In what can only be termed as a unique move, earlier this month, Architect Gita Balakrishnan, founder of the initiative Ethos, embarked upon a 1700km walk from Kolkata to New Delhi with the aim to spread awareness on how good design can play a substantial role in changing lives. She terms it Walk for Arcause. “The idea sprung in my head when I read an article about Priya Dutt walking from Mumbai to Amritsar with her father, Sunil Dutt. Imagining the different moments and experiences that would have transformed both of them through this journey, intrigued me,” she tells us. Having pondered on doing a long-distance cross-country walk for a few years now, she decided to take the plunge this year, which marks the completion of 20 successful years of Ethos (she founded it in 2002) and the 75th year of India’s Independence.
Gita’s reasoning is that design and architecture are largely unknown as professions in India. Also, there isn’t enough awareness on the importance of a responsible designed environment. Hence, it becomes essential for architects, designers and organisations that foster the fraternity, to go out to the larger community in order to reinforce this awareness. It is imperative for young architects and designers to understand the local infrastructural and architectural issues.
She started with the intention of taking a route that would cover six states – West Bengal, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. Through the route, Gita wanted to touch as many geographical and cultural contexts as possible. The different engagement programmes along the way shed light on the architecture and design fraternities, their contributions and role in society and issues that they aim to address through design. “Every step taken is a new lesson learnt –from communities, cities, institutions, organisations, climatic conditions, landscape, built and unbuilt environments and formal and informal settings,” she says. As part of the programmes, there is ‘Mera Ghar’, an interactive module for educating lay persons on common building practices has triggered insightful discussions in smaller towns and villages. Gita is also traversing certain stretches of the route during the night to emphasise on the need for safety in our cities.
“I want to see and share how design touches everyone’s life. I have seen great variety in terms of design and vernacular practices as I moved through different regions –thatch roofs, rammed earth walls, khaprail roofs and bamboo constructions to name a few. It is also interesting to note the change of soil colour from a reddish tint in Jharkhand to a more sand-like fine soil as I entered Uttar Pradesh and the same reflecting in the colour of brick and mud walls. In regions such as Joypur with an abundant forest reserve, I noticed extensive use of wood for furniture, similarly in regions known for clay works and pottery, I noticed clay roof tiles,” she informs. The architect believes that the design ethos transcends geographical and cultural boundaries.
Having covered almost 1000km – Gita is taking a break for a couple of days at the Panna Tiger Reserve and Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh – she fondly recalls a few memories. “In Madhabpur, a village in West Bengal, I was absolutely moved by the reception I got from the Self Help Group. They didn’t even know me or expect anything of me. Despite their worries, they sang and danced with me and interacted with such affection. I left with a heavy heart, hoping to find answers to some of their issues with the involvement of my fraternity,” she narrates.
Similarly, just as she had set out from Kolkata, she stopped at a construction site and interacted with a few workers who had no clue about the project they were working on. They were given a task for which they were hired and did not know anything beyond. “I felt it was very unfortunate that the people on whom we lean to put our built structures together, have no connection with them,” she says.
There is also another connect, she feels with workers on a subconscious level. “In the past two years, we have read stories of the thousands of migrant workers who were forced to walk back home from a life they had dreamed up for themselves. Images of a solitary slipper, spilt food or a doll on the road were grim reminders of a life they had left behind. Their long walk would have impacted them gravely and turned their life around. I often imagine their state of mind and their conversations to keep their spirits high as they undertook this strenuous trip.”
Talking of strength, is her body cooperating with the physical strain? “I do a pre-run warm up routine and a post-run stretch routine to avoid injuries and muscle fatigue. I also make sure I take a few rest days, and do a few sets of stretches on rest days, to sustain this mammoth distance, without any injuries,” she says. She begins her walk early, by 5:30 am and end it by 11 am. As time progresses, the weather is getting drastically warm, which is leading her to consult marathon runners who have been through similar situations to better to tackle the heat.
For the rest of the day, she works for her cause. She visits schools, communities and NGOs to engage in conversation around design and architecture.
Gita hasn’t really had a chance to think about how to celebrate the completion of her walk, as she still has so much to absorb and process every day. “I would like to take some time off to rest and reflect on my journey. With being into the walk every day, I am realising the magnitude of the task that I have set out on.” For her, celebration would mean that the right message reaching the right people who can then go on and make the right difference. The initiative will not conclude with the walk but will only be a beginning to touch lives through design from the actions of many.
All images courtesy Gita Balakrishnan
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