In memoriam

M.N. Ashish Ganju 1942-2021

back to issue

Ashish Ganju succumbed to COVID-19 on May 4, 2021. I am offering this tribute in his memory as a longstanding friend and sometime comrade-in-arms.

Ashish was widely acknowledged as a visionary architect and charismatic teacher, but also as an iconoclast for his contrarian views on architectural and habitat issues. This blunted the significance of his message in the public domain. Those who knew him better, however, were aware that his views had compelling intellectual and moral underpinnings and, moreover, determined how he lived his life. Not only did his convictions define his professional positions, they guided his personal conduct as well. The organic unity of his worldview made him a remarkable individual for both the professional community and his students. In an ambivalent world of shifting or confused values, Ashish was steadfast in holding on to views that conferred on him the aura of a guru.

As I write this, I wonder when I became aware of these attributes. I have known him from the day we started our architectural studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, in July 1959 and remained a close friend since then. While I might lack critical distance, I have had the opportunity to engage with him at close quarters. Even as an earnest and callow undergraduate, I could recognise, in our casual or academic exchanges, the integrity of his intellect and professional stance, which only deepened over the years. But I realise that this impression was based on empirical observation, eliding insights into the structures of the more foundational beliefs that I knew existed. We never had occasion to discuss the subject, but from the little I could surmise, I was aware that his ethical and moral being was profoundly embedded in Kashmiri Shaivism and Tibetan Buddhism; but he acknowledged my atheism and never displayed these roots as a badge or ever used them as a cudgel to make his point.

Ashish’s temperament and lifestyle derived from the hybrid modernity that most western-educated Indians share, and so, I believe, it was his ability to authentically synthesise the two streams of his identity that shaped his unique, fiercely held persona. As far back as 1986, Gautam Bhatia recognized it, when he dedicated his book, Punjabi Baroque and Other Memories of Architecture, ‘…To Ashish Ganju, and to honesty/whose markings on the face/are the etchings of a man/who refuses to be disgraced…’

Ashish was at Kharagpur only for two years after which he left to complete his undergraduate studies at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. He immersed himself in the cultural churning taking place in the ’60s and, unlike many of his contemporaries, returned to India for ‘further studies’. He learnt by teaching at several institutions and undertaking assignments for UNICEF and the Rural Development Department of the Government of India to design multipurpose community centres for remote villages all over India. As he wrote later, ‘It was an extraordinary voyage of discovery, learning from the wisdom of our indigenous communities about age-old building practices, and living in harmony with nature.’

We resumed our friendship and professional dialogue when I returned to Delhi in 1972. Our exchanges were sporadic, but an invitation from Raj and Romesh Thapar to put together the August 1974 issue of the Seminar magazine on The Indian Architect, was instrumental in cementing our bond and giving structure and meaning to our discussions. As fledgling practitioners and part-time academics, we were concerned about the insignificant status of architects in creating the built environment and the limited perception they had of their role in securing the welfare of society. We realised, as others had earlier, that the colonial roots of our professional ideology and practice were impediments that needed to be exorcised. Little had been achieved to address this issue. The ‘Seminar’ project helped coalesce our ideas and refine our agenda, and this led to the formation of the GREHA collective, which made it possible to engage a wider circle of interlocutors in critical discourse on the nature of Indian architecture and urbanism.

The GREHA initiative segued in 1990 to the establishment of the TVB School of Habitat Studies in New Delhi. As Founding Director, Ashish was central to its development. It was a conceptually bold initiative, challenging the inherited pedagogy of architectural education by formulating a research-oriented curriculum which focused on developing strategies to address the contemporary complexity and diversity of the country’s habitat issues. Both teachers and students were learners in this enterprise. What Ashish learnt after he returned to India became the major pedagogical scaffolding on which the curriculum of the school was built. The curriculum directed its gaze toward the local community and context, and away from the treadmill trying to ‘catch up’ with the West. I believe that its significance is captured by what Mimar Sinan, the great 16th century Ottoman architect, used to tell his apprentices: love is the hardest craft to master, meaning that to train a complete architect, education must feed both head and heart.

Reforming architectural education was only one facet of Ashish’s vision, which emanated from two propositions: one, that architecture begins at the civilisational conjunction of history, geography and philosophy; and two, that cities are not economic engines, they are collectives of human beings. The objective of the act of architecture, he said, was to engage in a ritual process that paid obeisance to societal values, cultural symbols and civilisational archetypes; it was not to invent the form of buildings. The structure of Indian urbanism should, therefore, be based on the social, anthropological and indigenous capacities of individuals. He not only propagated this vision but, more importantly, lived it. For over two decades, he lived in Aya Nagar, a rapidly urbanising settlement on the outskirts of New Delhi, where he built his eco-sensitive residence and studio and engaged with the local community to upgrade its physical environment, rehabilitate the open spaces, and regenerate its intrinsic cultural, historical and spiritual significance: in a word, he engaged with architecture as he defined it.

