Madhavi Desai’s latest book, Women Architects and Modernism in India: Narratives and Contemporary Practices, charts the history of modern Indian architecture in relation to the abiding problem of gender inequality in this area. If you are a woman practicing architecture in India, then, in Desai’s words, “there is resistance on a daily basis”. This was as true in the previous century as it is in our time.
Desai herself is a professional architect, and so is well-placed to comment on the issue. Women Architects and Modernism in India, which is her sixth book, offers a feminist take on a subject that has long remained, so to speak, the preserve of the man.
At the Delhi launch of her book on 15 February, Desai talked about her research alongside a group of Indian women architects who have been instrumental in bridging the gender gap in their professional field—one idea, one presentation and one design at a time. The evening concluded with a series of informative presentations, talks and a panel discussion.
The author’s presentation was a tribute to the women architects of colonial and post-colonial eras of our nation. It served as a poignant reminder of the gender bias, stereotypes and discrimination she had herself encountered as a practicing architect.
This book celebrates women architects while uncovering the spectrum of issues and challenges faced by the first generation of women in architecture, and the prevalent issues plaguing the success and advancement of women in the field. Even today, only a handful of successful women architects are lauded. Featuring stories of some 28 prominent women from Indian architectural history, Desai’s book is an inspiration for practicing architects as well as for students.
While tracing the past, Desai referred to women pioneers who carved out a niche for themselves in the architectural domain back in the day as “rebellious, head-strong and visionary”. She said, “Their value as pioneers goes way beyond the buildings they designed.”
Talking about the future of women in Indian architecture, she said, “There is a definite paradigm shift with social and professional conditions in the social structures. Younger women are now more ambitious than ever before, with far greater awareness of their career paths and a better sense of self-worth. Travel has become easier for single women. Parents are now ready to send their daughters out of town to work before marriage and the young women are clear about pursuing the discipline.”
Desai has many achievements to her name: an adjunct faculty of architecture at the CEPT University, Ahmedabad, for the past 22 years; receiver of numerous research fellowships and grants in India and abroad; founding member of Women Architects Forum; and also a visiting scholar of gender and women’s studies in the University of California, Berkeley, USA.
Elaborating on the vision behind this book, the accomplished architect said, “In the West in the 1980s and ’90s, they started looking at women in architecture and the issues concerning women architects. The truth is, even in the 21st century, they still don’t have anything much on the subject. In fact, no architectural archives existed in this country till the CEPT University began one a couple of years ago. My main motivation was to get such concerns out to the masses.”
Writing, she found, was the best way to spread the word. “This is my sixth book and even this is by default,” she said. “My husband and I had a practice for the first 20 years, but slowly it happened. The practice didn’t do very well and we got into teaching, research and writing.”
While elucidating the need for this book, she said, “It portrays the diversity of modern architectural practices as shaped by the dynamic and productive energies of women. Radically and productively the book redefines the notion of work in view of feminist re-thinking in terms of the meaning of work.”
She further highlighted, “There is a lack of role models and absence of the tradition of mentoring. Historical erasure has been built into the conventional frameworks and even the students and professionals have no idea about the revolutionary women involved in nationalist struggle as well as nation-building. Around the 1930s, the development of high modernism almost parallels women’s contributions, but women architects never gathered critical mass and broader issues weren’t documented. I am just scratching the surface, but the idea is to address such concerns.”
Describing the challenges she faced during her years of Women Architects Forum, she said, “The main challenge we faced during the Forum was that there was euphoria for 2-3 years, we were networking and we were doing small conferences, we were very happy to be there. Then slowly the thing got beaten down. We initially had fifty members and then it grew a little bigger. I wanted it to grow as a movement and gain mass, but it didn’t really work out as women were not ready to be a separate group and I think somewhere, they are still not ready.”
On being asked if she feels that the profession of architecture is still perceived as a prerogative of men, she said, “In India and all over the world, it’s dominated by men. To a lesser extent in the advanced world, but it’s still like that.”
As for the stereotypes she has faced as a woman architect, she said, “There is resistance on a daily basis if you’re trying to practice. The clients are mostly male, because in a patriarchal society, they have the money. The contractors, clients, consultants, workers on site, the crafts people and the carpenters are male and show reluctance. The real estate and construction industries are highly male-dominated. The long working hours and low pay scales are further deterrents. Also, there is hardship in achieving work-life balance. So there is resistance at all levels.”
After having spent decades in this area and devoted most of her life to its study, her passion for architecture remains undimmed. She said, “Architecture is culturally embedded in the real world. It deals with technology on one hand and people on the other. It works in a wide range of dynamics and I am attempting to break down the wall between professional and personal selves and celebrate women in architecture.”
Looking ahead, Desai remains optimistic. “I have great hope. I think things have changed in the 21st century, even though I am complaining. The change is still very slow. Now young girls are delaying marriage and having children for the sake of their careers, working hard and becoming graduates in architecture. The need is to develop an alternative model that combines professional and family life in order to create more opportunities for women to embrace non-traditional modes of practice,” she said.