Charles Correa: Trajectories and Contexts

Ranjit Hoskote

A Recorded Lecture from FRAME Conclave 2019: Modern Heritage

In this lecture, Ranjit Hoskote postulates a portrait of Charles Correa as a curator. He speaks about Correa’s contribution to culture at large and his preoccupation with societal institutions albeit being an architect.

Edited Transcript

Good Morning.

Since I have 35 minutes, I am not really going to try and engage with absolutely everything that Charles Correa built in the course of a magnificent career. I am going to try and focus on a very particular strand in his work, his preoccupation with cultural institutions, and through what I have to say, I am going to try and develop provisionally a portrait of the architect as not only a member of a particular profession but as a contributor to ‘culture’ at large.

Charles Correa’s architecture was really part of my growing up in Bombay. Whether it was the Salvacao Church or Kanchenjunga, these were part of the urban fabric, part of the way in which one experience the city and part of what one identified with one’s home city. But also in the course of my professional life, there are Correa buildings to which I have often returned, where I have sometimes done things and which again have been part of my consciousness in my being. I am thinking particularly here of the Crafts Museum in Delhi, indeed the Kala Academy, the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, the British Council building in Delhi and Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. Also, on a far more personal note, my wife and I spent for many years our New Year holidays in a Charles Correa house, a spare elegant home that Charles designed for his and our friend, the artist Mehlli Gobhai in a chikoo orchard in Gholvad. To be there around Christmas and the turn of the year, every year, was very special. It is still a visceral experience that remains with me. Last year as part of an exhibition called ‘The Sacred Everyday‘, which I curated for the Serendipity Arts Festival here at the Adil Shah Palace, I thought that it might not be out of place to have, so to speak, a shrine that honoured the way in which Correa dealt with these questions of the ‘Circulation of the Sacred in the Everyday’ and how one might by means, both mythic and material, invoke these larger contexts of being so. But I am not going to talk about this today, I am actually going to move on.

I want to really address these four questions. It is going to be four sprints. I am going to open by talking not about a building but an exhibition that Charles curated, ‘Vistara‘, in 1986, and I am going to try and unpack its enduring meanings, its afterlives, both for the architectural profession and also for the way in which it intervened in our understanding of what Indian culture might be, and then going to address for specific buildings – projects, institutions. Then in a third move try and develop as I say a modest ethnographic proposal for where some of the trajectories that Correa took, may be contextualised, not within the grander, more abstract histories of modernism, but in something perhaps more grounded and anchored in a local reality such as Goa. I will conclude with a brief set of remarks on a figure that is recurrent in Correa’s writings as a model of how to be in the world, as a student, as a dissident, as an outsider looking in – ‘Eklavya.

[05:49] I want to begin as I said not with a building, but with something that was ephemeral and yet continues to endure. ‘Vistara’ which I saw as a 17-year-old in 1986 has been with me all my life. If you will forgive the memoiristic way in which I will approach this, it had on me the effect that Rilke‘s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo‘ has on its readers and you know when the Torso says to the viewer “Du mußt dein Leben ändern – You must change your life”. In that sense, ‘Vistara’ changed my life. It served as an extraordinary understanding of culture and cultural production and it is unfolded in different ways for me personally and in the way I look at the world, and it certainly set me on the path to being a curator. Sometimes when people ask me who my exemplars as curators are, there are of course my Gurus Okwui Enwezor and Hans Ulrich Obrist and when I am asked for a specifically Indian reference and I say, Charles Correa, this surprises people. Because he is not seen primarily as a curator and yet ‘Vistara’ really showed me at that early point how an exhibition could be an argument, a proposition, how it could deal with the temporariness of space and yet map vectors in it. As many of you here who saw it then will remember, it has often been interpreted through its most visible and powerful aspects as a triad of archetypes, which forms a continuum across periods, practices, and predicaments, you will remember that the exhibition was structured around ‘Manushya, Mandala and Mantra’. As the title suggests it marked an expansion both of the architectural imagination and our understanding of ‘Culture’ at large, so I want to briefly think about the reception history of this exhibition and then try and see if one can read it against the grain in some ways.

