Sunday, May 30, 2021

This I Remember - Conversations with Professor Ashish Ganju

This I remember

Professor Ganju's Ayanagar Loft/Discussion Space


My interactions with Professor Ashish Ganju, sporadic as they were, consisted almost entirely of conversations. Initially, conversations related to the way history was taught in colleges of architecture — or taught in general — as part of a group that, individually and collectively, were grappling with a sense of dissatisfaction with how we regard our present and our past. And, as a natural extension of this, to conversations about what it means to be Indian — in everyday experience and in architecture.

I was always struck by how much space he gave to others to put their thoughts across. It was not as if did not have anything to say; he made pertinent, sometime profound and occasionally provocative interjections. But, generally, he heard one out, and was encouraging and positive even when he was critical of what one had to say.

One of our last conversations was on the telephone on the 30th of March 2021. It was supposed to be brief. He was surprised when I told him we had talked for more than an hour — something I was aware of because of my mobile phone display. Surprised, and miffed at the way everything one did these days was overshadowed by the intrusion of a time-slot. As I check on my phone records, I see that the call was for 83 minutes 10 seconds.

Our conversation too, was in fact provoked — in part — by the time-constraints of our forthcoming dialogue on architecture, an initiative supported and organised by the India International Centre, New Delhi. The series, titled ‘Talking Architecture’, was conceptualised to address the disconnect between architecture (and architects) and the people it is meant for. And to publicly dialogue to discover how we can participate in the making of architecture that is socially and aesthetically fulfilling. The Discovery of Architecture - A Contemporary Treatise on Ancient Values and Indigenous Reality, a radical examination by Professors Ashish Ganju and Narendra Dengle of both ‘the heartlessness of contemporary mainstream architecture’ and ‘the origins of history’[1] , seemed to me the most appropriate beginning to this public dialogue. 

My concern was how to bring their radical ideas — themselves the outcome of a twelve-month dialogue between both of them, and written primarily for architects and their ilk — clearly into the public domain in the inaugural episode of the series. So that they could be grasped easily by not just those who design and make buildings, but also those who commission and inhabit them — in short, pretty much everybody. I had been urging Professor Ganju and Professor Dengle to couch the essence of their ideas in a way that could be accessible across professions and patrons.

When I emailed them my notes summarising what I understood of the book, as a prelude and accompaniment to the questions that I thought needed clarification, both Professor Dengle and Ganju responded in their own characteristic way. Professor Dengle wrote me an email of his thoughts on the range of issues encompassed by what he called the paradox that 'architecture is not visual; it is also visual’— as a follow-up to his initial response to our discussions conducted over a Zoom meeting communicated in a detailed note on ‘What is Architecture’. 

            Professor Ganju called me up. The conversation was in the nature of the Panchatantra tales. A complex connected weave of recollections, stories, theories and hypotheses. Professor Ganju was concerned that the time we had for our forthcoming discussion was insufficient to take the questions I had noted. Even if we just picked a couple of them, he was unsure if we would be able to actually answer all their facets. He reiterated what he and Professor Dengle had clarified in the Zoom meeting between the three of us a week earlier: they had further developed their thoughts in the eight years that had elapsed since the publication of The Discovery of Architecture, and to that extent what they had written in the book could not cover the entire range of their ideas.

            As we spoke, it was clear that everything hinged on what we think of as ‘architecture’. He recollected his experience of his aunt’s house in Benaras, when he was still studying. How utterly unlike it was from all that he had hitherto seen, because it was completely ‘free’ of the influence of Modernism. How moved he was by it. How it completely transformed his idea of what architecture could do, and what architecture could be. I asked him to talk about this in our dialogue, as a way to explain architecture through this anecdote of the house he lived in Benares. He corrected me and said that he merely visited the house, and did not really stay there for any extended time. And said that he couldn’t summon up an anecdote in a pre-meditated manner. It would depend on what he felt like talking about at that time.

