Women Architects and Modernism in India by Routledge India is perhaps to date the most comprehensive compilation of notable female architects of the 20th century in India. Madhavi Desai is an experienced writer on contemporary Indian architecture, and herself a woman architect of note in the country. In addition, she is also an established researcher and acclaimed teacher of architecture, a characteristic also of many of the women she profiles. Through this book she establishes an imminent need for removing gender differences in the architect’s profession.
The book is well structured being divided into five parts, with the main body of the text covering thirty-five biographies. The introduction establishes the need for study, with a reference to recent feminist thinking, setting the scene for the rest of the book. This is followed by a brief historical review of the practice of women in the building industry and the surfacing of formal women architects in the practice of the profession in the country. The literature on this past practice being rather limited, the author delves directly into the body of the text comprising the biographies.
The textual discourse of the biographies follows a chronological format dividing the collection into ‘early narratives’ and ‘contemporary practices’. Each piece on the individual woman professional selected offers a comprehensive account of their early upbringing, professional inspirations, personal philosophies, and lifetime practice. The selection as the author herself points out is, however, not based on specific criteria, but does use to advantage the author’s outreach and access in the spheres of the architectural practice in the country. That said, the accounts themselves are fairly straightforward and sometimes maybe too simplistic even, on account of the factual coverage. However, this in itself makes the text most often revelatory, bringing to light the multifaceted personalities of those profiled.
The accounts belonging to the early narratives with biographies of Pervin Mistry, Urmila Chowdhary, and Gira Sarabhai all of whom seemed to have crossed way ahead over the conventional in an era of near nonexistent women professionals in a field still dominated by men. Profiles of these in the section on contemporary practice, notably, of Meena Mani, Suhasini Aiyer, Nalini Thakur, Revathi Kamath, amongst others, have clearly demonstrated fierce determination to be independent and exemplary practitioners refusing to be subjugated in any way by their male counterparts.
The biographies throughout are suitably illustrated by original imagery although some of these could have been more varied and of higher resolution to make for a richer visual experience. Also the layout of the material could have been set to offer a more concise and clearer format, perhaps with pictures and text separated, to offer easier reference. This is true also of the text itself where although the methodology of study is based on an interview format, the consistency of this technique does not always come through in the writing. The information even if sourced from personal communication could have been more appropriately referenced for the benefit of the reader.
The publication concludes with a discussion highlighting the nature of work dominating the architectural engagements of the women professions, their struggles and their strengths, in relation to these. It celebrates the accomplishment of women to successfully juggle various responsibilities, interests, and emphases. Comparisons with parallel international professionals in a globalizing world, as also a contemplation of future directions in the field in view of new modes of practice, teaching, and research as well as growing specializations of areas of work are however not taken up for discussion.
The book reflects the changing scenario in the feminist movements and in the profession of architecture. As summed up in the opening foreword by Monica Juneja, it redefines the practice of architecture to encompass more varied activities related to the built environment than just the act of building, as well as further the need to rethink building design not as a single architect’s product but as interdisciplinary teamwork. Perhaps a closing note, possibly by a male professional to offer a view from the other side, may have been fitting. Also, the cover image could have been more representative of the theme.
Finally, while the enquiry seems to have started with a personal journey, that of the author, it is clear that there is certainly a more mass movement happening, and now that this has started there may be no stopping the wave.
Shweta Manchanda is Associate Professor at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.