My feminist consciousness is always alert while designing spaces.



Early Life

I was fortunate to grow up in a liberal, cosmopolitan and secular environment in Bombay, in the post-independence era. My father was a freedom fighter, government official, and a social activist at heart. As part of his job in the Education and Culture department, he addressed social issues like alcoholism among textile mill workers, using local cultural forms. As a school going girl, I often accompanied him. My mother’s father was an educationist. He started one of the early schools for girls called Sharda Sadan, in Girgaon area, through the Aryan Education Society. My mother got married at the age of 19 but continued her graduation studies after marriage. Her own father insisted on paying her fees. My parents met while they were part of a theatre group called the Indian National Theatre which produced progressive plays. My parents encouraged me to develop an interest in the arts, dance and theatre. I entered the field of architecture for my graduation. Coincidentally, I met my life partner, Arvind, while acting in a play at the JJ College of Architecture. While the cultural environment in JJ was lively, the academic courses were trapped in a century old, inward looking colonial syllabus. The syllabus was drafted by the British, mainly to train the students to become draftsmen for assisting the British architects. The B.Arch. course was focused mainly on structure and construction, rather than on designing spaces conducive for evolving human habitation. My father wanted me to go abroad for my postgraduate studies but I knew he couldn’t afford it. After a year of working in an architectural office, I heard about the Industrial Design course which had just opened in IIT. What was fascinating to me was its multidisciplinary content - visual design, film making, photography and some exposure to research.

Life at IIT Bombay

The IDC faculty was young and enthusiastic. Unlike JJ College of Architecture, the hierarchy between students and teachers was blurred. It was a different classroom experience for me with a lot of hands-on work. One of my design projects was based on my mother’s research. She had developed a methodology using phonetics to teach children who were first-generation learners. I designed an interactive kit to further enhance the process of learning. Living in the hostel was also an exhilarating experience for me. I made friends from other disciplines and other regions outside Maharashtra and traveled with them on short trips. The film club introduced me to serious cinema. Most importantly, I got my first exposure to gender consciousness in the IIT hostel, through some students who were more politically conscious than me. The concept of a collective movement was introduced to me during my stint in IIT. Interestingly, my various exposures in the IIT campus added new layers to my relationship with my partner Arvind. He was already aware of my consciousness as an independent woman but to see it as a part of a larger struggle was an important step for him too. Our participation in the experimental Hindi and Marathi theatre and exposure to world cinema through the newly emerging film clubs made our lives vibrant with new thinking and ideas. Arvind had already set up an architectural practice. I tried to look for jobs as a fresh ‘Product Designer’ from IDC but the economy was not global yet and ‘design’ was looked through a narrow lens of ‘beautification’. So, a mechanical engineer was always preferred to an architect. Meanwhile, I joined two colleges of architecture as visiting faculty. I realized that architecture and urbanism offered a wider horizon in multiple genres. This made me join Arvind as his professional partner.

Professional Journey

As architects, we have designed buildings, mostly institutional works and housing. But we also engage in heritage planning and urban research work. My professional journey is not independent from my personal journey. Our involvement in urban movements like housing womens rights, the struggle for demanding the land under the defunct textile mills for public use etc, has informed our approach towards all our studio projects. Similarly, my feminist consciousness is always alert while designing spaces. Before I became a part of the larger women’s movement, I always thought that the discipline of architecture is ‘neutral’. But soon I realized that the physical spaces have a great influence on social relationships. Some of us women architects then formed a group called ‘Women Architects Forum’. Collectively, we started looking at built spaces through a gender perspective. At present, the IIT Bombay alumni is funding a new women’s hostel on the Mumbai campus. As one of the constituent members of the Hostel Building Committee, I ensured that the brief for the new hostel was sensitive to gender requirements. A well-designed housing space can improve and inculcate a sense of community living. We created an affordable mass housing project of 5000 tenements called the Nagari Niwara Trust. Apart from regular amenities, we made provision for a creche, a school and a women’s center. Years later, I am proud to say that the community spaces are used in innovative and vibrant manners. In 2013, my partner Arvind took an initiative to start a new undergraduate school of architecture by bringing together a group of eight like- minded and thinking architects as the founder trustees. It is called ‘School of Environment and Architecture, or SEA. Unfortunately, Arvind did not live to see the school, which opened in 2014. SEA is known today as a very stimulating academic space. It consciously engages the students with the city and the society at large through research, advocacy and space design. I am one of the Founder Trustees and the Chairperson of SEA.

Challenges as a Woman

No woman can say that she is free from any challenges arising from gender bias especially in the public sphere. She cannot live a completely free, uninhibited life. In my working sphere, it was initially difficult for government officials to see me conducting meetings on my own. But I can say that in my personal and professional life. I did not suffer a setback because of my gender. This is mainly because of the confidence I developed from my liberal family upbringing and my participation in the women’s movement quite early in life. Yes, in the early years, the clients did expect Arvind as the ‘boss’ for final decisions, but it was just a matter of days... As I mentioned earlier, being surrounded by my frequently visiting feminist friends, I could see my partner’s efforts to grow (as close as possible for a man) towards feminism. When my mother had to go through a painful divorce, Arvind was her closest confidante and later when she had severe Alzheimer’s disease, as a caregiver, he truly played the role of her ‘mother’.

Work-Life Balance

When my mother and Arvind’s mother needed daily caregiving, we first thought of a combined work and home space. Later, we bought a larger place and took our turns as caregivers. The most challenging phase was when my mother needed constant attention. On the days the caregiver would be absent, we have held meetings at home. My mother’s constant roaming around in the house - a repetitive activity which is linked to the disease of Alzheimer’s - would sometimes prove a disturbance to our meetings, but soon guests had to get used to it. The division between private and public in not impermeable, in fact it is quite porous.

Message to Young Women

Just because STEM deals with science and technology, it should not be disconnected with Awarded Honorary Doctorate from Katholieke University, Belgium someone’s personal and social life. As architects, we are fortunate to interact directly with the users of the spaces we design. Similarly, STEM professionals (across genders) should establish a dialogue, a conscious effort to connect with society at large. There is a larger world - real, more vibrant and innovative beyond the corporate world. During the pandemic, many boundaries have become less defined, especially between the workplace and home space. The new professionals should demystify the aura around STEM. The days of creating ivory towers are over. Especially in the current social context, it is very important to challenge various discriminations existing not only in the field of work but beyond. It is our responsibility to make our respective worlds more inclusive, especially the educational campuses like the IITs.