It was one of the key moves in the late ’80s that inaugurated what we sometimes, and this is a vexed definition that I use cautiously that inaugurated a ‘postmodern’ turn, if you will, in architecture. It laid emphasis on what could be seen as a quasi-mystical re-imagining of the Indic as an assembly of essences – Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Art, Craft. There is a way in which things that were conceptual tools in that exhibition, then came to acquire a substantial solidity as somehow ‘being reality’ rather than being ‘maps towards reality’. I would like to cut against the grain of that reception history somewhat in two ways.

One, I think that along with other moves that architects of that generation took, I am thinking also particularly of B V Doshi. These gestures of opening an aperture may have become too quickly ossified into a ready vocabulary of how to reclaim the Indic on the far side of a modernism that had outstayed its welcome, but I would actually choose to remember Vistara perhaps other reasons. It was equally, although it seems so idealist in its emphases, as I remember it and as it unfolded in exhibitionary space and when I look at the catalogue again, it was premised on a sophisticated materialist understanding of culture as a renewable resource, not as fossil fuel and my memories with whether it is the Banni House in Kutch or the Bamboo Architecture in Assam or the many essays that refocused attention on who the agent of cultural production was. What Vistara seemed to communicate was that culture is poiesis and it is poiesis that emanates from varied locations in society. Rather than adopting a sovereign, modernist, top-down expert culture view, it really opened up the possibilities for architects to see that there were multiple agents of history and of making, and in that sense, I think it produced a revolutionary expansion of horizons to include practices and discourses that had been relegated to domains like craft, or the folk, or the tribal, or the vernacular. For the Indian cultural establishment at large, it acted, and remember that Vistara was part of a series of exhibitions including Aditi – A Celebration of Life, which was part of the ‘Festival of India’ cycle through the early ’80s. I think the crucial difference between Vistara and the others is that Vistara actually brought some of these protagonists of creativity and cultural making and poetics from an imaginary timeless into the realm of time, into cycles of contention between so-called contemporary and traditions that were yet living and that were ongoing.

[11:18] Vistara also served to open up notions of multiple contemporarinities, multiple futures, and rather than propose a hierarchy of essences, I would use here a term that Ronald Inden takes from R.G. Collingwood. I think what Vistara proposed was a ‘scale of forms‘ where there was an overlapping and intersection among differences of kind, degree, context and vocabulary. It established in some ways or continued and reinforced the idea that the architect could be not only someone looking inward to address the profession, but that the architect could be someone who was a contributor to culture at large, and to larger debates.

(That is the image of the Kayotsarga which many of you will remember from the exhibition.)

I am now going to move to these four cultural projects as I think of them and each of them as you will see, unfold in the period from just before the emergency to the edge of liberalisation. It is a very particular period in our history when affordances and availabilities in terms of materials and ideas were moving into an upswing and at the same time, the State had developed certain pathologies and which have remained with us and been reinforced, and at the same time, there were many interstitial openings where you could find dialogue and collaboration between the State as client and the architect and the architect as a mediator from a larger culture. Each of these projects was inspired and informed by Correa’s belief that culture is a democratic right. That culture is a Civic entitlement, integral to life and something that should be available to the public.

What we are looking at here is not only a particular vocabulary of making buildings or the relationship of buildings to environment. But we are also looking at a very powerful ideological commitment to an amplified conception of citizenship where culture is not something that remains confined to elites, but should, in fact, be the common property and should be available to people at large. And that is why the cultural institutions that he built although commissioned by a post-colonial state that still functions through colonial reflexes of bureaucracy, the tendency to withhold access, a suspicion of assembly, many of the reflexes that we know from a certain kind of state making in architecture. By contrast, Correa’s buildings embody a deliberately anti-monumental, non-forbidding affirmatively invitational, and anti-hierarchical approach and morphology.

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We know these buildings and we are all united here by a certain understanding how these things are but for the record, I just want to communicate, yet again, my continuing delight at the way in which in these buildings the mass of built form is cut through by internalisations of the street, how volume is punctuated by Correa’s celebrated open-to-sky courtyards and terraces, how also his emphasis on what he called ‘the ritualistic pathway’ is not ceremonial so much as it is participatory. Even these cosmic diagrams of the Mandala or the Charbagh which he grew increasingly committed to as a thinker on architecture, tends to get mediated through human use and passage into a place of assembly, of leisure, of informal events, of indeed pause and repose. When I think of the persistence of these archetypes in Correa’s architecture, it is less the sense of the archetype in and of itself, and more in terms of how that space becomes a field of inclusion, space becomes a possibility; it is where not only on the one hand, are these buildings programmatically close to the sources of replenishment, to the river, to the sky, to the earth, to light, to human subjectivity, but they also begin with the premise that culture is interactive, intersubjective, performative that it is not top-down. For me, this is part of a larger narrative of cultural space moving from a container model to a platform model. All of these buildings, spaces that we have seen, actually enshrined this idea of how cultural institutions should be a platform, a theatre, a stage and not something that is claustrophobic and conscripts you into culture.