In July 2019, The Aga Khan Trust for Culture invited me to conduct a workshop on New Horizons for Architectural Education at the Manipal Institute of Technology, and I invited Ashish to join me. The workshop itself was a well-trodden ground for both of us, but it gave us the opportunity to spend three days talking as of yore. He told me about the various projects he had engaged with over the past few years, like the History Project for the School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal, to research and articulate the history of architecture with a focus on geography, culture, society, and philosophy; the Building Beauty Programme, based on the concepts of Christopher Alexander, to enable students to perceive what soulful, humane environments might be; and the Architecture and Society conferences he conducted every month at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. Ashish was as animated and polemical as the person I met sixty years ago. That was my last extended discussion with him.

Ashish collated his ideas, together with long-time conversational partner Narendra Dengle, and published The Discovery of Architecture: A Contemporary Treatise on Ancient Values and Indigenous Reality. It is an architectural manifesto for a modernising India, yes, but it also captures the essence of his intellectual and moral being, casting him as the eternal iconoclast.

His death is untimely. As the country contemplates the contours of a post-pandemic city, the issues of architecture and urban planning will be foregrounded. The iconoclast Ashish Ganju’s humanistic views on the subject would have been critical in mediating the outcome of these deliberations.

A.G. Krishna Menon

Architect, urban planner and conservation consultant, Delhi


D.L. Sheth 1936-2021

Dhirubhai will be sorely missed. He was many things. He was mentor to many. He was an institution builder, and CSDS could not have provided the space for exploring the world of thought and ideas if Rajni Kothari, Dhirubhai and Ashis Nandy, and some stellar others, had not consciously cultivated the centre as a place where people could come with their view of the world, and leave after having had conversation, discussion and debate around it.

In an age when the distinction between prejudice, opinion and public reasoning is threatening to collapse, Dhirubhai’s ability to listen with patience tinged with just that dash of scepticism, and then to ask the discomfiting question, was a trait that I know I went seeking, as I suspect would be true of many others.

He had moved to Delhi from Gujarat to set up what was to become CSDS and been its Director for a spell. He had been President of the PUCL in Delhi (1991-93) and he was a member of the National Commission for Backward Classes (1993-96). He had worked, and written, extensively on democracy in its many facets. He was a founder of Lokayan, which was conceived in CSDS and then set itself up as an NGO, as a movement for an alternative approach to politics and development. He has written, edited, advised, investigated. He, however, never pulled rank, and that made every conversation accessible and friendly. In all the times that I have knocked and walked into his room to test an idea on Dhirubhai, he never, not once, gave even a hint that he was in the middle of something and would rather not be disturbed. He always had time.

There is a lot that he said that teases the mind. Say, for instance, what he said in his conversation with Boaventura de Sousa Santos, the renowned Portuguese legal scholar: Indian social science is not rooted because of language. If the knowledge that is produced is in a language that most do not know, how do you democratize knowledge?

Subaltern studies was unique. It makes history as experienced and lived by people. For the first time, subaltern makes the discipline of history interdisciplinary.

The issue, he said, is about democratizing knowledge and freeing it from power systems.

You cannot have one universal knowledge system; you need diversity.

Oppression should not be theoretically concretized, he said, in the context of writing about the Dalit cause. Social knowledge is not social science.

Through the years, the inhumanity of poverty and exclusion, and the barriers set up by caste and class, was never forgotten.

Gandhi could never have done what Ambedkar did for Dalits. But Ambedkar, or any of the others, could not have done what he did for Dalits without the softening, questioning and erasing as far as possible that consciousness of the oppressors, of people practicing untouchability, to whom it was that Gandhi spoke. That, he said, is the dynamic of transformation. It’s not one against the other.

Without alternative politics, we can only remain on the margins as critics. And this is why he saw the Aam Aadmi Party as an experiment to watch.

Going back over his writings, his critique of the move to internationalize the issue of caste at the Durban conference on race took some doing. It was not that caste was not an international matter; quite the contrary. And true that the ‘international community’ understands racial discrimination more easily than casteism. ‘To fit one’s case in readymade, given categories does save one the trouble of thinking through and communicating the specificities of one’s own situation’, he wrote. ‘The protagonists of the campaign are, however, not prepared to face the question as to what impact this international recognition of caste as race might have on the more than a century old anti-caste movement of the Dalits. Would the promise of a few short term advantages deprive the Dalits of benefits gained through a long movement?’ He then set out the consequences that he saw would ensue from a ‘campaign to equate race with caste’. It must have taken some doing, that writing.

