Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 28, 1999
Ilay Cooper and Barry Dawson Traditional Buildings of India New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998. 192 pp.; 92 color ills.; 128 b/w ills. Cloth (0500341613)

Ilay Cooper’s text is sumptuously illustrated with photographs mostly by Barry Dawson. His focus on traditional buildings is apparently based on anthropologist Milton Singer’s long-accepted but now challenged notion that Indian culture could be divided into two dichotomous strands, the great tradition and the little tradition. Indeed, Cooper’s definition of traditional architecture “as architecture without architects,” by which he means architecture built by local and often skilled craftspeople but without the guidance of “a sophistical urban professional” (p. 10), seemed to fall into Singer’s little tradition category. Reading further, however, it became clear that the text is marred by outmoded imperialist attitudes toward Indian society and its history. Cooper appears to see British rule in India as having brought stability to otherwise decadent indigenous powers, a notion long discarded by serious scholars. For Cooper, the moderation of British rule against the “power and excesses of Hindu and Muslim rulers” (p. 69) allowed for the construction of large-scale domestic dwellings and the flourishing of urban settings, as if this were a new phenomenon. What he terms a “pax britannica” (p. 112), Cooper argues, encouraged long-standing indigenous forms to be translated into grand estates and family establishments. Cooper, an old India hand, has extraordinary knowledge about Indian architecture, especially its housing and in particular that made from indigenous natural materials, but he lacks scholarly training in Indian history and culture. That portion of the text would have been best left to a specialist.

A major theme throughout is the superiority of humble construction that uses such locally available materials as mud, bamboo, and thatch over such manmade modern materials as glass or concrete. Similarly, for house plans and building materials he argues that long-standing techniques used in rural or even in premodern urban India are better suited to the subcontinent’s climate than are those born of modern technology. This reviewer has no problem with that approach. However, the text reads as if the indigenous builder were an Indian noble savage, uncorrupted by any rule (Hindu, Muslim, or British), a superior being able to create dwellings from nature’s bounty; if corruption must occur, then best it be under British rule. It is thus no surprise that the author deals largely with South Asia’s marginalized peoples and what he sees as exotic—here read tribal—populations’ housing. The Indian mainstream, those who live in most of the subcontinent’s villages, towns, and cities, are given little voice in this text.

In spite of my fundamental ideological objections to the underlying thrust of the text, the volume has many merits. Dividing the book into eight chapters and an introduction, Cooper commences by defining his concept of what constitutes traditional architecture. Following this definition, is a section on kachha architecture. Kachha, meaning raw or uncooked, is an adjective used for structures made of natural, locally available materials such as mud, bamboo, and thatch, that is, those Cooper sees as South Asia’s most genuine architectural creations. To legitimize this concept, he evokes the ideals of the renowned freedom fighter Gandhi, stating that for him the ideal house was constructed from indigenous products found within a five-mile radius. He then turns to a discussion of pukka architecture, that is, cooked or proper buildings using, for example, stucco, baked brick, and carved stone. Giving a historical overview of the history of Indian architecture from prehistoric to modern times, he culminates with the British who were responsible for “peace and stability” (p. 18), a notion that many might find uncritical at best.

The following chapter discusses construction techniques and materials. Cooper clearly knows this material well, providing a wealth of information otherwise untreated in most books on Indian architecture. The text is further enhanced with excellent photographs, many of them in color, and drawings.

The following six chapters locate South Asia regionally and divide India (only modern India is considered) into six geographic units; Pakistan and Bangladesh are omitted, which is unfortunate, since the notion of India as a nation-state is just over 50 years old. Cooper’s understanding of the peoples who inhabit north and south India, whom he terms the Aryans and Dravidians respectively, is based on long-rejected anthropological and historical theories. While Dravidian can be used to define linguist groups, it is not applicable for population divisions. Further indications that the author is inadequately aware of current scholarship on India mar the volume; for example, his description of thugs as “a murderous Hindu sect” (p. 98).

These chapters tend toward description with relatively little analysis to substantiate the text. They do, however, reflect an excellent understanding of the geographical and climatological conditions of each area. These are factors, as Cooper rightly argues, that are highly significant in a structure’s planning and orientation. Cooper’s understanding of particular features associated with each region’s architecture and the description of structures are some of the volume’s strengths.

The final chapter considers the future of architecture built of locally available natural materials in independent India. Lamenting its demise, Cooper lauds governmental efforts and the concern by cultural organizations for not only houses constructed of mud or bamboo but also India’s wealth of old pukka houses and monuments. Having worked extensively with one of the most important of these organizations, INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), Cooper speaks here from hands-on experience.

This volume is not without problems, but if read carefully there is a good deal of useful information. It might have been still more informative if Thames and Hudson had teamed this insightful writer with a specialist in Indian history.

Catherine B. Asher
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota