; he is on record saying, “The Intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift”; but as someone might say this a good paraphrase but it won’t solve the problems of transportation, squalor, urban densities, poisoned meals at schools, pot holes in roads, reshuffling of ministers, inserting metros within old cities, and above all the GDP, and these must be solved by arguing hoarse on 500 TV channels day in and day out, and I would agree that, that too is a legitimate way of earning bread or fame, or both, and I too have witnessed personally how logically and with single mindedness a craftsman chiselled out a doorway from a huge block of stone completely rationally and meticulously, without a drawing, and then dovetailed similar but small blocks of stone into making marvellous shrines in water courses that stay firm despite ferocious floods, which wash away the devotees and their sins, and the governments alike. And it struck me that wouldn’t it be also necessary for students to be engaged in field studies in all subjects including history to get an entirely different perspective of our cultures and traditions? So, I turn to my data of sketches, and stuff that I have found to discover a freehand brush & ink drawing of square;

(Diagram 9)
(Diagram 9)

I have seen the profoundly mystic circles drawn by Zen monks and find this square of no less importance it seems proportionate and drawn without taking the brush off; but you might ask what can be disproportionate about a square?? Well, does it not represent disproportionate reality by its absence, since nothing in real life is so orderly and hence you want to impose it hoping that reality also would eventually be a fake as a square and in the process lead towards further chaos? After all squares must by nature be proportionate-whether small, medium, large, whether at IAUCCA, or Gandhi ashram, or in havelis and wadas , but I see the dimensions of depth, the transcending aspect wanting to go beyond the phenomena, and silence in this one drawn by shodh-pratishodh, of which, believe me I know a bit from my childhood, especially the latter and the less said about the latter the better I suppose and refrain from making scratches on the silent impressions I have stored inside me. ‘But how can you see these so called dimensions that we don’t see?’, you may ask, and you know, as well as I do, that the truth of my realisation is that the orchestration of waking state and dream state happens in my dreamless state but one may say that the third state is the exclusive domain of the gurus and the enlightened and what you say is all heresy and fake, and I ask you, who told you that you are also not them, even though we were never taught about silence in architecture?

(Diagram 10)
(Diagram 10)

But you may insist, ‘it is the eye perception that dominates the profession that we are in, and all other sensibilities must be considered secondary and not our business, after all it is the eye perception that helps us achieve honour, awe, respect, accomplishment, glamour, fashion…’ Hold on! Please, haven’t you heard what Charles Eames said some decades back keeping fashion outside the domain of design? To add to it one must recognise the ‘architecture of effects’ and leave it to itself to indulge indefinitely! And, while talking about design shouldn’t we be concerned we should build two way tracks between design and other disciplines? Like for instance, to be able to view telescopically and microscopically Design from history, sociology, technology and the rest of it and the vice versa to strengthen the inter-disciplinary-ness of it? And won’t that give us a clue into reshaping the entire disciplinary thinking? But it is getting dark here in the attic and with no electricity and I must close in on the stuff that I have found so far and I better not drag on and continue to furnish some more data, so I browse through the stuff feverishly yet delicately turning to other objects that include a thread of beads and a set of four intricate diagrams, which together do not add up to anything. The thread is tough, thin, and with several knots beautifully knitted, each different from the other, like in mountaineering or shipping, it is well plaited and has skin colour that matches many a skin globally that I have touched so far; I do not know whether to call these objects a cue, clue or symbols. The thread is apparently removed from an old scripture that it once bounded.

(Diagram 11)
(Diagram 11)

The scripture has come off and pages are loosened, torn, or misplaced. This must have something that the SPA considered of importance during a phase of its work; the title of the scripture ends with the word sutra and the thread is the testimony of its content. I hold on to this long bundle of the sutra in the hope of discovering my way through the labyrinth on one plane while on the other find clues to wade through the maze.

