Situated in the midst of a vast arid expanse in Kutch, the architecture of Khamir Crafts Resource Centre in Kukma is one of participation in the celebration of the crafts from the region. Designed to facilitate a network with the artisans by responding to their way of life and work, the place builds upon the complex cultural relationships therein.

In a region that faces natural extremities, craft, in Kutch, is a means of self-reliance. Where every community is distinctly different from the other – the Meghwals and Sodhas as weavers and embroiders of cloth, Khatris as block-printers and fabric dyers, Multani Lohars as makers of copper plated bells, and Sonis as makers of exquisite silverware and jewellery among many others; Kutch is home to some of the finest traditional craftsmanship in the country.

In 2001, a massive earthquake shook Kutch. With all gone – a lost sense of dwelling, loss of a familiar environment, and the affected crafts community, there loomed the fear of erosion of layers of traditional knowledge. It was at this moment in time, the idea of Khamir Craft Resource Centre was born. It was instituted in 2005 as a platform for the promotion and sustainable development of crafts, heritage and cultural ecology of Kutch. Architect Neelkanth Chhaya collaborated joined with the Hunnarshala Foundation for this cause, faced with critical concerns of building in a fragile ecology while respecting the familiar spatial environment for engagement with skill and workmanship.

A set of sloping roofs of the Khamir Craft Resource Centre lay low over the horizon of Kukma, a village 12 kilometres away from the town of Bhuj.

The conception of the 2200 square metre crafts facility spread across two acres of land resonates with the ethnography of Kutch and its environs. A low-rise clustered campus, the overall architecture of such a complex programme is humbled by the land surrounding it. As a seemingly simple modular orthogonal plan, the design facilitates a rather complex sequence of movement, revealing only parts of the campus as one walks through, encountering plausible points for informal exchanges in between- sometimes under the shade of a tree, sometimes amidst a cluster of buildings- in many ways tapping into a familiar way of living, congregating and working.

Moving through the verandas alongside the workspaces and across a series of shaded courtyards, references a walk through the winding alleys that are characteristic of rural Indian townscapes: from a harsh sunlit landscape to a welcoming shaded courtyard, stepping onto an elevated veranda and finally entering the deep, cool interiors is an experience that is integral to the rural fabric of the place.

The built-spaces are primarily a cultural construct, where the architecture is employed to strengthen an identity that the people of Kutch represent. Using local materials and appropriate construction techniques, the finished surfaces (built as infills in a steel frame of the buildings) receive and reflect a familiar light. The mud walls when sprinkled with water, emanate a known fragrance and the thick rammed earth absorbs the sounds of working tools. Responding to the seismic zone, the buildings are propped on stout plinths. The rammed earth walls rise from the plinth, with visible layers of ‘making’ thus lending the landscape vibrancy and scale. In parts, however, the walls are plastered with a mixture of mud and dried cow dung, to keep the interiors comfortably cool.

As the buildings rise further, the architecture departs from the conventional with a modern, lightweight steel construction allowing for a generous space above the robust walls. The steel frame takes over the roof to support a double-layered roof lined with fired clay Mangalore tiles. Through a collaboration with the Hunnarshala Foundation, one of the key innovations that the project saw was the installation of wattle and daub panels as infills between timber and steel frames.

An oasis for the artisans, the Khamir Crafts Resource Centre is an architectural translation of a sensitively planned economic model to support, sustain and nurture the knowledge of the diverse craft forms by facilitating interactions. Lending the clusters a sense of dwelling, the workspaces are designed as ‘otlas’ (raised plinths) adjoining a quiet protected room that is often used as a store for raw materials and tools, a space for research and development, or as a small display area for finished products. The infrastructure at Khamir is designed to engage in the development and documentation of craft techniques and use of materials, training and enhancement of skill, sales and marketing among other operations.

Today, the project is known across Kutch for its exploration of architecture, appropriate to the local way of life and work. The unconventional gestures in architecture and construction offer a subtle relief, introducing lightness and porosity in the plan. A stark overlay of details and a carefully planned landscape, the architecture practices restraint in the vernacular poetics of the overall built-environment by engaging in what is already known to create a contemporary, utilitarian space that does not romanticise the village.

Responding to values, tradition, and identity intrinsic to the context, the architecture of Khamir Craft Resource Centre demonstrates a genteel dichotomy between conservativism and innovation, the conventional and uncustomary, and pragmatism and idealism- suggesting an all-encompassing approach to architecture that is grounded yet wishful♦

Professor Neelkanth Chhaya is an Architect, Academician, and a prominent Thinker. He retired as the Dean of the Department of Architecture at CEPT University in Ahmedabad and has served and led academic committees in KRVIA Mumbai; Srishti School of Art, Bengaluru, and Goa College of Architecture amongst many other. In his practice spanning more than 30 years, Prof. Chhaya has researched and worked extensively in the domain of appropriate architecture for India, documenting places of historic significance, and authoring numerous critical papers on the same subject. 

Founded in the wake of the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India, Hunnarshala engages in both community and artisan empowerment. It works with a network of artisans to combine traditional techniques with innovation resulting in buildings, including in post-disaster situations, that are at once eco-friendly, resilient and in keeping with local vernacular. They also train and empower artisan entrepreneurs, bringing them into the mainstream of construction and participate in community-led reconstruction and planning.

Image & Drawing Credits:

Photographs & Drawings: courtesy Prof. Neelkanth Chhaya

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