How rivers shaped the course of Arijit Chatterjee, the first Indian architect to win Steedman Memorial Fellowship
Not all love affairs are identical. Some happen in the blink of an eye, even at a ripe old age and evaporate as quickly as they began, while others manifest in childhood, sprout roots over the years, seep into every blood vessel and linger forever.
Architect Arijit Chatterjee’s love affair with rivers falls into the latter category, beginning as it did when he was a boy studying at a Ramakrishna Vivekananda missionary school on the banks of the mighty Hooghly in Barrackpore, West Bengal.
As his childhood fascination enters its fourth decade, Chatterjee has become the first Indian to win the coveted Steedman Memorial Fellowship — a $75,000 award granted biannually to an emerging architect — for his proposal, “Mapping the mind of the river: Architecture as a loss of control”.
As Steedman fellow, the 41-yearold will investigate river systems across 16,000 km in Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and develop a “Handbook of Repair”, which will propose a range of interventions that minimise the damage done to a river’s natural flow and ecology. The book, he hopes, will be as accessible to a “grandmother” as to a “hydrologist” and will suggest action-based solutions to deal with both “tangible and intangible systems”.
Many peers today would call him a maverick but Chatterjee insists that as an architect he is not “trespassing” into a territory where he should not be. “Building as an act should be able to mend, mediate and return back to the natural systems and environment rather than disrupt or destroy,” he says.
Chatterjee’s fascination with the river began early in life. As a 10-yearold, he decided one day to swim across the river in low tide to explore the Danish and French towns of Serampore and Chandannagar. He stayed overnight in what turned out to be a French school as high tide prevented him from swimming back, suo moto sought admission in it and was told that this was not the way admission was sought in schools. But his daily proximity to the river and its ever-changing rhythms were slowly ingrained in the boy who learnt and imbibed its tides and flows as greedily as a hungry tiger consumes his kill.
As he grew up, his parents grew more and more concerned about their son’s lack of convention. When his peers were preparing for entrance exams, he landed up in Santiniketan to do a diploma in painting. Instead of coaching classes, his parents were dishing out money for handmade paper, paints and other such “useless” stuff that would do nothing to set him on a career path they considered desirable or worthy.
His father’s transfer transported a 19-year-old Chatterjee to Ahmedabad. Here he got his first glimpse of the Sabarmati river, one radically different from the Hooghly. With almost no water, the riverbed was a hub of activity: animals grazing, people dyeing clothes, children playing football, a bustling local flea market in progress. Never had he seen a river with so much throbbing life in it. The river and the diverse forms it can take seeped deeper into his consciousness.
In Ahmedabad, he decided to join the Centre for Environment Planning and Technology (CEPT) — now CEPT University — to train as an architect, a journey that proved both invigorating and controversial as he approached his final graduation.
During his stint at CEPT, he went to France as an exchange student, won a scholarship to the Netherlands and made his way to Bangladesh to find answers to his childhood quest on why rivers are different at different places. As his final-year project, he proposed constructing a neighbourhood activity centre in the wetlands of Khulna in Bangladesh.
Although nobody was very supportive of his proposal, he stuck to his guns. While his peers were building structures of permanence, his proclivity was towards fluidity, impermanence and the ecological balance of river systems, a “transgression” into an area not strictly his preserve.
It, therefore, came as no surprise when the CEPT graduate landed a job as a naval architect at a firm in Paris that produced boats, yachts and catamarans. It was this assignment that took him back to Dhaka to work as an apprentice on the Emirates floating hospital, allowing him to remain vested in his primary quest. Even as he went to get his master’s degree in nautical and maritime architecture in Chile, he never strayed too far from the river, learning to build boats in a boatshed in Valdivia, a Chilean city at the confluence of three rivers.
But it was Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen’s writings on how hoarding of food grains causes famines that made him look more sharply at the relationship between manmade boundaries of water such as barrages, dams, bridges and the havoc these might be wreaking on natural river systems, their ecological balance and harmony. This gradually convinced him that rivers had over the centuries been reduced to nothing but ideological weapons and instruments to wield power for governments over its citizens, in particular, the communities and people who survived and thrived on them. “Water has been highly politicised.
Rivers are dammed, ecologies of dry rivers are seen as a sign of a city’s decay and degradation and we try somehow to fill some water in them… it is quite worrying that rivers have become politicised to the extent they have,” says Chatterjee. These man-made interventions have resulted in rivers silting up, flooding and are, in fact, the problem rather than the solution, to his mind.
Now, Chatterjee, the architect with possibly the fewest buildings to his name, is committed to a handful of “repairing” projects, including a private house at Talapady in Mangaluru, a refuge in Chile and a floating workshop in Bangladesh besides working on a book on the Basel Mission tile factories in Mangaluru. In addition, he teaches at a few schools of architecture, including his alma mater in Ahmedabad, and is entering the phase of action where he can use his painstakingly acquired knowledge of rivers and their ecological balance to repair and prevent further damage on account of man-made interventions.
His preoccupations even today remain far less in consonance with traditionally accepted roles in society. Yet, if he succeeds even to some extent, it could work to the advantage of humankind in more ways than one.
The writer is a Goa-based journalist
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)