Monday, April 30, 2012

Three Little Pigs

The Three Little Pigs and the Idea of a ‘Pucca’ House
Perpetuating a Stereotype

Our cook’s daughter accompanied her mother to our house some evenings. A bright child, she had studied in a school in her village in Bengal, where the medium of instruction was Bangla. Since her parents had moved to Noida, she had been unable to go to school, where most subjects were taught either in Hindi or English. I could only manage to teach her on a few days of the week, and both the mother and daughter were keen that she attended regular school. But the principal of Nayi Disha, a local school run by a charitable trust, told me that the child was overage for Class 1, and could not follow the level of teaching in Class 2. So she suggested that I teach Dulali at home, and if she was able to clear the First Term exams, they would give her admission.
The chapter on ‘Shelter’ in one of the school text books brought me up short. I was reading out the different types of houses shown there, when I came across this sentence under the picture of a thatched mud house: ‘Yeh ek mitti ka ghar hai. Aise gharon mein nimn jati ke aur garib log rahte hain’ (‘this is a mud house. Low-caste and poor people live in such houses’.) This categorization, in a book in schools in 21st century democratic India? Since Dulali could not read as proficiently as I could, I managed to skip this offensive statement without her noticing the fact of its presence. What did the teachers in class do, I wondered – especially in a school where most of the students would come from poor or rural backgrounds? Did they register how insensitive and incorrect this statement was?
Curious to see how my daughter’s text books dealt with this, I looked up her EVS book for class 1 in DPS Noida. It did not make the direct statement between mud and poverty, but categorised houses as ‘katcha’ and ‘pucca’. So much so, that the term katcha and pucca which dot our lexicon today, carry overtones of affluence and respectability - or the lack of it.
The prejudice against houses made of mud and thatch is inculcated in less obvious ways as well, from the time that our children are even younger. I renewed my acquaintance with the Three Little Pigs some years ago. As I read out the story to my daughter, I huffed and puffed with the Big Bad Wolf when he successfully blew down the house made of straw and the house made of stick, and was defeated by the house made of brick. Unstated Moral of the Story? Smart Pigs build their houses of bricks.
When I studied architecture two decades ago, in one of the leading schools of architecture in the country, the instruction then - as now - was heavily oriented towards making us smart pigs. Concrete, steel and brick construction was what we were taught to build in. Luckily, as part of the curriculum we also had to document and study vernacular homes and communities. So we experienced houses made of mud, straw, stone and sticks. And though we weren’t exactly encouraged to include traditional modes of construction in our design studios, the more adventurous students at least experimented with these ostensibly regressive materials.

So, are the Three Little Pigs a result of an imperialist industrialist mindset?  The Western mind seems to have become ill-disposed towards ‘katcha’ materials for at least the last three hundred years. Our disparagement for mud and straw is more recent. Before the British assumed ascendancy in the political, cultural and the economic landscape of India, mud was recognized and patronized by rural and urban alike, ruler and ruled. The current derogatory connotations of ‘katccha’ today are one of the relics of the Raj. The recollections of a Professor C. H. Reilly, who arrived in company with Sir Edwin Lutyens to India in 1928, to write the architectural part of a book on New Delhi, reveal this. Reilly, on his return to London, contributed - according to the editor of Architectural Design and Construction - ‘a wholly delightful chapter...with unequalled richness of reminiscence and acuteness of observation’ to its November 1934 issue. This is one of Reillys’ ‘acute observations’:
‘Everything of Lutyens is detailed with extraordinary care, and at Delhi some of his working drawings are dimensioned to three decimals of an inch. To Indian builders and craftsmen accustomed to their slipshod “kutcha” methods, such accuracy was a revelation and a very valuable one.’

