Architect, researcher, writer and teacher Madhavi Desai reflects on her feminist awakening, the founding of the Women Architects Forum and the importance of writing the women architects of India into the history books.
My father was a medical doctor and he didn’t encourage me to follow in his footsteps. He said it’s a very hard field. At that time, girls that I went to high school with would go to university to study what we call liberal arts or science. Then they would graduate at 21, and get married at 22–23. But I didn’t like either the sciences or the liberal arts. One day, when I was still in high school, I visited an alumna who was now a student of architecture and saw architectural models at her place. I was fascinated by these beautiful models. I had no idea about the field at all, but the models stayed with me. So, when the time came to choose what to do, I said “OK, I don’t want to do arts, I don’t want to do science. Let me try architecture.”
The interviewers for the course were always famous, well-established men. When I sat for the interview, they asked me, “What if you leave the field and waste one seat [read, as a woman]?” At the time I wasn’t aware of how insulting that was. They make these sexist assumptions without blinking an eye. I was completely honest with them. I said, “I cannot tell you I will not leave the field. I have no idea about the field.” Fortunately, I was accepted into the course. There were only six women out of 30 in the course in 1967.
I did my undergraduate degree at what is now called the CEPT University in Ahmedabad. It was called the School of Architecture at that time. I finished my studies in 1974 and my first job was with Professor Anant Raje, who had worked on IIM (the Indian Institute of Management) in Ahmedabad with Louis Kahn. After Louis Kahn passed away, Raje designed some more buildings on IIM Campus, and he also had his own practice. After working with him, I got a job with another architect for a few more months.
I decided to go to the US to do my Masters at the University of Texas in Austin – and so did my boyfriend Miki Desai. We got married in Texas. After our Masters, we were based in Berkeley for a couple of years. The education in the US was excellent for me. There was a lot of flexibility about the classes we took, and we had good accessibility to the professors. In India, on the other hand, relations with teachers tended to be rather formal. We returned for good to India in 1980.
India was, and still is, a traditional society with quite a strict hierarchy. I studied in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when there was a lot of importance placed on modernism due to Le Corbusier and Chandigarh. I personally met Louis Kahn in Ahmedabad. He came to our college to give talks, and modernism was celebrated.
Studying in the US gave us a lot more freedom – and also gave me an objective look at our own heritage and indigenous architecture. I started appreciating the vernacular and also the colonial heritage much more. I could see it more clearly from a distance.
In 1997, Miki and I published Architecture and Independence: The Search for Identity—India, 1880–1980, which was an important book. It is now available in its second edition.
Mother guilt & ARCHICRAFTS
When we returned to India, my husband and I set up a joint practice. We were living in a multi-generational family home, which included Miki’s parents, his widowed sister, her three children, and an aunt who has always lived with them. It was a huge family-living arrangement and there were many family challenges, with advantages and disadvantages.
Then I had my two daughters two years apart. I felt extremely connected to them, but I was trying to have a practice at the same time. I could not make it to the morning site meetings or the evening client meetings because I needed to be with them. I did not want to leave the children full-time, morning till late evening. I felt very guilty about the long hours. There was this constant frustration of not being able to work properly, nor being able to look after the children as well as I would like. They were very difficult years.
I was trying to be the perfect mother and the perfect career person, and nothing was working. I became very frustrated.
When my children were young, the summers in particular became difficult, when they would have two months off school. It was a challenge to work out what to do to keep them creatively busy. So, my husband and I designed these month-long workshops, inviting other children to participate. Being architects, our focus was on exposing them to architecture and heritage. So, in the middle of the week, we would take them to a historical or a cultural site. We would arrange activities like drawing or making clay models and story-telling, based on the visit. We did this for five years over the summers.
We also had an idea to run similar workshops for adults, but we were only able to do this once. The idea was to expose adults to an appreciation of architecture. I would give them a little bit of history, we would take them to see buildings and historical sites, then bring them back to do some making, clay work, sketching. It’s so enjoyable to do craft. People enjoy it, but at the same time they don’t know how to use their hands. They’re out of practice. It was a really interesting experiment.