In a serious vein, but yet raising a chuckle, we could recall his thinking about who may be radical and who may not. Radical, for me, is always left, he says. That is, anti-status quo. Right can never be radical. Then: anything that wants to monopolise power in society is right. Right radical is a contradiction in terms.

About a decade ago, at one of the annual dinners when CSDS brings in its extended community, Rajni Kothari said something he must have many times, this time with chagrin. (And I paraphrase, as I captured it in my imagination.) CSDS was established to be the place where people would come from all parts of the world to debate their ideas and test them among their peers. That has ceded ground to the centre becoming a place from where people launch themselves to reach places far and near to display their work. Dhirubhai, it may be said, was a notable exception. Not that he didn’t travel to conferences and seminars; but you could depend on him being there, inviting conversation, always ready to lend an ear.

Usha Ramanathan

Law researcher, Cuttack


Siddharth Shriram 1945-2021

DURING the past year my wife Nasrin and I had kept in close touch with two of our closest friends in India, Pippa and Siddharth. Both Siddharth and Nasrin suffered from a very serious asthmatic condition and the two of them would compare notes and exchange advice on the phone as the Covid pandemic grew in intensity during the course of the last year. Nasrin and I were maintaining strict isolation in our apartment in Dhaka, while Siddharth and Pippa were doing the same in their spectacular home not far from the international airport in Delhi. They had the benefit of living in a house with an enormous garden. But we all agreed that we should take every possible precaution until we were able to get ourselves vaccinated.

Both Siddharth and Pippa and Nasrin and I received our two shots of the Astra Zeneca vaccine at roughly the same time. In late April they informed us that they had got permission to go to Thailand and would be leaving in early May for Huahin where they had built a beautiful mansion in a gated compound. We had enjoyed their hospitality at this beautiful retreat on more than one occasion. By then the second wave of the pandemic in India was taking a heavy toll so escaping to a secluded retreat made good sense.

They were thunderstruck when on the eve of their departure they both tested positive. Shortly thereafter they were both hospitalised. Siddharth’s condition deteriorated rapidly. His last days in this world were spent on a ventilator. We were in daily contact with Pippa, hoping and praying for a miracle. On the 17th of May he passed away.

Nasrin and I met Siddharth for the first time at a party hosted by my old Oxford friend Pradeep (Bogey) Rao and his wife Cuckoo in May 1992 shortly after I arrived in Delhi as the Bangladesh High Commissioner to India. In the following months Siddharth and I met for lunch a few times, I introduced him to some of my businessmen friends from Bangladesh. Siddharth invited me to visit the Delhi Policy Group, a think tank which he had just established.

In early 1994 our friend Pippa came to stay with us. We took Pippa with us to a party hosted by Anji Seth and his wife. Siddharth arrived late at the party. He walked up to us, we introduced him to Pippa. Little did we know that this was going to be a life changing event for both of them. We have often heard the expression ‘love at first sight’. Here for the first time in our lives we were witnessing it happen before our own eyes.

In the months that followed Siddharth became an integral part of our lives. From being a friend we became a family. Pippa moved in with Siddharth and the two remained together until his death.

Looking back over the past 27 years I recall vividly the time we spent together in South Africa, in London, in Mauritius, in Thailand, in Hong Kong and of course in Delhi. Siddharth’s zest for life was infectious. We would discuss politics, International affairs, Indo-Bangladesh relations, books, art, golf, cricket, business, mutual friends, the list of subjects was endless. I remember the laughter, the gourmet meals, the champagne but I also remember our many conversations about his love and concern for Rula, Chhaya and Krishna.

He was passionate about golf. He played golf, he supported its development and loved to talk about golf. His annual pilgrimage to cover the Masters, one of the premier events in the world of golf, produced some excellent reports. Today as I watched on TV the final day of the PGA won by Phil Mickelson at the age of almost 51, I thought how much Siddharth would have enjoyed watching this historic event.

The Delhi Policy Group was another great passion of his. He took enormous pride in its work.

Not only did he and Pippa have one of the best art collections in Delhi but they would spend several weeks every year at an art school in Italy and over a period of time became very accomplished artists. More than once I mentioned to Siddharth that collectively his multiple interests qualified him for a PhD in life, or in cricketing terms he was an outstanding all rounder.

We will miss the marvellous dinners that Siddharth and Pippa hosted in their beautiful homes, the lively conversation, the laughter, the champagne and experiencing in the company of Siddharth the sheer joy of living. In the words of his daughter Chhaya ‘he is now free to continue his journey further, always there in spirit’.

Farooq Sobhan

Former Ambassador of Bangladesh to India