[16:32] Perhaps because of his early association with the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya project, the Sabarmati Ashram and his minimal and subtractive shaping intelligence, and also of course because he invoked the Mahatma, Correa’s work has usually been parsed or sometimes even parsed under the sign of Gandhi. But I have said this before, but in his anti-hierarchical and anti-monumental instincts, I would prefer to see what I think of as a Franciscan approach, an approach that goes back within the history of the Catholic Church to St Francis of Assisi, who took a vow of poverty, whose commitment was to the people rather than to the splendour and the authority of the Church, and I would like to think of that as being a possible source for some of these commitments of Correa’s, from which I segway to what I call a modest ethnographic proposal.

(This is the point at which I should really look at this and begin to speak to it more particularly.)

All of us have been conditioned under and socialised in certain grand histories of Modernism, the grand machines of Modernism. Particularly in architecture, I think we tend to focus on an originary breach, on a definitive break, on a rupture with what went before, and what went before tends to get consigned to a largely undifferentiated ground of the pre-Modern, and that is very much in line with other characterisations in our kind of disciplines on the humanities as well, where we are trained within and focus on a thing we call the Western and the richness of everything else is usually described as the non-Western. It is out of this amnesia for what went before the originary break of Modernism that we have this move that Vistara can incarnate.

Several decades of a heroic ‘Swayambhu’ syndrome in Modernism and then return to Mythic sources of replenishment, and while I am not diminishing the key importance of historic contingent factors, like the advent of Corbusier or the late Bauhaus pedagogy in its American afterlife at Harvard and the MIT, or Nehru‘s visionary and dirigiste approach to the making of a Post-Colonial, Post-Partition India. I am not downplaying these factors, but I would like to see if there is a way in which we can take this generation of Correa, Rahman, Kanvinde, Doshi and see if they could be situated in other kinds of unfolding processes or logics of Modernity, if you will. For me, this is why I speak here of granular local contexts, I would like to see if there is a way in which some of Correa’s ideas, the continuous recurrent ideas, could they, in fact, be located in more immediate biographical factors? Here instead of parsing modernism to the grand machines, I would like to think back, propose a shift in context to include Correa’s specific biographical context in Goa and the Goan diaspora, Divar, where his mother’s family, the Heredias came from and Moira, where his father’s people, the Correas came from, as well as Bombay, which is, I remember that he did not really grow up here, he was born in Secunderabad and he grew up in Bombay.

[20:10] What was the nature of that Goan diaspora? What was it like to grow up in a family circle that had, (I am thinking here of his aunt and uncle, Irene and Jane Heredia),  Nationalists? They had at their disposal and they were representatives of a ‘tri-lingual’ Modernity, if you will, which was Anglophone, Lusophone and Konkani. This is something that I would like us to maybe think about, what was it like to work with this particular set of displacements, this sense of being opposed both to the Salazar Regime and to British India, and to see if a new way forward could be proposed. It is this kind of history that I would place before you because out of that family history came prominent Churchman Scholars, Historians, Entrepreneurs, Public Intellectuals, and behind them, I would like to (now I am speculating going out completely on a limb), I wonder if some of Correa’s notions of democracy or of cultures in the inalienable right, might they have been sourced in an ultimate engagement with something that many of you in this room will know, the Gaunkari system in Goa, the Comunidade, which was a form of cooperative organisation of agrarian, labour, production and distribution. It did not dismantle caste, but it sidestepped it in certain ways. This is something we might leave for a later discussion, but it certainly has, through the last few centuries certainly, it has been a way of organising life, labour, economic reward and a sense of identity. I am going to leave that thought with you.

