Snehanshu Mukherjee is an architect by training, and was connected to the world of Indian Theatre from late 1960s to early 1990s through his illustrious father Sitansu Mukherjea. These pages comprise of his drawings, talks and writings on architecture, urbanism and memories of his early days in New Delhi and Calcutta.

Travel Sketching and Photography: Nainital 2012 to 2017

Last week we were in Nainital, lake resort town in the Kumaon Himalayas, after a gap of three years. This time I got an opportunity to draw the lake. Last time, in 2014, I had concentrated only in photographing Nainital, both digitally (Sony RX100) and with my old favorite analogue Nikon FE2 on black and white film. This time I carried a digital camera (the remarkable Fuji XM1) as well, and realized, yet again, that photography is essentially an act of an instant and meant for enjoying the moment and the place afterwards. While sketching is about being rooted to a place for some time.

Sketching makes me become mindful, watchful, and makes me really see and admire the view that I am sketching. During the process of sketching I often change the composition as I draw it in – the sketch finally represents what appeals to me aesthetically! I highlight some parts of the scene over others, even suppressing some bits; especially if my vantage point is not entirely to my satisfaction. I eliminate things like ugly lampposts, electric cables or inconvenient shrubs, trees, cars and people …. things that can imbalance the composition. Even digital photography, with magical processing softwares such as Photoshop or Lightroom cannot achieve what a sketch can.

The act of drawing the scene – shading, stubbing, deciding the manner of strokes, and improvising on techniques while sketching is an intense activity, often I do not realize how much time has gone by while I am sketching away. I have found sketching on the ground to be a very rewarding experience – from the point of start to gradually reaching the point of total immersion in the scene or the subject that I am seeing, and of course in the sketch itself.

The sketches above from 1 to 4 were done standing or sitting at convenient spots in Nainital. While the ink drawing (b) was done a little before travelling to Nainital, it’s a fictitious place based upon my memory from previous trips. Interestingly enough I spotted a similar hill this time on the return journey on the Bhimtal/Bhowali route to board the train at Kathgodam. The colour sketch (c) using chalk pastels, aquarelle pastels and aquarelle pencil was after our return from Nainital, inspired by the rain clouds that I saw this time over the lake.

While scanning the sketches from the sketchbook, I found yet another sketch (a) of the lake from an even earlier trip in 2012. The sketch was made from roughly the same position as one of the current sketches (2), therefore I thought of adding it to this lot as a “before and after” view. I have also included a few of the photographs from this time at the bottom of this post to show the way the lake appeared – unaltered by my mind, at that instant when I pressed the shutter.

How to Un-Plan a City

The problems of our cities are many and have been discussed time and again in countless seminars, books, journals and presentations – and yet, on the ground the situation remains unchanged and more often than not actually worsens as the days go by.
Why does this happen? What can be done?
These are the two primary questions that have been addressed in this talk, delivered at KRVIA, mumbai in August 2015

Remembering Surjya

I remembered Surjya, when I chanced upon a drawer full of memories – Black and White negatives shot on 120mm and 35mm film. There was this one wallet of negs from our Final Year Pushkar trip in 1981 with Prof. Chayya and Prof Shaheer. The negative also had three portraits, one of the best of the three was Surjya’s or Surjya Shankar Dasgupta, to give him his full name.

Surjya was one student amongst the 36 odd who joined SPA’s Architecture Department in 1977. I called him Surjya, while the rest of the class usually called him Das for short. He was our class CR by default, he had opted to be the Class Representative the first time, and after that the class en masse thought he was the best and should carry on for the rest of the years as well! To be honest, he could, at times try your patience, but that was because he was a dreamer, often thinking of something else while you thought he was listening to what was being said. He would foolishly drop his own work to help others finish theirs. We were all young, some of us “full of ourselves” and impatient, sometimes cutting Surjya’s conversations short, just to stop him from making an ass of himself – at least I thought that was what I was doing.

Surjya, Solly, Badri, Kasturi, Elsie and sometimes Madhu were our class minstrels, Surjya, Solly or Badri would usually carry to SPA a large acoustic guitar, which they often played while singing during the class breaks. Once, during lecture period, as our teacher had not appeared, some of us sat on the stairs (because of the special acoustics) and sang Beatles and John Denver as if there was no one else in the building. Within 15 minutes we had our senior batch coming down the stairs smirking, following them was Mrs Rosemary Sachdev, who smiled at us and said, “nice singing” and carried on after her class.

In our 2nd year Manali trip with Prof Chayya, Surjya along with Martin Axe, the exchange student from USA and Shekhar Garud, discovered that Hash grew in bushes around the village we were to study, after which they were generally stoned. One night, Surjya woke the rest of us up at some unearthly hour in the flea ridden rooms of the crummy hotel in Manali and demanded we hand over our bits of the village plan – he said that he had every intention of drawing them all up as the complete village of Alleo. To humour him and to go back to sleep, we gave him our scraps. The next morning we found him fast asleep at the foot of the stairs with a drawing board beside him in which he had actually managed to draw up the entire village plan from our various bits, which in themselves could not possibly have been drawn correctly anyways. Later when I asked him how he managed to make sense of all the parts, he said that it was the Hash that had worked for him!

