Those of us who are comfortably set in our urban lives don’t have time for Hunnarshala. Most of us haven’t heard of Hunnarshala not because it’s in Bhuj, Kutchh but because of the nature of its work that thrives on regional sensitivity and craftsmanship. My first brush with Hunnarshala left me rethinking architecture’s role in providing enabling built environments to those outside urbanity’s stifling squeeze.
I had a day’s window while in Ahmedabad and decided to make a trip to Bhuj to see their campus. Having heard of their phenomenal work from a colleague, I had recently seen some photographs of their new Khamir Craft Park (designed by Prof. Neelkanth Chhaya) and was eager to see it in flesh. After a 6-hour taxi ride from Ahmedabad, I recollect that first visit quite simply knocked my socks off. Despite expecting to see wonderful work, nothing had prepared me for what I witnessed.
Hunnarshala’s campus is an extended metaphor of their experimental disposition. Little doubt that the architectural language of the place is eclectic but the clustered arrangement of classrooms and open spaces creates beautiful enclosures. Building roofs hang low, mix thatch and Mangalore tiles – both supported by slender space frames; walls are rammed earth, interlocking blocks and stone – with visible seismic resistance bands reminding that safety is paramount in this high seismic zone. And if these materials aren’t exciting enough for you, they also have the age-old wattle & daub as both – exposed and plastered with lime). Exposed surface finishes are spectacular, better than most finishes I have seen in urban India. Interiors are dotted with quotes from J. Krishnamurti, John Lennon, John Muir and the like reflecting Hunnarshala’s self-assured approach to life which is intelligent, relaxed, in harmony with nature and never idle.
In their classrooms, blackboards are replaced with frosted glass panels that double as a light source as though representing that knowledge is enlightening. Thoughtful provisions for ventilation are also made through pitched roofing and rainwater collection outside through dramatic gestures. Best of all, the variety of architectural elements are tastefully synthesized, saving the campus from becoming a mish-mash.
It is ironical that something so beautiful had its genesis in the devastating Bhuj earthquake of 2001 where Hunnarshala played a major role in rehabilitation efforts. Followed by years of social work and community development, Hunnarshala was registered as a for-profit company and since then have been undertaking commercial projects.
Hunnarshala’s stalwarts Kiran Vaghela and Sandeep Virmani confide: “It was with some trepidation that we embarked on trying to establish a practice in trying to mainstream alternate approaches in the built space. Solving problems have not only been gratifying but has helped us build a financially viable practice as well.”
It must certainly have been a challenge to reconcile with commercially acceptable methods for plenty of reasons: firstly, Hunnarshala is a design-and-build practice which is unlike most present-day architectural practices that only design and pass on drawings to contractors. Secondly, Hunnarshala willingly invests in time and labour-intensive construction methods to uphold its ideology of craft and environmental sustainability and moreover retains the tenacity to work with artists who specialize in traditional building techniques.
Hunnarshala’s belief in collaborating with the community and empowering artisan’s group has helped them mature into a niche practice that now reaches out internationally with a veritable set of skills unlike another.
Despite their relatively unknown status in India, Hunnarshala has completed a wide range of projects in not just native Kutchh but also in Indonesia (Banda Aceh post-Tsunami reconstruction), Qatar (adaptive re-use of the Qattara fort), Abu Dhabi (Al-Jahili Fort) not to forget the award-winning Shaam-e-Sarhad resort in Hodka village – to name a few.
With several new commissions in tow, Hunnarshala has initiated yet another not-for-profit enterprise: Karigarshala. Aimed at educating youth who don’t enjoy regular academics or are school dropouts, Karigarshala follows a learn-by-doing pedagogy. Students (all boys at the moment) are mostly from the Kutchh region and Madhya Pradesh. Karigarshala offers one year programmes on ‘Walling systems’ – rammed earth, brick, etc. and ‘Carpentry’.
Typically, courses offered go beyond academic instruction and include reading drawings, drafting and market procurements for all round development of the student. Most notably, students learn from senior mastercraftsmen such as Visenji kaka and Khimji kaka who maintain a guru-shishya relationship with their apprentices strengthening the sensibility of guilds which has disappeared from the busy urban context. Hunnarshala is confident that this will have long-term impacts on sustaining traditional skills and strengthen grassroots capacity among artisan groups.
As true heroes of rich craftsmanship which despite its endangered status is still abundant in India’s rural boroughs, Hunnarshala continues to champion their unique practice model from an unlikely vantage point. It is certainly the gregarious spirit of the people of Bhuj in which Hunnarshala roots (and finds) its strength.
And to be assured that such good work is churned out through active collaboration between artists and builders is something even their chairman, Kantisen Shroff prides in: “Hunnarshala is showing how the human race will evolve in the 21st century. Though they began their work in Kutch it is spreading across many parts of the world thus proving that partnership with the community can bring in more sustainability, cost effective and happier solutions into the built environment. Hunnarshala is demonstrating that learning, sharing and implementation must happen in tandem.”
Hunnarshala is certainly an architectural practice of the future. Moreover, its heart is in the right place and the right colour – gold!
Text And Photographs By Aftab Jalia