by Shashikala Ananth
Two days ago, I was in Tanjavur addressing a group of students, teachers and interested listeners about the tradition of Vaastu. There is much food - for - thought in this encounter, and I have a great need to open this out into a national debate.
Firstly, take a look at the theme that was given to me, and the students who took part in the symposium at Periyar Maniammal College - National level technical symposium on Vaastu and Vernacular architecture. Where vernacular architecture was concerned, papers were presented and that was that. But, when it concerned Vaastu, the school in its wisdom decided to host a debate 'for and against Vaastu.'
We spent a whole day apparently arguing about Vaastu and whenever diametric opinions were expressed, when the ' apparent dignity of Vaastu ' was undermined, I had to be there to protect ' my territory ' . The whole exercise felt like a well staged play and I came away feeling futile and sad. There are a few questions and concerns I need to air at this point, and a few answers that all of us who are sensitive architects/Indians need to answer. I am not denying the slight feeling of euphoria that I experienced when I found that almost all the students were referring to my work to arm themselves with ' for & against ' ammunition. But, this euphoria was short lived, when I discovered that the students were also turning to me and imploring me to protect the tradition so that it would have the power to survive in the hostile climate of the schools. I even had students saying to me ' please ma`am if you don't look after this for us, we will never be able to learn about Vaastu.' We see its relevance, but the camp which opposes the tradition is quite ready to destroy all this in the name of blind belief and religious nonsense.
Whose property is this?
I do admit that I have given my whole life to the search and understanding of the traditions of India. I am willing to stand by this paradigm and stake my entire learning on it. But, and there is a big but here, I refuse to protect it from predators as if I was the sole owner and everyone else was an enemy. Everyone of us here in this country are inheritors of this wisdom, and even then we cannot be the owners, for all this knowledge and all this struggle to illuminate it must be part of the treasure house of all mankind. Today, as we stand here in this edge of total annihilation of mankind by the very violence of our actions, the only redeeming truths are the wisdom of the great people who have inhabited the earth, and the beauty and grace of nature in its bounty. Every thought, every nuance of transforming the mundane into ethereal, every object, every struggle must be offered back to the arms of the 'divine children' of the earth. I can neither conceal it nor protect it. I can only celebrate it for all of us. When I know this, how can I protect something that is yours as well?
1 The tradition is part of all our lives, how can we own it? We can neither give it nor take it; can we discover it together?
2 In attacking the practitioners, in calling all 'vaastu' a mockery and a travesty, what are we really saying about our own culture?
3 When teachers of architecture are saying to their students - real freedom is in having complete control to design what you want, Vaastu is an unnecessary burden. Are we not denying our responsibility to own up our own knowledge and find creative ways to disseminate it? How can we call this freedom when what we are facing is a chaotic city - scape and frequently alien buildings? Is this not a brain-washing of a very subtle kind? This is what Father Gregorius calls the 'racial amnesia.'
4 We have teachers who actually argue, saying that Vaastu can be studied as part of history (very gracious of them!) since the subject speaks of non-measurable, intangible concepts such as happiness, well-being etc. 'After all we are in the age of science when everything must bed proved empirically. The traditions of Ayurveda, Yoga, Vedanta, etc. are all completely outdated. Today we need to only work in the world of the real and the tangible.' When I argued giving examples of global change and shifts that were taking place and that the Europeanised, colonised mind set was being questioned everywhere, I was told 'please give me proof right now, and I will accept.' Is it not a tragedy that we must study such a complex subject such as architecture which consists of the known, the invisible, the quantitative and the qualitative, that which is capable of provoking and blending, which defines the culture of a people while all the while giving form to the formless within all of us, to this subject that may not be fathomed by and of us in our lifetime, we have these prescriptive teachers who are formulating a whole generations strategy, we have this syllabus that has crysatallised the direction of design. Where do we go from here?
5 And then there arose the one cry, again and again. The 'pundits' (bandits) must be wiped out, they are destroying our wonderful practice. They are irrational, they are cheating people, so it stands to reason that the subject is also irrational and it must be completely destroyed. Not once, not even as a joke was the stance questioned. 'The sizes of doors, the many locations for the rooms, the types of layouts are contradictory from text to text, therefore it must be wrong since it is so unscientific.' I went to great lengths to explain that even in the 100 years or so of the modern-university-educated-architects' life there were innumerable 'schools' of architectural design, so what can we expect in a history of 2 or 3000 years? The response to this was - 'all this is mere justification'
6 I am left with a few critical comments to all this. Enough work has been done by sociologists all over the world to establish the 'colonised mind and its self-hate' as a distinct psychological state. We know that the entire process of discarding and denying our own culture is a part of a deep psychosis, we know all this. But, where do we go from here?
a) I have attempted to write and speak about the tradition and its strengths for over a decade. It is becoming meaningless, as time passes by since the gap between what is available for study and what people don't know is getting wider and wider. What we require is a national team of architects and historians to write a series of texts on Vaastu (both the classical and the vernacular. I don't believe in this division). I am willing to be a part of this team, but I certainly cannot be the only spokesperson for this subject. As one of the teachers said 'let the C A tells us that Vaastu is valid, and then we will teach it.'
b) We need to conduct workshops in schools to help them understand the nebulous, unarticulated aspects of design, which are certainly not 'scientific' as they are led to believe. In fact many experiential realities exist that are an integral part of human culture and can never be expressed through the sense organs.
c) Architecture as a group endeavour and an expression of the collective has to be understood otherwise this trend of design being the action of the individual in his/her creativity (in which the ancients will be plageurised without a thought) will become the model. And we know where this will go, as in all western societies, a position completely devoid of humanness and with the utter disregard for collective contribution. The bindu will be a mural, the mandala will be the floor design, the kamalam will be the column head and so on, but 'I so dislike the tradition, it is so monotonous and restrictive.'
Let me think aloud a bit. Do you think we can rustle up a group of interested architects/designers who would like to be involved in working with the syllabus as well as preparing the text books? If the teachers and students would only read a little more widely they may perhaps even stumble on Carl Jung's 'Man and his symbols', and then it may be possible to relate the growth of culture and the need for cultural and psychological anchors through anthropomorphic symbols. They may be led out of the prison of Scientific temper into the more uplifting world of experimental understanding and the freedom of vibrating to the human quest without judging the status of the person. (The greatest insult of all was the final statement by one of the speakers-'the vaastu shastras are a caste based text and hence very evil, what we need is an egalitarian society.' And then he went on to say that the designer must be a special person with special rights and should not be stopped by 'uneducated fellows, who are not even their equals.')