From architect to politically engaged curator, Kaiwan Mehta wears many hats

Kaiwan Mehta
Spare and professorial, with a slender frame that belies his 40-plus years, Kaiwan Mehta does not strike you as one who roams the streets at night. But appearances are deceptive; for a man who trained as an architect, went on to study literature and Indian aesthetics, and finally completed his doctorate in cultural studies from the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bengaluru, nothing is really calculable. Not his professional choices, nor his politics — Mehta, theorist and critic in the field of visual culture, architecture and city studies, wears several hats with ease. He has published several works on architecture, aesthetics and cities; designed curricula on these subjects; and teaches across various programmes in Mumbai.

As a young adult, Mehta spent hours moseying around the pavements of Mumbai after nightfall, straying into its labyrinthine lanes, looking to reclaim a city he had grown up in but which had been rendered unrecognisable by violent rioting after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He even had the odd police patrol car dogging his trail, the cops naturally suspicious of a frail figure dipping in and out of the shadows in a city pushed to the edge by communal tension.

“I didn’t understand fully at the time, but it became clear over the years that the riots played an important role in the way I came into cities as an architect,” says Mehta, who was 18 years old at the time (1992-1993). He was appalled at the mindless violence that played out in the name of religion and history. “I was in Tardeo (South Mumbai),” he says, “where there is a Kachins (tailoring store) that I had seen all my life, and then for a full day you hear of people driving to the store and looting it bare!”

It traumatised him to see his boyhood landmarks burn down in a night, but he learnt an early lesson — that politics is baked into the soul of a city. It shaped his choices, pushing him to understand the fragilities that drive humanity and engender human flourish. When architecture did not supply all the answers, he looked to literature and culture and read everything that helped turn the wheels of his mind.

Mehta is overtly political. Early experiences led him down that path, he says. Plus he was lucky to have worked with people who could show him the neural networks that lace through our spaces, in monuments and structures as well as in the urban areas within and outside our homes. He soaked in everything, using a fellowship from a German university to study cities remarkably different from the one he grew up in and yet tied in a common experiential arc.

Currently professor, Faculty of Architecture at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, Mehta has been teaching for several years. Academia has helped him look at his profession outside the boundaries of style, form and function. He smiles ruefully as he says that many have accused him and others of his ilk of ruining student-architects by filling their heads with strange ideas and leaving them unfit for the real world. But, he demands incredulously, “How can I look at a dome and not see its violent associations?”

The Shifting City, an exhibition that he has curated and is currently showing at the Gallery MMB at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai, is a culmination of all the experiences around life in urban spaces. He was tired of seeing Mumbai through the familiar tropes of the Dharavi slums or the romanticised Marine Drive or the stock market. The exhibition keeps away from these, using a migrant’s lens to examine the city through a mix of media: paintings, architecture, essays and photographs. It aims to tell a story of Mumbai as a city of arrivals where different people interact with it in different ways — a first-time visitor to the malls or the young seeking stardom while staring blankly into their devices in public spaces. Widely appreciated, the exhibition has been extended well beyond its original schedule (it will continue till June 16) and there are plans to take it to other cities, too.

Mehta has his share of detractors. They say that his work is steeped in jargon, decipherable to only a few and better suited to the rarefied world of academia. However, Mehta says he sees the city as a jumble of questions which he is merely posing to an audience, familiar with the context and contours of the place.

A city is a space where the personal and the collective are always pushing against each other. You are a boy growing up in the city, but you are also a Parsi, or you are straight or gay. You are always negotiating your equation with collectives, he says. The exhibition, like the city, is a chain-link of structures, people and cultures and experiences.

The ability to see layers within layers, one bleeding into the other, runs through all of Mehta’s work. It shows up in his book Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood, which is a personal account of one of the city’s oldest areas. Mehta grew up in Tardeo and his father worked in an area around Bhuleshwar. “For my father, there can be nothing like what you find here; it has the best chaat, street food here is safe and so on,” he grins.

How do you look at the biography of people through the biography of spaces? 

No drawing will tell you this, says Mehta, who is off on a month-long study tour with the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany where he has been a fellow from 2007 to 2010.

In a city, we are all walking with neighbourhoods as memory and experience all the time, he says. It is more of a non-geographic category, which he says is very important to liberate spaces from the clutches of grubby developers who look at a place as spaces with interchangeable FSI (floor space index). He chuckles at a conversation with a developer/councillor who suggested getting around a “mangrove problem” (mangroves are lifelines to a coastal city like Mumbai and prevent the city caving under during monsoon) by bulldozing it and planting trees on the outskirts of the city. “Then that becomes the attitude towards other human beings also,” he says.

Space can be seen as a series of geometric frames. Or it can be seen as the outcome of people’s narratives. Take the restaurant we are sitting in now, he gestures in the manner of a teacher enunciating a lesson very carefully for a student — it can be a rectangular room with square tables and seating or it could become a collection of 10 oral narratives.

When developers take over the city narrative, the human factor is erased from it completely. As happens too when elitist approaches, ghettoised planning and exclusionary festivals define the urban experience. Take the Kala Ghoda Festival (an annual art and crafts festival in Mumbai), he says, it will not work if we ignore the streets that lie just outside the precinct.

His is an inclusionary approach, derived perhaps from the cross-disciplinary nature of his education. “Mythology, architecture, aesthetics and culture reveal a certain kind of human flourish that extends beyond the narrow imaginations of identity, of soil and blood,” he says. It helped him find something hopeful in spaces otherwise stained by violence and hatred. “I can teach temple architecture as happily as I can teach Gothic architecture — because for me this is a reflection of human flourish,” he adds. Architecture for him is a way to string the world together, not demonstrate individual prowess. Unfortunately it has come to mean just that for far too many people.

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