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Bricks of the Trade

Design

The Tejgadh Tribal Academy from Vadodara-based architect Karan Grover acts as historical record and meeting place for tribal communities. Deepali Nandwani describes the details.

Green buildings and sustainable design are not mere buzzwords for architect Karan Grover. Winner of the Platinum Certification from the US Green Building Council for the CII building at Hyderabad, he has been experimenting with green technologies and design concepts for years. “I use a lot of local materials like brick and stone in my work,” he maintains.

“I try and use India’s architectural heritage wherever possible. For instance, in Indian architecture, courtyards play an important role to keep a building cool. Most old homes are inward-looking, revolving around a courtyard with corridors fringing it.”

 

The Tribal Academy in Tejgadh, a largely tribal belt 100 km from Vadodara, Gujarat, is a sterling example of Grover’s attempts to use Indian architectural concepts in modern buildings. While phase 2 was completed in November 2007, this is an ongoing project.

The academy is run by the Bhasa Research Centre founded by former professor of English Literature, G N Devy. Worried about the fading tribal culture, he set up the centre to document the language, dress and customs of tribes across India and to fight for their rights.

The centre also runs medical clinics and schools in tribal villages over large isolated tracts of land in rural India. Explains Devy: “This academy had to be a home away from home for the tribal folk, because it was also meant to be a meeting ground for them. They come here for conclaves, to discuss issues related to health, education and land rights.”

The building itself is constructed over a 1.5 acre (15,000 square feet) area. It’s an unpretentious structure that blends with the largely single-storey structures in the district. You don’t even notice the exposed brick building until you are at the gate.

What’s visible on the outside is the façade covered with a complex web of jaalis. In fact, jaalis have been used extensively across the entire building façade. “When air passes through small openings, it expands and cools,” Grover points out. “This is the why in several old buildings, especially in states like Rajasthan which are very hot, jaalis were an important architectural feature.”

Sunlight streams in through these jaalis, lighting up the dark corridors and creating amazing patterns on the opposite walls. 

Once you step into the cooler confines of the tribal academy, you don’t feel the searing heat that Gujarat experiences in summer. Within, the structure has a few walls separating spaces. There are just about four or five rooms with wooden doors – one of them being the library, which has a 20-foot-high ceiling.

A series of courtyards is interlocked with a chain of corridors. The courtyards, much like the jaalis, help to cool down the building; and since the mosaic tile floor doesn’t absorb heat, you can walk barefoot on it at the height of summer. 

Grover was stumped by one of the demands made by the gentle founder of the centre. “Devy told me that although the academy was meant to house only 40 people at one time, it should be able to accommodate over 6,000,” he discloses.
That was one mathematical calculation that flummoxed the architect, but he found a solution in the way tribal communities use space. “My old studio was in a basement; and when we were holding discussions about the academy building, more than 50 people would turn up to meet me. They would come in and sit quietly on the floor, all around me – using very little space. So I thought if the academy was a largely open space with very few walls, it could accommodate many more people.”

The material palette includes brick, cement, sand and kapchi (a machine-crushed stone aggregate which is above 6 mm in size). The structure is also propped up by RCC pillars clad with brick. There is a progression of smaller arches leading to big ones across the structure. “No concrete is used in the building, which is completely made of kiln-fired bricks – so you need a progression of arches to give stability to such a structure,” explains Grover.

The academy uses the maze of corridors to display art, artefacts, musical instruments, weapons, clothes and pottery that defines the lifestyle of the tribal communities spread across India. All of this has been sourced from the tribal villages. One of the inner courtyards has a free standing pergola, under which the people at the academy read, hold discussions and meet in the evenings.

Openness and adaptability were central to the project. Multifunctional zones allow the focus to be changed as and when needed, blurring the boundaries between the inside and outside.

While the corridors are used to display tribal art, they can also be converted into seating space for the tribal people whenever there is a large meeting.

Tejgadh’s Tribal Academy is a complex building that responds to the site. For instance, one of the rock outcrops has been transformed into an amphitheatre. Brick screens or jaalis help cool down the exposed brickwork. And the chattai windows are painted by the tribals using natural dyes from crushed flowers, in a colours such as pink, blue, lilac and purple.

Some of the beautiful wooden windows, which have hand-woven chattai stuck on them, frame the countryside with its hills and dense forests. “We wanted the tribals to construct the building completely,” says Grover, “but funding agencies wanted detailed drawings. They use indigenous technologies passed down through generations and are not used to making drawings. Instead, we got them to do the finer details, like the windows.” 

Thanks to Grover’s sensitivity, a fusion of traditional design, modern technology and folk art has resulted in a space where the tribes of India can feel at home.

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June 2020
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