The construction and majestic accuracy of indigenous Indian architecture—which Reilly could scarcely have missed seeing in Delhi, would never have been achieved by slipshod methods. In actuality, each material has the potential to be worked well or in a slipshod manner – it is as misguided to believe that all mud houses are inherently deficient as it is to believe that concrete is the panacea to all ills. The reflections of a better known traveler and writer who preceded Reilly by a few hundred years, Francois Bernier are interesting in this respect. Bernier travelled in India in the latter half of the 18th CE, a few years after the new Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad was established.
‘Amid these streets are dispersed the habitations of Mansabdars, or petty Omrahs, officers of justice, rich merchants, and others; many of which have a tolerable appearance. Very few are built entirely of brick or stone, and several are made only of clay or straw, yet they are airy and pleasant, most of them having courts and gardens, being commodious inside and containing good furniture. The thatched roof is supported by a layer of long, handsome, and strong canes, and the clay walls are covered with a fine white lime.
Intermixed with these different houses is an immense number of small ones, built of mud and thatched with straw, in which lodge the common troopers, and all that vast multitude of servants and camp-followers who follow the court and the army’.[1]

What is interesting in this description is that it is the spatial arrangement and workmanship that distinguishes the quality of a house, not its material. The associations of ‘mud’ solely with ‘poor people’ or ‘poor workmanship’ were entirely absent in the imperial city of Shahjahanabad, home to arguably the richest ruler of the medieval world.[2]

This is one of the points that our friends Vivek Rawal and Alka Palrecha have been trying to demonstrate in their work with communities affected by floods, earthquakes and other such disasters. However, their criteria in assessing the vulnerability of habitats where each building-type (whether mud, concrete, timber) was assigned a maximum rating of 10, was contested by government departments who were unwilling to accept that a mud house could have a rating of 10 in any circumstance. The belief that mud or wattle-and daub houses are inherently inferior to more ‘permanent’ materials echoes a Reilly-like colonial perception. For instance, the compensation to families affected by disasters if their houses were made of mud or ‘katcha’ materials, is 14 times less than the compensation to families whose houses were made of concrete. This bias, that makes distinctions between communities affected by disasters, solely on the construction-material of their dwellings, is shocking. It is also perplexing when it has been shown that houses made in concrete have generally performed badly in our country, not just in disasters but even in normal situations.

As I experience the effects of the ‘falling plaster’ of our barely twenty year old AWHO flat despite repeated repairs; as I witness the spalling concrete in the State Complex of Chandigarh, the Mecca of most ‘modern’ architects; as I look at what to me are unquestionably beautifully crafted and detailed bamboo and mud houses built by villagers in Kosi, as part of the Owner Driven Reconstruction Collaborative[3] Vivek and Alka have been associated with; as I see the beautiful qualities of light and space in the buildings made of rammed earth, thatch and stone with minimal use of concrete and steel, by our architect friends, Krishna and Anu at their Centre for Learning in Sittilingi village[4]; it seems to me it is more than time we stop being pig-headed and cease to perpetuate stereotypes.

Images © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji; Text © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

[1] p. 246, Travels in the Mogul Empire 1656-1668, by Francois Bernier, eng. Trans by Archibald Constable based on Irving Brock’s Translation, Asian Educational Services, 1996, first published London 1891.

[2] Work done by various initiatives in Gujarat has shown: ‘It is not the choice of material but choice of house-building technology that is one of the main factors determining the scale and nature of earthquake impact. In reconstruction, therefore, the choice of technology should necessarily be based on multiple criteria, including self-reliance of the community, availability of the material, and earth-quake proofing technology.’ Reconstruction of earthquake affected areas of Gujarat

[3] See March 2012, Architecture + Design, ‘The Story of Orlaha and Puraini in Bihar’, Sandeep Virmani and Vivek Rawal, pp. 48-58

1 comment:

  1. Conratulations on a very interesting and thought provoking piece. The mind wanders onto a couple of distinct strands. Recently we had purchased a few illustrated story books for our daughter. The images were very bright and colourful but we were horrified to note that in one story, the main protagonist, a trader, mercilessly beats his donkey with a stick. In the other, a wolf is beheaded in gory detail. And these are books with "morals". Apparently morality and sensitivity are two different things. Perhaps this explains why we are a nation of insensitive, inconsiderate buffoons!
    While I would not attach much import to the good Professor Reilly's comments, it is disturbing to think that the State continues to perpetuate the colonial mindset till date.
    The mud vs concrete debate goes on under many names and in different garbs. While there is no stopping the juggernaut of "progress" as it winds its inexorable way on the road to the apoclypse, sensitivity to issues would definitely ease the passage of the human race into the eternal night. But, as Muthuswamy famously said, "Simply not happening, Sar!"