He had to drop a year after he contacted Hepatitis and was in AIIMS for an extended time. The SPA rules did not allow him to be promoted despite him having completed all his assignments. After we had all graduated as architects and drifted away, I kept in touch with Surjya, though not on a regular basis. My memory is wooly now, but I remember something about Surjya being involved with the art direction of Pradip’s unfinished TV serial Bargad, I think he worked on this along with Hemmady. Hemmady and he worked together in an architecture practice later. I still remember meeting the two of them behind Sagar at Def. Col. Market, when our office was located in the vicinity.

I have still managed to preserve the ceramic pot that he had presented Anisha and me at our wedding reception. The very next year Surjya left this world, along with his wife and one of his two daughters. He had no choice in the matter as he was probably still sleeping on the ill fated Purushottam Express when it rammed a stationary Kalindi Express at a speed of 100kmph early morning on 20th August 1995. The accident has been termed one of the worst railway accidents ever, with 305 dead and 393 injured, an accident which was caused by the collective negligence on part of the driver of the Kalindi Express and the Switchman on duty.

Surjya therefore was probably the first person from our batch to exit from this world. He was a nice person, big hearted and kind, always ready to drop his own work to help others. I can’t but help feel that one was lucky to have friends like Surjya those days, persons who were different in the way they dealt with this world.

Mr Stein

I got to know Mr Stein’s architecture before I got to know him, or for that matter I had even envisaged joining an architecture college. The year was 1975; I was still in high school when my family moved to Babar Road, to a house situated very close to Triveni Kala Sangam. Even as a school boy, the building and the spaces it created drew me to it almost every evening. I would visit the place to see art exhibitions and watch the Manipuri dancers practice on the amphitheatre stage, even Charandas Chor by Habib Tanvir was performed there in those days. Triveni built in 1957 has remained ageless, and even after so many years remains one of my favourite buildings, much later, I was most gratified to hear from Mr Stein himself that it was also his favourite building!

I never knew who had designed Triveni till in 1977 when I joined SPA as a student of architecture. After completing the course in 1982 I joined Stein Doshi Bhalla as a trainee and met Mr Stein for the first time. I worked in his design studio till 1985 – a very short time, but I know that I learnt more about architecture and the art of construction in that office, than in my five years at SPA. A learning that has stood me in good stead in my own architectural practice over the last 31 years.

To me Triveni shows all the attributes of Mr Stein’s personality, his interests and concerns. Like many of his other projects, Triveni is simultaneously “simple” and sophisticated by design – an elegant building, which addresses an apparently contradictory programme – of private teaching spaces and public areas – on a demanding site effortlessly. Mr. Steins’ design is not just elegant, efficient and economical; it is also very much a response to the geographical and cultural context of the place. The building remains “true” right down to the tapered skirting detail where the floor meets the wall. Though distinctly “modern”, when compared to the nearby Sapru House, the building could nevertheless be described as “classical” in its appearance, in the proportion of its façade, the various spaces that the building holds within and without – the understated composition of hues and textures of the different materials used,  set in perfect harmony.

At another level Triveni reflects the thoughtful decisions that Mr Stein took on the method of construction that would ensure that it was built economically and would also be easy to maintain over the years of use. The proof is there for all of us to see, even after 59 years most people would find it difficult to put a date as to when it was constructed, a testimony to the creative genius of Mr Stein. The last thing I wish to stress, especially in today’s context is that though Mr Stein was born in USA, none of his work here can be thought of as un-Indian. In my opinion he single handedly defined, through his work, what post 1947 architecture in India could have become – rooted in the ethos of the reality of independent India. Unfortunately this cannot be said for the works of many who build in India today and definitely not for the many non-Indian or foreign architects who have built and are building in the country today – many of whom belong to the elite Western group of architects often branded as “starchitects”.



Shimla, 2015

3 sketches in Shimla; one from the bay window of the Malhan’s house in Chhota Shimla, one of the bay window itself. The wider sketch is of the oldest building on the IIAS Shimla estate – now a guest house where we (Anisha and Treya were there too) stayed during the National seminar on Urban Spaces in Modern India during the month of June 2015

Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, 1977

These are the shots off the first roll of 35mm film that I had shot using a Yashica Minister III rangefinder camera, gifted by my father on joining SPA as a First Year student of Architecture in 1977. These pictures of Fatehpur Sikri and Agra were taken during our first class study trip with the faculty members Prof. C S H Jhabvala, Narendra Dengle and Yogesh Kumar. Needless to say that the shot of the Taj from Agra Fort will probably no longer look like this, for that matter nor would my classmates, some of whom had posed for the camera at Fatehpur Sikri!

First Year Design Studio Lecture

This was a design studio lecture that I gave to First Year B. Arch. students at SPA New Delhi in their second semester. The lecture was recorded by Mili Jain, one the few students who were actually in class. I decided to start the lecture and not wait for the whole class to assemble from their tea break. The lecture was my attempt to take forward the learnings from the previous activity by the students – studying and making measured drawings of the Hauz Khas Madarassa – to the start of the design process of a house located across the lake on the other side of the Madarassa. This was a lecture to demonstrate to the students how the study of ancient buildings is not an end in itself and actually helps us understand how to build for now. I had to use some sarcasm to get the late comer students to pay attention to the lecture, which has been left unedited for some comic relief!