Hunnariya Memoriya, The story of my internship.
Prologue: “I have not slept for more than 6 hours since the time I started my internship. There have been times when I haven't slept at all. Everyday is a beautiful day here. There is no unproductive or bad day at Hunnarshala. I sleep less because I am always so excited and enthusiastic for the next day to come, the next day with challenges, adventure and something new to look forward to.”
I am Nipun, a student of architecture. What you are going to read is the story of six months that changed my life.
Hunnarshala is a not for profit company based in Bhuj, Gujarat. It mostly works in the fields of disaster rehabilitation, housing for poor, and social architecture. It is very specific about the use of sustainable and eco-friendly designs and materials in its projects. The involvement of the users and the knowledge of communities is paramount in its designs.
I was going to Spain for my internship for six months but my visa got rejected. Around the same time, I got a call from Hunnarshala of their willingness to accommodate me as an intern. I left for Bhuj the very next day.
I reached Bhuj station, the last station of India. I was to live there with another intern, Tapas. Reaching the lodging that looked like a slum rehabilitation society, I realised our room was on the first floor with an asbestos roof. It was hot in January; I wondered what would happen to me in summers.
“Let the city surprise you” said Bhawna on my first day, an architect and journalist who worked at Hunnarshala and later became one of my best friends. Initial days of my internship went in exploring the office complex, meeting the designers, architects, artisans, workers and other employees who worked there. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, even the sweet maasi who made sweet tea for us, knew more about architecture than what I learnt in last four years of my college.
Moulded by the morbid urban life, I was surprised.
The office building itself was so different. I had never in my lifetime seen such a beautiful perfect working environment. From a distance, it looked like another big hut in a village. But on going inside, I was surprised by the level of intricate details it had. It was more than just an office. Everyone, more than 40 people of different backgrounds, lived there like a family. It was made not just for humans - it was design to indulge birds as well. The columns were specially designed to leave space for bird nests. There were small niches for dogs. There were thousands of sparrows in the thatch roof of the office, chirruping all the time. I loved it, it was like a background score to the beautiful film of my internship. The most astonishing thing about the office complex was that it was not made by any architect. It was a collective effort of many artisans, villagers, designers and engineers. That was one of the first lessons I learnt. The power of the knowledge of communities.
I was never forced to do any work. The very first day, I was asked about my inclinations and the projects I wanted to work on and they made sure I was assigned the same. In return, I made sure that whatever I did, I did it with all my heart. This is what everyone else in the office did. They were there because they wanted to be there.
The first project for which I worked was the office of Kachchh Mahila Vikas Sangathan, an organisation working for the women in Kachchh. It has more than 4500 members. This project took me places. I went from village to village meeting the member women and documenting their crafts. The intention was to include their crafts in the office building. Women in small villages spend years making one embroidered piece of cloth which their upcoming generations inherit. Every motif, every single element has a meaning, and all the elements combine together to form a story. Most of the stories are of marriages, festivals involving depiction of interaction of humans with nature. In the remotest villages, the communities have a very deep sense of art and live so efficiently with nature. There’s a lot to learn from them, which was the second lesson I learnt.
During the first month of my internship I also got a chance to work with two master’s thesis scholars from MIT, Boston. One of them was researching on the thermal insulation of different roofing materials. It was very fruitful and I learnt a lot of new things.
Bhuj city and the A Listers: In all the free time I got, I explored Bhuj with my roommate, Tapas. Tapas is a person who is, by all his heart and soul, sensitive towards sustainability, nature and environment. All the people I had met before had never walked their talk on the subject. He was also working with another NGO, Sehjeevan on waste management issues and strategies. Bhuj has 5 very strong organisations working in different fields. Hunnarshala deals with the architecture, Sehjeevan deals with ecology, Kachchh Mahila Vikas Sangathan works for the women, Khamir works for the local crafts of Kachchh and Setu acts as a bridge between the government and the people. A-listers are the group of interns, fellows and scholars of all these organisations. Working at Hunnarshala also exposed me to the social circle of the A listers. It had architects, journalists, social workers, artists, photographers etc. It exposed me to a multidisciplinary collective of conversations and ideas.
Riot rehabilitation and folk music: The second phase of my internship started when I went to Muzaffarnagar, U.P., for a project on the rehabilitation of the victims of the riots of 2013. There were about hundred families who fled their villages during the riots. We were designing and building homes for them. I spent about three months there. I lived, designed and built with the people. I have never lived in a village before, so it was a whole new life experience. The people used to call us “archi-tigers”. My roommate, Satyanarayanji, was a dynamic mason from Bihar, in his fifties. Every night before going to bed, he would tell me stories about his life in Bihar, his knowledge of digging wells, the art of making bamboo houses etc. Apart from the technical knowledge of architecture, I also learnt how to wash a buffalo. Shehzad, one of the beneficiaries who lost his father in the riots, taught me so. He painted his new home’s walls and ceiling beautifully.
After working for the entire day in the village in bright sunlight, we used to sit together and write songs together which we later sung with the community. I made many friends in the village. We, being from the architecture background, never forced our designs on the people. It is the main idea behind social architecture. When every individual has different likes and dislikes for everything, then how can everyone have the same house plan designed by some third person? Established architects call it designing for the anonymous. We used to sit with the people and they used to design their own homes. Our work was to put their thoughts more efficiently in the space and provide the right technology for it. The masons and the artisans also used to live with us.
My internship was coming to an end by July. The last step of my internship was a road excursion across Gujarat. Satish was my bike partner. He is an engineer by profession who left a high paying job because he wanted to do something for the artisans. He now works with artisans and gives them international exposure. I am interested in Gandhian philosophy and wanted to see if Gandhiji's home was following his principles. Satish wanted to explore different crafts of the region. We decided to travel across Gujarat without buying any food and without booking any guest house. It was an 1800 kilometres long road trip. We travelled through South Gujarat for a week. We slept on a beach, ate at an ashram, stayed in an ashram in the middle of the Gir Forest, met Osho’s disciples, got almost stuck on an island during high tide and also spent a night in a khadi factory. That trip further deepen my new love and respect for the rural India. The India where I lived was the country that had forgotten its villages in the race of pseudo-development.
It was not just an internship. I was going through a very fast paced journey of euphoria. I lived a lifestyle that I had always wanted to live. I met and worked with people who were very strongly dedicated to bringing a change in society. I shed all my fake urban ego, setting myself on a completely new path which would not be hardened by concrete. It was not just an internship but a glimpse of a higher way of life.