Around this time, I started reading feminist literature – from the West, of course. And I think that gave me a bit of light when I needed it. For example, I learnt that it was alright to cry in frustration or get angry while bringing up children. Most mothers do. Over the years, my increased exposure to feminism has guided me and strengthened my inner core.
The turning point for me came in the early 1990s with a conference in Ahmedabad on Ethics in Architecture. A friend of mine came and said, “Oh, we don’t have enough speakers, I want you to talk about it.” And I said, “I don’t want to talk about Ethics, I want to talk about Women in Architecture.” Just out of the blue! He said, “I don’t care what you speak about. Just come and speak about something.”
So, I interviewed 15 friends and acquaintances (most with Masters in architecture) to prepare the paper, because I hadn’t done any work at all on the topic I was proposing. And that’s when I found out that most of them were in the same boat as me. All my experiences were collective ones. I put the paper together, which was not very academic, and I presented it to an audience of architects, predominantly men. During the presentation there was a pin-drop silence in the auditorium – and in the tea break, somebody came over and asked me if my husband wrote the paper! Male chauvinism is so prevalent. So, that became a turning point for me.
The Ahmedabad conference was in January 1991 and by International Women’s Day that year, on 8 March, I was participating in another event in Mumbai where four other women were invited to give short presentations on their experiences. I met some amazing women there, and some of us decided to set up another event in Ahmedabad the following year with other local friends. We had 50 registrations, and we charged only 100 Indian rupees at that time, which covered lunch and a small exhibition. A year after that, we had a larger conference in Mumbai, calling our collective The Women Architects Forum (WAF). With WAF we tried to keep things going for two to three years, conducting discussion events, individual presentations and a newsletter, but unfortunately, things petered out. Though it wasn’t long-lasting, the WAF was very important for us. Everybody took something valuable away from it. Different people grew in different ways from our experiences together. Maybe its conceptualisation was ahead of its time.
There were many positives that came from my time with the Women Architects Forum. I learned about the value of networking, and how important it is to know that there are other women out there supporting each other. It gave me confidence about the further work I was able to do.
I started teaching part time when my younger daughter was two years old. It gave me the chance to work but also to spend time with my children. It was part of my individual identity. I had a joint practice with my husband and we also wrote together. I wanted something else that was mine alone.
In 2002, a friend of mine and I organised a national symposium titled, “Gender and the Built Environment”, which was probably the first of its kind in South Asia. It was a wonderful opportunity to bring people together who had looked at gender and how space is used. Our informal network also grew after this event. I later edited a book based on the symposium papers.
Women Architects in India
In 2016 I published Women Architects and Modernism in India: Narratives and Contemporary Practices. It took 10 years to write, because I had no funding and no institutional support. I had to work on it slowly over time, interviewing women if I happened to fly into a particular city for another project. It was very sporadic. Initially in this book project, I had agreed to collaborate with an American author, who was also interested in women architects in India, but it didn’t work out and we each came out with our own, different publications.
I thought it was important to not just focus on the high-profile women but to highlight as many of the early women in the profession as I could. It was challenging to source the material on these women, as they were largely invisible. It seemed impossible to find enough material on them. There is hardly any archival material available. They are hidden from mainstream historical view. But, I thought, how can you do a book without them?
Interestingly I found that many of the contemporary women I interviewed had no idea about the women’s movement in India. They are almost all from the upper middle class and believe their success is due to their talent and hard work. They don’t see the challenges – or they forget about them when they become successful.
I feel that successful women (and of course, men) should be conscious of their privilege and be aware of women’s issues. They should try their best to take care of other women to support those who are having a hard time. There is a high rate of attrition for women in architecture in India. A bit more support might assist women in staying in the profession.
Writing women into history
When I was in school growing up, I hardly ever heard about women’s achievements – but it’s extremely important for younger women to know that somebody else has paved the way for them. We need to be inspired and to have role models and mentors. It is essential that the profession does not highlight just the famous ten women. We need to celebrate a range of women from different places doing different types of work. Otherwise, the famous ones get invited, and re-invited, everywhere. By constantly going for familiar high-profile women, we’re excluding everyone else.
