A Heart Of Stone In The Indian Desert

As Mandovi Menon reports from India, The Rajkumar Ratnavati School for girls in rural Rajasthan is much more than a striking structure in the desert. It’s a considerate yet contemporary approach to ‘social architecture’ that could provide a blueprint for future charitable initiatives. One that preserves local culture and craftsmanship, even as they attempt to transform the communities they come from.

My partner often pulls my leg for any sudden displays of reverence for the church. He smiles when I make the sign of the cross as we walk past a chapel on the way to the local vegetable market; laughs when I tense up at the sight of nuns. His amusement isn’t entirely unwarranted when you consider that my background is neither religious, nor catholic. Nor do I seem to exhibit any similar expressions from my own cultural ancestries.

To my mind, these ‘muscle memories’ are most logically linked to the convent schools and colleges I came of age in, in Mumbai. Institutions that shared a distinctly Victorian aesthetic. Gothic, stone gargoyle statues were not out of place here, and the shadow of a colonial hangover always loomed large. These structures also sheltered a common belief amongst Indian parents across the board. One which suggested that the ‘English Medium’ education represented here, was a singular passport to success. What we didn’t account for, perhaps, was the subtle erasure of our own cultural aesthetics and mother tongues, as we learned to wear them as a sort of secondhand clothing instead. 

Against this backdrop, The Ratnavati School For Girls in rural Jaisalmer--now recognised as Architectural Digest’s Building of the Year- takes a particularly interesting shape from a design thinking point of view. While exploring the story of how it came to be, I began to wonder how deeply the physical spaces we inhabit as students can influence the way we carry our own cultures into the world. Do we bring them to the table as offerings, or as weight? More critically, is there room to prioritise culturally considerate design at all, when we have issues as pressing as access to education, female infanticide, and the socio-economic upliftment of women, to fix?

New York-based architect Diana Kellogg, and Michael Daube, who originally conceived of this space nearly a decade ago and commissioned Kellogg to take it on through his non-profit CITTA, have made a compelling case for why it should be. Created primarily to address the staggeringly low 32% female literacy rate in Rajasthan by educating 400 girls between the ages of five to sixteen, the school is only one part of a larger complex called Jaisalmer Gyaan Centre. Construction will soon begin to build additional facades for an exhibition space called the Medha and the Women’s Cooperative building, where local artisans will teach women traditional handcraft techniques. Daube’s idea is to elevate the status of women here, young and old, economically and educationally, all while protecting Rajasthan’s vibrant local culture. And these holistic ambitions are best reflected in its architectural approach–something which has already captured the imaginations of local and international press since its unveiling.

Both conceptually and technically unique, the ellipsis-shaped sandstone structure is representative of femininity, focussing on cultural familiarity and sustainable elements given the harsh desert climate it’s situated in. Built entirely out of hand-crafted local sandstone, it is oriented to filter out sunlight and maximise air flow, utilizes a passive solar cooling strategy and even follows the ancient regional water harvesting techniques to help the school harness precious rainwater. One element which really stands out for its thoughtful ideation is the rooftop solar canopy. It has a metal framework that powers the interior lighting and fans, but doubles up as a jungle gym for the children.

Diana took on the project pro bono, despite it being completely out of her comfort zone. “I’d hardly worked much outside of New York so it was terrifying to think about at first, but ultimately I was just ready to shift gears,” she says. “I really wanted to do something that was forward-thinking in concept, but also something the girls would relate to culturally. I knew then it would have to be in sandstone because I didn’t want them to feel like they were in something that was ‘other’.”

She was able to achieve authenticity here thanks to Kareem Khan, a 45-year-old local contractor who has the kind of confidence only decades of experience can build. “Stone mein toh hum kabhi fail nahi honge. Pathar ko toh hum kaise bhi marod-charod ke bana denge, aap jaisa bhi kaho,’ he laughs. (We can never fail when we work with stone – whatever you have in mind, nothing is impossible for us). Kellogg took him at his word and the results are there for all to see. An incredibly accurate rendition of her drawings has now been hand-crafted–a technical feat Diana believes would have been a challenge even for the most advanced civil engineers–and built by fathers and relatives of the same girls who will eventually study here.

Images courtesy of Kareem Khan, the local contractor who worked with the labourers on the project who actually hand-crafted each piece of stone so that it curves for the final ellipsis shape.
“As humans we tend to only think about the ‘essentials.’ Who defines what’s essential? What makes us truly enjoy and reflect in our lives, is beauty. If happiness is the basic standard for what a successful life is, health is important and education creates freedom but just an education? Information without wisdom or some element of understanding through ethical teaching? Through beauty? That’s what makes us extraordinary”
Founder of Citta - Michael Daube

Daube is sensitive to the fact that many of his design decisions could have caused perception issues, however. Besides Kellogg, the school’s ‘designer uniforms,’ have garnered a lot of attention too. Conceptualised by none other than legendary Indian fashion powerhouse, Sabyasachi, they celebrate the local textile Ajrak, which is very familiar to the women of this region. 