He also spoke at length about his search for a theoretical, philosophical foundation that could create such architecture. And his belief that if there was no philosophical base, there could be no architecture. His aunt had directed him to a Pandit in answer to his questions. And later to Brahmacharin Ganeeta, whom he thought I may have heard of. I had to confess I had not. In fact, I do not know if I have even got the name right. From what I remember, he told me she was related to Maneka Gandhi’s mother’s family and had been adopted by Anandmayee Ma. He recollected meeting with her in the house of her relatives in New Delhi, and the incongruity of her appearance in her ascetic robes, in the setting she was in. He had been told that she would provide a direction to his search, and the answers to his questions. But all she told him was that he should read the Upanishads. He said when he tried to do so, he could make no head or tail of them! He spoke about his inability to comprehend them and to reconcile all that he saw and read, despite being brought up in what he called ‘the arrogance of the Kashmiri Shaivite tradition’.

As I try to summon the conversation to mind, and regret that I had not thought of recording it, two main things remain with me. The fact that it was the transformative experience of architecture that led Professor Ganju to search for the philosophy that could create such architecture, and effect such transformation. A search that for him began early on in life, and continued till his very last days. And the realisation that most of us, even those who are formally involved in creating architecture, almost completely lack an intuitive or intellectual access to such a philosophy. This philosophy is not limited to texts. It is manifest in architecture, if only we can see it — in the way architecture is generated, and equally in the way it is re-generated often by those who are not accredited with formal educational qualifications.

This re-generative aspect, both for the people who build and the people who inhabit — as well as for all that exists in and around the act of building and inhabiting — is what is or what ought to be, the objective, the method and the outcome of architecture. And to access this, one needs an understanding of both text and practice; of rituals and the presence or absence of rationale behind rituals; of the knowledge-systems we have inherited, especially those arising from our own context. At least this is how I seem to understand that conversation. And while I continue to wish that I had recorded it and not have to trust to the vagaries of my memory and understanding, I also realise that it is the very lack of any such recording that has compelled me to think more deeply, and to revisit that conversation with Professor Ganju again and again in my mind.

The fact that he chose to approach my questions tangentially, and did not furnish any straight answers, is also I think an answer in itself. That all of us, individually and collectively, need to search out our own ways of discovering and re-discovering the meaning and the potential of architecture, as of life. It certainly helps if we are given a structure or a path to follow, but finally it is we who have to journey on that path. Sitting on the sidelines will not take us anywhere. And beyond his belief in dialogue — an important prerequisite to finding the path — Professor Ganju had the conviction and perseverance to actually go ahead, walk the path, and live his philosophy. He is the only architect that at least I know of, who did so.

The field of his influence extended far beyond the compass of the conversations I knew him by. Though these conversations certainly formed a vital part of his intellectual pursuit, he did not confine himself to mere intellectual enquiry or just words. There was constant reflection and resonance between his ideas, his actions, his architectural practice. He demonstrated how dialogue ought to be an integral part of the philosophy of how we live with each other, with our environment, and with the buildings we have inherited and those that we make and inhabit.

To me, the most inspiring instance of his sustained engagement with the transformative potential of architecture activated by dialogue, is the way in which he worked with the community in the urban village of Ayanagar, among whom he also chose to live. It is remarkable how he persevered over years to effect the provision of basic amenities like sewage disposal and sanitation and clean water to people who had been literally left 'to sit on their own shit’. Through his indefatigable efforts to facilitate so many people to live with dignity, through the ideas he transmitted and encouraged many of us to think about, and through the changes he successfully made in the actions of at least some governing agencies and communities of people, he has left us with a structure and a path that we can also choose to follow. To actively question, hear, observe, see, think, and then independently yet collectively decide how and what to do. As he wrote in the notes that he sent about the points he wanted to highlight in our discussion: ‘The ability to create well-being in our habitat, a promise inherent in the knowledge base of architecture, is no longer taken for granted. How can this situation be turned around for public benefit ?’[2]

I believe the demonstration of this ‘promise inherent in the knowledge base of architecture’ will remain his enduring legacy. And I hope it can serve as a starting point for the rediscovery of architecture for all of us.

(This is a link to the inaugural episode 'The Discovery of Architecture' of the series 'Talking Architecture', dedicated to the memory of Professor Ganju:



What is architecture? For the Dialogue with Anisha Mukherji

Narendra Dengle, March 27, 2021

The first thing that comes to my mind when we discuss what is architecture, is that architecture is part of life; not a fragment of life — it IS life. Life is not just ones own life, life is also not the life lived by the human species on this planet Earth and beyond. Life is a continuously energetic process that sprouts, sustains, dies, and is recreated. In that it is independent of a huge number of imagined concerns, which have fragmented from life, especially after Industrial Revolution. The imagined concerns I refer to, are due to the erroneous reasoningtrapped in the equation of immediate cause: effect. As one learns from ancient wisdom, there are many causesthat prompt an act.