When you look at our discipline in India, the men are all-pervading. We have famous masters, Charles Correa, B.V. Doshi, Raj Rewal, etc. – with no disrespect intended to them. However, the reality is that, against their international fame, achievements and awards, women architects hardly have a high profile in the field of architecture. Through my book I hoped to change that even a little bit. I wanted younger women to have role models and inspiration, and for them to see the variety of work that women are doing. I hoped that my book would highlight the fact that there are other women working, not just a select, high-profile few, and they are worth knowing about and celebrating.
Visibility and engagement
It’s also vital for women to be invited to give talks at the colleges and to be involved in juries, panel discussions and other events. That visibility is so important.
Once my own consciousness started rising, I would go to all these occasions and the only time you saw women was when they would come and give the bouquet to the chief guest or sing invocation songs. Now, 20–30 years later, people are more conscious of the issues, but the token woman is very common. For example, in a panel of six, there will be one woman. And again, that token woman will inevitably be one of the famous ones. It’s not ideal and doesn’t help the professional community.
Advice to younger self
One thing I have realised is that if you take up architecture you have to be serious to the core about it. I believe I could have gained more experience in the early years during schooling. I feel that I wasted my summer vacations – wasted in that I travelled with my parents, here and there. I think that I should have been working or interning; I should have been more engaged.
As I look back, I realise that it would have been very useful to work for one month each summer – interned, learnt a skill or worked on-site. I think on-site work is one experience where there is inadequate teaching. A lot of young women and men lack confidence in this area… and I absolutely lacked confidence. So, if I had gone and spent a serious one-month on-site learning things, that would have made a huge difference to me.
The other thing that is important to learn is about business. There is such a heavy focus on the design studios in the architecture schools. We all think we’re going to be great designers. We don’t realise till we come out into practice that this is a business; there has to be balance. There are so many other skills that you need.
The third thing that I would like to have known is that it is very difficult to bring up children. In India, nobody talks about the hardships of parenting with (or, even without) a profession at your back. So, when I was young, I used to think that children just nicely grow up, you know. You just see children playing around. I think it would have been good to have an awareness of the commitment, effort and time involved in parenthood.
In the last 20 years, I have been focusing on gender and gender issues in the built environment in the Indian context. I have recently sent an edited manuscript titled, “Gender and the Indian City: Re-visioning Design and Planning” to the publishers. Besides the books, my engagements include national/international conferences and lectures, webinars, and educational workshops. For about five semesters I taught a course called Gender and The City/Space/Architecture, which I suspect is the only place that this course was conducted in South Asia. Working in this area of study has been my biggest achievement. It has been difficult at times without any institutional support and with a lot of negative comments from some architects, but my husband has been amazing. Without his support, it would not have been possible at all. Sometimes I feel that my work will really be appreciated after I depart this world!
Madhavi Desai is an architect, researcher, writer and teacher. She is a founding member of the Women Architects Forum, author of Women Architects and Modernism in India (Routledge, 2017) and editor of Gender and the Built Environment in India (Zubaan, 2007). Madhavi was an adjunct faculty member at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India from 1986 to 2018, and has had research fellowships from the Indian Council of Social Science Research; the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT; Sarai, New Delhi; and the Getty Foundation. Madhavi is also the author of Traditional Architecture: House Form of the Islamic Community of the Bohras in Gujarat (Council of Architecture, 2007) and co-author of Architecture and Independence (OUP, 1997), Architectural Heritage of Gujarat (Gujarat Government, 2012) and The Bungalow in Twentieth Century India (Ashgate, 2012). She has been a member of the nominating committee of the Berkeley-Rupp Professorship/Prize at UC Berkeley since 2012 and was a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley in 2014. She has recently submitted a manuscript titled Gender and the Indian City: Re-visioning Design and Planning.
Interview by Susie Ashworth and Justine Clark. Compiled and edited by Susie Ashworth.