Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reviving the past at Amber Haveli

Even as vernacular style of building  fast goes out of favour in most of the developing world,  an awareness of reutilizing the past   is witnessed every now and  then.  Taking a view that traditional architecture is the more logical and rational way to build.  That using local resources and knowledge bases  creates un-superflous structures  meeting the needs of the location best, engages local populations of  builders, craftsmen and artisans and preserves inherited wisdom in the process of creating rich living spaces.
An example of such a project awaits visitors in the shadow of the 11th century Amber fort at the outskirts of Jaipur.
Surrounded by a cluster of  old homes, many in a state of crumble, stands the meticulously renovated 14 th century traditional Rajasthani haveli known to the locals as the `Chanwar Palkiwalon ki Haveli'.
 John and Faith Singh- promoters of the textile label Anokhi-  bought the old ruinous structure in the early 80s.  Following some thought and the help of designer duo Nimish Patel and Parul Zaveri, the structure was  restored using traditional methods and local artisans.  
Today the haveli  stands amidst fast fading buildings of  Amber village  as a proud testimony to  the age old skill and knowledge base of  Rajasthani craftsmanship. In  re-creating the space such the architects have not only brought a crumbling structure back to life but have managed to reconcile the past with the present  in a meaningful way : the haveli might have housed palanquin bearers at one time in the distant past, but in its refurbished avatar  it is a museum dedicated to the  history of hand printing in India.

Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing  documents the centuries old craft of hand printing  in India with particular emphasis on  the   revival of the traditional practice in the latter part of the 20th century. A refurbished building thus becomes a repository of stories of another renewal. 

The various indigenous techniques and methods of printing and their different process  -   the tools of the trade, printing and block making - are elaborately detailed.  The museum houses a delightful collection of garments created  with  hand printed fabric.  The museum also organizes day long printing and block making workshops by appointment.  

 The workshop and a visit to the museum when it did happen  has to be  rated as the high point of my trip to Jaipur. Not only is a day spent printing fabric a most fulfilling way to engage with a local tradition, but an exploration of the museum interiors with its many elaborate jharokhas (Windows) wall niches and arches   is a wonderful way of understanding the various elements of local architecture too.

A cool central courtyard or Aangan leading from elaborate wooden doors of Amber haveli  offers welcome escape from the bright sunlight outside. The  building is painted in delicate peachy-pink tones- an ode to  the pink city of Jaipur that houses it.  The facade with  elaborate balconies on the first and second floors  is decorated in wall niche shaped pattern in plaster relief. The  niches- faux and real, recur as a motif throughout the building.
High walls of the haveli shade the courtyard. Dark blue green columns that frame beautiful arches  lead into a chequered marble centre of the haveli. 

This typical feature of  traditional Indian house : An open to sky, central courtyard, is a  device that effectively introduces the outdoors right into the middle of the house without compromising the safety or privacy  of the residents.  In extreme desert climate of Rajasthan the aangan acts like a thermostat for the house, regulating the flow of fresh air  and temperature in the house. Sunlight filtering  into the house through the aangan ensures  adequate light  within the house as well. Here in the Amber haveli,  the aangan is covered with a specially made canvas  jaali or mesh to filter  dust  debris and birds from  the house.

The museum exhibits  are spread over  the three levels starting from the inner chambers of the ground floor leading to the workshop and block making area created on the topmost floor of the building.

The interiors of the museum in keeping with its purpose are kept purposely bare, such that the emphasis through out  a visit remains on the exhibits.  The minimal approach draws the eye and attention to intricate details of the  building effectively.  Elaborate niches decorate walls across all floors  of the haveli.  In a typical Indian haveli these niches or Taankh,  serve various practical purposes of  storing and displaying stuff.


The  smooth shiny finish of the walls and interiors of the building is thanks to an ancient technique used in these parts.  Aaraish - a traditional mixture created  by soaking  crushed shells   with  yogurt and sugar in earthenware pots for over a year  mixed with  stucco  is plastered on to the walls to give a smooth shiny finish  and interiors that remain cool  on harshest of summer days. Yogurt  mixed with stucco? who would have thought ?!

Roam  onto the roof level and yet another decorative yet functional device catches the eye.  Elaborately carved Jaali's or meshes. The Jaali's at Amber haveli have been carved using different materials such as  metal (above) and wood.  The intricate geometric Islamic patterns are a clever means of ensuring ample light and ventilation into a space without giving up on privacy.
The Jaali windows cast mesmerizing shadows on  walls  in narrow spaces of passages and stairwells everywhere.  The space is dedicated to the the block making and printing workshop that the museum offers as a means of encouraging visitor participation.

Apart from being a handsome example of  what is possible to achieve with a little help from our own past,  Amber haveli also serves to highlight the plight of our `modern' choices. Among Indians of all strata to  build and develop necessarily means a departure from the past. Most  residential architecture prefers styles of buildings that are disconnected with our needs and sensibilities but are not necessarily as livable and generous as their  vernacular counterparts. At Amber haveli, the architects and owners take  a different direction altogether and yet arrive at sumptuous spaces, without  compromising  either functionality or aesthetics. Some thing to take back home from an erstwhile home in Amber village, Jaipur, and I do.

A visit to the museum has been on my wish list for a long time. Particularly attractive was the prospect of spending a full day printing a fabric with my own hands!  The experience and pictures from the workshop are a matter of a whole new post.. Keep reading !


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