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Ahmedabad 600 Book Review

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Ahmedabad 600 Book Review

Chatterjee, Ashoke

Ahmedabad 600:Portraits of a City

(Marg Foundation, Rs2800) is a significant addition to the emerging
literature on our urban heritage, capturing as perhaps few other cities do
the complex challenges of transition in India. The volume brings together
the perspectives of a range of scholars, commenting on the city’s cultural
traditions as well as its position as a catalyst for Indian modernism.
Although last year marked 600 years of the founding of Ahmedabad, official
recognition of the milestone was subdued — remarkable perhaps only as
another indication of the political forces that have been hard at work to
deny an Islamic heritage that dates back to Sultan Ahmed Shah who
established the city in 1411 in the proximity of the Sufi saint who lived in
Sarkhej — the site Le Corbusier placed alongside the Acropolis in its
significance. The absurdity of saffron denials becomes more evident as
Ahmedabad seeks Unesco recognition as a World Heritage city, its case
wonderfully reaffirmed in this volume that calls for affirmation in place of
schizophrenia.

Ahmedabad perhaps initiated the importance of the urban heritage concept, of which the
heritage walks pioneered here (with the support of the Ahmedabad Municipal
Corporation that now christens itself ‘Amdavad’ to avoid pollution!) have
set a trend many cities have followed. These walks define the synthesis of
cultures — Hindu, Jain and Islamic — that provide the thread uniting the
expressions celebrated in this book. They include an expiration of
architectural idioms that begun with the extraordinary fusion of medieval
traditions at Sarkhej and extend all the way through Corbusier’s four
buildings (perhaps the most important concentration of the master’s work in
any city of the world) to Kahn’s iconic campus for the Indian Institute of
Management and seminal work by Correa, Doshi and others. Himanshu Burte
suggests that the city has been the cradle of Indian modernism, extending
well beyond architecture into art (the subject of Sharmila Sagara’s essay)
and design (the National Institute of Design, established in the early 60s
under the inspiration of Charles Eames), drawing on Ahmedabad’s rich history
of craft that is explored by Aditi Ranjan (on textiles) and Suchitra
Balasubramanian (who includes kites and the red hand-bound chopda
accounting books) bringing together not just the synthesis of cultures but
equally if not more important tradition of artisans of different faiths
serving each other.

Interestingly, the influence of British rule was minimal on Ahmedabad, reflecting perhaps its extraordinary self-confidence — that some have interpreted as an insular,
ghetto complex which contrasts with the city’s extraordinary record in
encouraging contemporary ideas and cutting-edge institutions: in science (ISRO,
PRL and the Community Science Centre are examples), management (IIMA and all
that is followed), architecture and design. These and other institutions
reflect the culture of trusteeship that distinguished Ahmedabad’s merchant
princes, suggesting a model relevant in today’s preoccupation with
‘corporate social responsibility’. Interestingly, it is after Independence
that western influence became a hallmark of Ahmedabad the city, symbolized
most of all by its expressions in contemporary architecture and design and
its welcome to institutions symbolic of the future.

Somewhere in all of this is the presence of the Mahatma, not specifically explored in this volume, but recalled in several of its essays as an essential element in
what makes Ahmedabad great as well as a city obsessed with the future and
frightening in its adherence to the worst of the past. Ahmedabad 600
comes at a time when another anniversary is being marked: the grim reminder
that a decade has passed since the progrom of 2002 that was a concerted
attack on the synthesis and syncretism that is celebrated here. With
authorities still in denial and with no expression of regret, the authors
offer hope rather than answers to the crucial question of where Ahmedabad
goes from here. Current political leadership hold up models of Singapore and
Fifth Avenue as aspirations of vibrancy, often at the cost of the spaces and
vitality celebrated on these pages. Yet Ahmedabad 600 is a reminder
that progress should be about well-being, and well-being about harmony among
citizens and between them and their environments — a concept as
contemporary as the Millennium Development Goals  and as relevant as the
Mahatma who made this city a crucible for Indian freedom.

 

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