The other, as I said modest ethnography that I am going to try out here is also to see how Correa was formed and sustained by his membership of liberal, cultural, elite circles in Bombay. Elite here is not for me in any way, a pejorative term, it is descriptive. By this I mean, and I am referring really to an unrecorded oral history of which some of us have been beneficiaries and in which we have been participants. I am thinking of the friends and collaborators and interlocutors that Correa had, Gerson Da Cunha and Sylvester Da Cunha for instance from the world of advertising and literature, Shyam and Nira Benegal, Shyam from the world of Cinema, Nira, who in the ’70s was closely engaged with children’s literature, Alyque Padamsee and Dolly Thakore from the world of Theatre, Imtiaz Dharker, the poet and filmmaker. I am putting this out here because increasingly it seems to me that these histories will either never be told or they will be relegated to footnotes in some way and I am trying to suggest here that there might be a constitutive rule for them, certainly in thinking in a more expanded way about what other sources of replenishment and of reference in the career of an architect.

I am going to conclude really by pinning these thoughts about what kinds of references does an architect draw on? What kind of education might an architect need? I am drawing here very much on learning from Eklavya, which is the 1997 essay that Correa wrote, and I want to pin the last few thoughts that I shared with you to this question of how indeed (as you see) we do not know if architecture can be taught, but we know it can be learned, the question then is who is it to be learned from? From fellow architects, from people working clearly within that discipline and its particular history, or also through other kinds of interactions?. In that essay, Correa makes this distinction between two forms of pedagogical practice and two ways in which one could become a member of one’s profession and he gives to these two models these intriguing names ‘The Guru Studio’ and ‘The Distancing Studio’.

[24:23] In the Guru studio, you apprentice yourself to a maestro (a master), and you submit to the expertise and domain knowledge of the master and you are shaped within that tradition. You might also want to think about the Gharana in Hindustani classical music as a similar kind of way of learning but then writes Correa: ‘one should also distance oneself, one should revolt’ and there is through these days there has also been a very intriguing interplay between precisely the Guru and the Distancing studios. I think there has been a gesture of continuity with an inherited practice and ideas and there has been an oedipal gesture of moving away and liberating oneself, and I think Correa really captures this. I would like to think that as part of the Distancing studio, the architect, the student who wants to be an architect moves out into the world and embraces other kinds of fields. Correa mentioned specifically, of course, the humanities, and literature, creative writing, how does one dismantle provisionally at least once the procuring of professional education one gets in a Guru studio and how does one involve oneself in other forms of thinking? And that is really the note on which I would like to close this all-too-brief discussion of Correa’s ideas.

What my aim has been is to really see how in profound ways, although he was such an establishment figure, such a colossus, there was always a thread of self-questioning, of openness, and of inquiry which sustained that practice. There were indeed phases in his work when he became so convinced of the complete accuracy and relevance of his ideas such as around Vistara, and yet there were other phases when he was perfectly open to conversing about these things. I think that dialectic will always be with any of us as practitioners of an art, and provisionally I am thinking of architecture here as an art rather than the many other things that could be. That you have to have that Guru style conviction in your own work, and at the same time, you have to be able to stand apart from yourself and see how you might be able to creatively destroy and remake your practice and your way of looking at the world.

With these thoughts about how to be a member of a profession, how to contribute to a larger culture, and how possibly one might continue to develop through self-questioning, which is a lesson not only for architects but for all of us, I am going to close what I hope is a form of critical homage to someone who really shaped our environment and whose buildings and ideas will be with us for a very long time indeed.

Thank you for your attention ♦

Ranjit Hoskote has been acclaimed as a seminal contributor to Indian art criticism and curatorial practice and is also a leading Anglophone Indian poet. He is the author of more than 30 books. Hoskote curated India’s first-ever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2011). He co-curated, with Rahul Mehrotra and Kaiwan Mehta, the exhibition-conference platforms The State of Architecture: Practices and Processes in India (National Gallery of Modern Art, Bombay, 2016) and The State of Housing: Aspirations, Imaginaries and Realities in India (Max Mueller Bhavan, Bombay, 2018). Hoskote serves on the international advisory boards of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; the Bergen Assembly, Norway; and the Centre for Contemporary Art, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

FRAME is an independent, biennial professional conclave on contemporary architecture in India curated by Matter and organised in partnership with H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society. The intent of the conclave is to provoke thought on issues that are pertinent to pedagogy and practice of architecture in India. The first edition was organised on 16th, 17th and 18th August 2019.

Organisation and Curation: MATTER
Supported by:
H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society


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