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Ar. Nari Gandhi (1934 - 1993): A Maverick, A Legend

Posted by
on May 12, 2017 at 04:12 PM

The architectural community has seen the rise and fall of countless architects over the years. Many evolve over time, achieving a level of finesse with every practice. There are some architects remembered for a particularly successful project while others have their names etched into history for eternity, known for their style of work. Legendary architect Nari Gandhi was one such architect who belonged to the latter category. While his simplicity touched many lives, his trademark design style inspired generations of architects. One of India's pioneering proponents of organic architecture, the name Nari Gandhi at once conjures images of stone walls, exposed bricks, and arches! Nari's passion for the art of building and understanding of materials is unparalleled, his work poignant and surprising. TFOD pays a loving tribute to the architect for his priceless contribution to the field.

© Courtesy of internet sources

Born on 2nd January, 1934 in Surat, to a Zoroastrian family based in Mumbai (then Bombay), with three brothers and two sisters, Nariman (Nari) Dossa Gandhi completed his schooling at St. Xavier's School and pursued architecture from Sir J.J. School of Architecture. A brilliant student, he was a conundrum to his professors. After graduating, he left for Taliesin where he studied pottery at the Kent State University. He worked under F .L Wright, the architect who inspired Ayn Rand’s famous Fountainhead character Howard Roark. Thereafter, he carried out his legacy in India through his practice and is often referred to as the Howard Roark of India.

Nari Gandhi was a man who personified simplicity. Tall and heavily built, he wore an aristocratic moustache on his face. Dressed in plain white Khadi kurta and pyjama, carrying a jhola (cloth bag) and with Kolhapuri chappals on his feet, he looked every inch the typical Parsi gentleman. He embraced Khadi for it is self-reliant, natural simplicity. He led a very frugal life-style, with no vices. In fact, he did not even drink tea or coffee - surprising since architects are known to guzzle down several cups a day. He was a pure vegetarian - surprising since Parsis are known for their non-vegetarian delicacies. A devout Parsi, he prayed at the Fire Temple (Agyari) regularly; and also often visited Hindu temples and churches.

He took inspiration from nature for his architecture. He believed that land is the purest form of nature and a building grows towards light like a plant. Light, for him, was the soul of architecture. He would spend hours studying the relation of moving sun and his building. Though his work was very organic, it had a strong geometry to it. Another important aspect of his architecture was his use of materials. He worked with brick, stone, timber and steel. He chose materials meticulously as per the site location and demand of the space. His pottery skills aided him in choosing textures and colours, adding a unique taste to his work. His projects would be deliberately spread over a long period, for the landscape to grow along with the building. His clients believed that his architecture enhanced their lives not only physically but also spiritually. “Nari Gandhi firmly believed that architecture was an emotional expression along with being an art. His work is a marriage of architecture & ornament, space & form, materials & texture.”

A surprising and unique part of his work style is that he did not own an office or make drawings on paper. He sketched on the ground to explain his plan and if he wasn’t satisfied with a construction, he would immediately tear it down. Thakker, an associate of Nari Gandhi says, “Many people would wonder how Nari got his plans approved by local authorities when there were no drawings. Actually, the houses, which were in Bombay jurisdiction, were normally executed through one of us. I would get the drawings done and obtain clearances from him. Nari could not work in time limit; he needed to be set free. He would ultimately make something, which his client actually expected.”

All those who knew the architect testified him as a man with a heart of gold, and a marvelous architect. He shared a great bond with his mother. Another one of his traits that people swear by is his humility. He cried when a friend told him, “You have added lot of joy to my life”. He even introduced himself as a potter to a group of workers he wanted to work with and learn from. What followed was an excellent exchange of skills among them. He loved to train his workers himself. Rustom Mehta, another client and close friend of Nari Gandhi thought he pampered his workers too much.

With his sheer simplicity and humility, he touched so many lives. A person from Parsi Colony of Dadar, Mumbai has summarised the essence of Nari Gandhi, saying: “How could one understand a man who had so many dimensions, so much genius, who was so sensitive and magnanimous? Even in Kurta Pyjama he looked majestic. All of one’s stereotypes regarding work, relationship, life, religion, beauty, that were carefully nurtured over the years, failed completely. The generosity, clarity and intensity of his thoughts shocked one into silence. One felt one had finally met an individual - an indivisible, unfragmented, complete, whole - who was refreshingly new, fearless and very divorced from the ugly, mean and petty side of life. In a world of mediocrity, half-truth and lies, he was the complete truth, a genius, a noble man. He gave us a glimpse of the other side of life which dances, which sings, which cares and is pure.”

The man who believed in following his heart stood by this belief throughout his life. He encouraged others to do the same. Ahmedabad based textile designer, Rajan is a testament to this. “He was so emotional and young at heart, he sat in my office and joked and laughed about little things and wept for the world and the country- I have never witnessed such concern for humanity. He had the ability to visualize like no one else. Nari was a soft spoken and wonderful person but he had his anger.”

Nari loved to travel so much that a third of his life was spent traveling, according to a close friend. He would get up early and leave house by seven thirty in the morning, whether or not he had work to do. Most of the time he was travelling between his sites. He was a nature lover with good understanding of gardening and landscape. He was also a collector with a strong eye for details. He collected watches, cameras, pens and other such artifacts from his travels throughout the country. Sometimes, people followed him around in art galleries. If he took too long a pause in front of a painting people would buy it. People had such faith in his judgment.

Nari Gandhi was very frank by nature, which did land him on the wrong side of clients at times, but he believed he only needed clients who understood his architecture. Mr. Suryakant Patel, his client for the Surat House recalls, “If he did not like something, he would tell you straight away and so too if he liked something.” He did not even get along with his associates for long. He did not like any interference in his work from clients. He had designed a door without glass for one of his clients, Daya. However, to prevent pigeons from entering the house, he later put up some glasses on the door. This upset the architect to such extent that he didn’t enter the house for two years. Daya says he was a simple man with some weaknesses, “I found him sometimes superstitious, gullible in spiritual matters, doors and toilets and his attitude to money. He was a man of few words, he would only reply, to what you asked him.” His associate iterates that though he was very difficult to work with, he was a much sought-after architect.

He had no attachment to the material world. He wouldn’t work for money for himself but made sure workers got paid their fair share on time. “He never charged money for his work from me” told Mr Daya. If by force, he accepted some money, then it was used to do charity and help the needy. He was even specific in selecting the beggar to aid. His associate added that he was a kind hearted person, always ready to help those who asked. Some say his eyes were true windows to his soul.

He died a tragic death in a car accident on 18th August 1993. Through his timeless work, he has left an indelible mark on Indian architecture and broadened its horizons. His honesty, sincerity and integrity towards his work and clients comes through his qualitative contributions to the field and will forever be remembered as legendary Indian architect. Amrutlal Thakker, a close friend and associate of Nari Gandhi sums up the maverick architect beautifully - "I have heard him being called an eccentric genius, talent gone wild, even crazy- but he was not crazy, it's the world around him that was! Here was humanity personified, art and expression exemplified, in a normal, humble, down to earth Parsi gentleman, who wore simple old clothes and possessed a wealth of mind and intellect, that would humble the most enterprising and exacting philosopher." 

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