“Both of them (Diana and Sabya) were risky decisions because you can absolutely come across as making a connection between luxury and poverty, which is scary,” he admits but he’s unwilling to let such thinking deter his process. “As humans we tend to only think about the ‘essentials.’ Who defines what’s essential? What makes us truly enjoy and reflect in our lives, is beauty. If happiness is the basic standard for what a successful life is, health is important and education creates freedom but just an education? Information without wisdom or some element of understanding through ethical teaching? Through beauty? That’s what makes us extraordinary. And that’s the part that is usually missed out in development programs, which I wanted the girls to have access to.”

Vandana Ranjitsinh, who runs her own practice and is a faculty member at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies in Mumbai, takes Daube’s interpretation deeper still. Calling the school “a dew drop in the desert,” she believes the symbolic value of the school cannot and should not be discounted. “By creating a thing of beauty for a girl’s school in a place that has not valued their existence in so long, you’re essentially celebrating a girl child’s life. It shows you how precious that is.” 

According to Kareem, her hypothesis has already been proven. He says local sentiments only began to thaw once the school’s structure was unveiled. “In Jaisalmer, I’ve always felt we are 50 years behind the rest of the country,” he explains. “When I first visited the village and told them I was working on a school for girls, they felt it was pointless—it was just a completely alien thought. Now, after so many of our own have worked on it, and so many have heard about it, jagrukta (awareness) is here. People come from nearby villages asking us how to admit their girls.”   

“It’s important that this kind of work has a healing aspect”
Diana Kellog - Architect

In truth, all of these unlikely collaborators force us to consider why such approaches aren’t more commonplace in India? “Architecture at its best is a game changer,” says Ranjitsinh, “examples of which we’re beginning to see more of as part of a worldwide, inward-looking, regional architecture wave.” India, with its robust social development sector and rich cultural history rooted in craftsmanship, is then particularly fertile ground for it. But it will take a major shift in both philosophy and practice before those with the resources to finance it, and those with the skill sets to push for it, see the value in creating such composites at all.

To understand why, we need to look at our own complicated history with architecture. While names like Laurie Baker and Charles Correa are synonymous with Indian contributions towards a more sustainable and culturally-relevant approach, the government’s decision under the 1972 Architects Act was crucial in how it re-oriented the way Indian architects considered their own roles within society. By linking architecture institutes to the directorate of technical education rather than the ministry of culture, the ability to think of themselves as potential designers of the direction in which societies and cultures can grow, was challenged. It was a move that may have ended up boxing generations of architects into a mentality of ‘move fast, build more’ rather than a more dynamic ‘consider the community you’re building for’ approach. The former was cheaper (to put it crudely) and ultimately, this created a major disconnect between craft and technology.

Thankfully these tides have been turning locally for a while now, if you know where to look. RMA architects’ sustainable feat with Haathigaon is one fantastic example, having created a housing project for Mahouts (care-takers) and their elephants near Jaipur that celebrates local techniques in a contemporary way. There is also a wave of architects across the country (especially in and around Auroville) such as Mona Doctor Pingel, who are pioneering new practices that follow an ‘inside-outside’ approach. They try to consider the built form with its surroundings, rather than in isolation.

Diana herself sums up the power of considerate architecture most simply. “It’s important that this kind of work has a healing aspect,” she says. “Whether it’s a school or residential, having that space within which someone will feel protected and safe is important. Architects most often step into somebody’s life when there’s a major change. Maybe somebody got married, maybe someone lost a lot of money, maybe you’re attending school for the very first time…we’re there at a moment that has the power to be joyous or healing. We have to ask ourselves how to get to the essence of that. Whether that’s putting a priority on light and air, or culturally familiar design, the hope is that in the end what we make doesn’t just function. It provides beauty as well.”

Is Ratnavati an easily replicable model in India? Only time will tell. The school’s opening has been temporarily delayed due to a devastating second wave of the CoronaVirus in India; and the pandemic has exposed too many fault lines to shift attention away from protecting lives and livelihoods in the present. But for now, there is a powerful lesson captured in the collaboration between the school’s architect and contractor. One which will hopefully serve as an example for the girls who will be educated here.

Diana says she simply didn’t have the expertise to work with local sandstone, and Kareem believes his lack of education would have made it near-impossible to conceive of such a structure in the first place. In respecting each other’s experience, they were able to build a ‘bridge’ that best represents where this architecture can lead us if we allow it. Into communities that value indigenous aesthetics and technologies, even as we attempt to radically update our thinking for a more equitable future.

Words by Mandovi Menon

Photography by Vinay Panjwani



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