AHMEDABAD 600 Book Review

Chatterjee, Ashoke former Executive Director of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad from 1975-85 retired as a Distinguished Fellow in 2001. Ashoke Chatterjee is on the board of directors of Aid to Artisans, USA among several other organizations. His vast interests include water management and environmental issues. He has spearheaded the movement to find a solution to the crisis faced by the weavers of Varanasi.

Ahmedabad 600: Portraits of a City (Marg Foundation, Rs2800) is a significant addition to the emerging literature on our urban heritage, capturing as perhaps few other cities do the complex challenges of transition in India. The volume brings together the perspectives of a range of scholars, commenting on the city’s cultural traditions as well as its position as a catalyst for Indian modernism. Although last year marked 600 years of the founding of Ahmedabad, official recognition of the milestone was subdued --- remarkable perhaps only as another indication of the political forces that have been hard at work to deny an Islamic heritage that dates back to Sultan Ahmed Shah who established the city in 1411 in the proximity of the Sufi saint who lived in Sarkhej --- the site Le Corbusier placed alongside the Acropolis in its significance. The absurdity of saffron denials becomes more evident as Ahmedabad seeks Unesco recognition as a World Heritage city, its case wonderfully reaffirmed in this volume that calls for affirmation in place of schizophrenia.

Ahmedabad perhaps initiated the importance of the urban heritage concept, of which the heritage walks pioneered here (with the support of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation that now christens itself ‘Amdavad’ to avoid pollution!) have set a trend many cities have followed. These walks define the synthesis of cultures --- Hindu, Jain and Islamic --- that provide the thread uniting the expressions celebrated in this book. They include an expiration of architectural idioms that begun with the extraordinary fusion of medieval traditions at Sarkhej and extend all the way through Corbusier’s four buildings (perhaps the most important concentration of the master’s work in any city of the world) to Kahn’s iconic campus for the Indian Institute of Management and seminal work by Correa, Doshi and others. Himanshu Burte suggests that the city has been the cradle of Indian modernism, extending well beyond architecture into art (the subject of Sharmila Sagara’s essay) and design (the National Institute of Design, established in the early 60s under the inspiration of Charles Eames), drawing on Ahmedabad’s rich history of craft that is explored by Aditi Ranjan (on textiles) and Suchitra Balasubramanian (who includes kites and the red hand-bound chopda accounting books) bringing together not just the synthesis of cultures but equally if not more important tradition of artisans of different faiths serving each other.

Interestingly,  the influence of British rule was minimal on Ahmedabad, reflecting perhaps its extraordinary self-confidence --- that some have interpreted as an insular, ghetto complex which contrasts with the city’s extraordinary record in encouraging contemporary ideas and cutting-edge institutions: in science (ISRO, PRL and the Community Science Centre are examples), management (IIMA and all that is followed), architecture and design. These and other institutions reflect the culture of trusteeship that distinguished Ahmedabad’s merchant princes, suggesting a model relevant in today’s preoccupation with ‘corporate social responsibility’. Interestingly, it is after Independence that western influence became a hallmark of Ahmedabad the city, symbolized most of all by its expressions in contemporary architecture and design and its welcome to institutions symbolic of the future.

Somewhere in all of this is the presence of the Mahatma, not specifically explored in this volume, but recalled in several of its essays as an essential element in what makes Ahmedabad great as well as a city obsessed with the future and frightening in its adherence to the worst of the past. Ahmedabad 600 comes at a time when another anniversary is being marked: the grim reminder that a decade has passed since the progrom of 2002 that was a concerted attack on the synthesis and syncretism that is celebrated here. With authorities still in denial and with no expression of regret, the authors offer hope rather than answers to the crucial question of where Ahmedabad goes from here. Current political leadership hold up models of Singapore and Fifth Avenue as aspirations of vibrancy, often at the cost of the spaces and vitality celebrated on these pages. Yet Ahmedabad 600 is a reminder that progress should be about well-being, and well-being about harmony among citizens and between them and their environments --- a concept as contemporary as the Millennium Development Goals  and as relevant as the Mahatma who made this city a crucible for Indian freedom.

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