Architecture students map memories and spaces of migrant settlements

Students’ Biennale 2016 artists from Mumbai presented findings to cartoonist E.P. Unny here today

Kochi, Feb 11: Last October, a group of architecture students left their campus in Mumbai to spend a week walking through the warrens of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, interacting with its peoples and documenting its spaces and histories.

Their observations and inferences on seven communities – Kutchi Jains, Kutchi Memons, Jews, Tamil dhobis, Konkanis, the Indo-Portuguese and Gujaratis – that call these spaces ‘home’ are on display at Fadi Hall in Mattancherry, one of the seven venues of the Students’ Biennale (SB) 2016 exhibition that is running in parallel to the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Through birds-eye view drawings and dioramas, the students of School of Environment and Architecture – one of 55 institutions participating in the second edition of the Kochi Biennale Foundation’s flagship art education outreach project – looked at the shifting contexts, meanings and memories of ‘home’ over an interaction with celebrated cartoonist E.P. Unny here today.

“When we asked ‘What is a home?’, we are not just referring to the physical structure but also the layers of memories associated with a place. We walked into houses and spoke to residents for the project, which documents these settlements of migrant communities and structures tied to their community identities around Fort Kochi and Mattancherry,” said Abhinav Pahade.

Exploring the structures and spaces identified as synonymous with each community – Jain temple, the Hanafi mosque for the Memons, Paradesi Synagogue, Dhobi Khana, Portuguese-building styles, godowns, warehouses and spice shops – helped the student discern the diverse “congregational identities” in these areas.

“Satellite images helped map out the spaces and allowed us to put analyses into the gaps in our information. For example, we found that about 250 Kutchi families live around the Jain temple by looking at the two-storey limestone homes in the area,” Pahade said

Another interesting extrapolation represented through axonometric (three-dimensional, top-down) mapping of the locations was a similarity between the clustered housing styles to the ‘chawl’ dynamic found in Mumbai.

“This was one of a number of overlaps between the historic migrant settlements in these cities. An earlier workshop in Mumbai had included an intense engagement between student artists and their local surroundings. It was brought to Kochi to help introduce the consistent overlapping of architectural planning strategies and urban conditions and help open up the cities,” said Naveen Mahantesh, one of the 15 emerging curators driving SB 2016.

For Unny, a participating artist at KMB 2016, this was hardly surprising. “Resettlement sites share commonalities especially when the migrant communities are the same. Besides the ontological questioning of ‘home’, there is the dynamic of cohabitation. Like Mumbai, Fort Kochi is a site of violence throughout its history,” he said.

In 2014, Unny had published a history of Fort Kochi titled Santa and the Scribes: The Making of Fort Kochi based on secondary sources dating back to 1341. Drawing on his research, he said, “This was a sort of ground zero for historical turbulence and so migrant communities have tended to develop here in a linear, patterned manner around a central point or junction.”

The students’ mapping efforts would seem to bear this out, he noted, with Gujarati tradesmen to be found living atop their businesses located along Bazar Road, Memon households huddled in a mohalla next to the 150-year-old Hanafi mosque, the Jain community on the periphery of their temple, the different “cubicles” for each launderer around the Dhobi Khana, for example.

“The exercise showed that mapping behaviour and memory was part and parcel of navigating with bits and pieces of a site’s geography and history. The verbal and written accounts we collected testify to the resilience of the communities here,” said Vibhavari Sarangan.


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