(Diagram 12)
(Diagram 12)

I can after all use this thread to eliminate the misleading trails in the labyrinth and only resolve the knots at the pace I can without which I can never experience the whole sutra. Sutra becomes a link between understanding, acceptance and self governance and in the process arrests chaos, anarchy, and wantonness in the bud. It is a link between the labyrinth and the maze. The diagrams are similar to the one by tribes in Papua New Guinea

(Diagram 13)
(Diagram 13)

and look exactly like Louis Kahn’s plans or the Qatri Mosque of Murshidabad, which I suspect Kahn must have been visited in dreams,

(Diagram 14)
(Diagram 14)

but looking at them you suddenly realise that you do not want to read a lot of words on order anymore, howsoever well written, or refer to the Chambers. The diagram expands by the extended diagonals in four directions enlarging the surfaces into expanding zones into which I see words and titles that refreshingly give me insights into histories, humanities, performing arts, and sciences, keeping architecture in the central square.

(Diagram 15)
(Diagram 15)

But I keep telling me there ought to be five surfaces and not four like five organs of perception, and five elements, and five organs of actions- all of course to be reined in my the most elusive of the charioteers that the mind is. But the diagram is happy with four surfaces and for the moment and I do not want the square to be taken over by the pentagon; No! I call these interfaces and the zone between them as the zone of interpretation, or a zone of duality & non duality, to be comprehended once again through diagrams only. The treasure does not give me any indication of what to fill them with and how it can help construct ideas or notions or interpretations –I must take the bull by the horn. If I examine the objects of my discovery again and seriously either in the waking or dream state or dreamless state- now as I know that the fourth state too would be playing its invisible role most delightfully, diligently, only I must be aware of its energy and the thread would tell me the intrinsic connections between all the unknowns which for no reason come together- like for instance- a car, a policeman, the traffic light, honking, and oh yes, the forgotten pedestrian. The thread will make the local puzzle more and more universal and I must begin at once to look for the pieces that went into it the pages of the scriptures and the words and the animations that spaced them and were the result of it, the pieces I am sure must be scattered either in space that is simultaneous and a priori or taken away in the H G Well’s Time Machine across geographies associated with times.

(Diagram 16)
(Diagram 16)

After all, those of us who have experienced non-formal ideas assuming form, then getting into lethargic shelves of dust, or manifested- if you were lucky, or partly built and then demolished being illegal, decayed, famished, and vanished from this earth, would know that this very discipline of architecture has been a source of greatest delights and must hold the key to all the known and unknown labyrinths of the world whether built or not- of past or future. Won’t we?

Then I am reminded of Nisargatta Maharaj’s discourse, “Search means refusal and rejection of the incomplete and imperfect, for a seeker of reality there is only one meditation- the rigorous refusal to harbour thoughts. To be free from thoughts is itself meditation”.

The maze is still a far cry from being resolved and I am not sure if I the light I have seen is really the end of it or a trick that was inbuilt into its design, to make the maze sustainable, and I know that if I went into it again, I would still get lost the same way as I did today.

Having visited the centre of the labyrinth, I am now nearly at the end of the maze. I do not experience the person in me but my consciousness is choreography among the four quarters of its dwelling and has found a refreshed sense of freedom-which is the cessation of ignorance or avidyā nivŗtti– to access the unlimited and intangible and yet manifest it through the means available to my waking self. It has forged a firm bond with its other selves that can no longer wither away no matter what.

About the author:
Narendra Dengle is a practising architect, academician, writer, and conservationist and is renowned for his work in the area of conservation and heritage preservation and restoration. His works, since 1974 include rural and urban projects addressing contemporary cultural, environmental and aesthetic issues. He has taught at the SPA, New Delhi and was the Design Chair at KRVIA Mumbai (2006-11). He is the Academic Chair at Goa College of Architecture( 2012-). He has been on the CAA’s Re vailidation Committee and member of the Charles Correa Gold Medal Jury for the best student thesis since 2005. He has been a member of the Urban Heritage Committees for Pune and Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani-Wai-Satara. He is a member of the Central Advisory Committee of INTACH. His book ‘Jharoka’(Marathi), on critical issues in architecture was released in 2007. “The Discovery of Architecture: a contemporary treatise on ancient values and indigenous reality” GREHA Publications New Delhi – jointly authored with M N Ashish Ganju, was released in November 2012. He has made films on Architectural Appreciation also. 
W: www.narendradengle.in

 

3 thoughts on “From a Labyrinth into a Maze: Narendra Dengle”

  1. Very interesting and multidimensional observations on a pan global canvas. Wish the passages were cut in smaller sizes for easy digestion.

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