The other side of this argument is that as citizens of the world, we function in numerous ways with different faiths, beliefs and motives. Individuals respond to situations in drastically varied ways in the circumstances they face. There is no standardisation of circumstances encountered by all of us. Even those claiming to follow certain paths — religious or whatever, marked by the masters they revere, are astonishingly varied in their response. Even when one discusses the popular terms —sustainability, eco-friendliness-green architecture’ –- we seem to confront a huge number of attitudes in opposition to each other! There is no एकसूत्रता. Hence, there can never be one definition of architecture. An attempt to define what architecture is, in effect becomes an attempt to connect the philosophical base of ethics-philosophy-technique. It is an attempt to discover the RIGHT (!) PATH. If one looks beneath the much clichéd Satyam- Shivam- Sundaram, it tells us that the true is creative-protective-regenerative and hence beautiful.

Response to survive, making a livelihood and especially through practicing architecture is almost entirely driven by real life situations — these may be defined through anthropology, sociology, psychology, business, politics, or whatever. If one is pushed against the wall with no access to food, water, shelter, or fear, honour, then ones response in thought and deed can considerably vary from one another. Here, paradoxically, the idea of delight and beauty have never lost their significance. These emerge not in abstraction (words-visual enticement etc) but through the awareness of ऋतुचक्र, and its seasonal impact on immediate surroundings and life. If we miss out on this and further fragment away from life, then we enter a fantasy world primarily generated for a profit — a concept adhering only to ones own life as LIFE.

Architecture with its own sphere of concerns (in construction and materiality) may not apply to all concerns in life and yet architecture must be thought of as a connection with life by those engaged in its sphere. This is the paradox –- if you like. But in reality, it is not a paradox at all!

If architecture is seen this way then one may observe that any tangential deviation from it leads to a fragmentation of life. Fragmentation becomes decadence sooner than later; destructive to the life of othersor other species, and of nature as a whole. So, I would say that the habitational activity that does not go away from this fact, brings sense and beauty to life.

We may be able to view architecture through at least three different frames for the purpose of analysis.

1. Patron: Architect: Constructor

 2. Architect herself for the growthwithin, and

3. Architecture: Nature


[1] As noted in his email of 10th April, reproduced below:

Munishwar Nath Ashish Ganju <>


Sat, 10 Apr, 17:02

to me, Narendra

Notes for dialogue/public discussion on Architecture moderated by Anisha


1. Re: the pamphlet/book "Discovery of Architecture : a contemporary treatise on ancient values and indigenous reality" -  we thought of writing this essay after 25 years of practice as an architect and teacher, recognising that there was something missing in our approach which was mainly derived from the modern movement in architecture and its derivatives, the International Style and so on. There seemed to be a theoretical vacuum in the discipline. We organised a 12 month long dialogue between Narendra and myself, leading to the writing of this paper in order to clear the ground for theory to emerge. It was an invitation to fellow architects and interested others to continue the conversation and join in the discovery of true meaning in architecture.

 2. In the 8 years since the original dialogue, there has been an expansion of the circle of persons who have joined in the process, in India and abroad. The basic format for thinking was a 4 part matrix, starting with Self as Community, going on to the Act of Building with cosmic awareness, further to Renewal of the built environment, leading to Regeneration for Learning. The matrix was discussed in several forums, in a few schools of architecture as well as conferences/workshops; and this is a continuous process to address concerns regarding the practice and teaching of architecture, and the heartlessness of contemporary mainstream architecture.

3. The concern with theory was enlarged to examine origins in history, since it seemed that teaching and research in history of architecture was not a current preoccupation in schools of architecture. Consequently the training of emerging professionals in the discipline was directionless and the vast repository of young talent was misguided. The integrity of the discipline was being damaged, resulting in loss of social worth. Young ( and not so young) architects find that their expertise is not valued in the task of nation building. The ability to create well-being in our habitat, a promise inherent in the knowledge base of architecture, is no longer taken for granted. How can this situation be turned around for public benefit ?

Hope this can serve as a starting point.

Good wishes,




[2] Ibid.

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