South's Correa in the North

Updated: Jan 20, 2019, 11:29 IST | Ekta Mohta

In the 1970s, architect Charles Correa designed a 90-acre colony in Borivli, commissioned by LIC and paid for by LIC policyholders, which brought down the walls between classes, communities, and in a classic Correa move, the indoors and the outdoors.

South's Correa in the North
The C-type building in LIC Colony had step terraces (now closed), so that a relationship could be established between the forest and the buildings. Pics/Sameer Markande

Since the time architect Rohan Shivkumar was a kid, he knew that the man who designed the statuesque Kanchanjunga Apartments on Pedder Road also designed his humble abode in Borivli West. "Correa was very, very, very iconic even then," he says, as we talk in the very house.

In the early 1970s, Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) had earmarked 90 acres in Borivli West for a housing project for its policyholders. Like VT/CST, it was called LIC Colony colloquially and Jeevan Bima Nagar officially. MP Gangadharan, 78, who bought a flat in 1975 and "who knows everything there is to know about the colony," recalls, "It was the brainchild of TA Pai, the LIC chairman. If you were an LIC policyholder, you were eligible to buy a flat, and you could take a loan at 10.5 per cent interest. So, the policy premium and loan instalment, you had to pay to LIC. For residents, the flats were somewhat cheaper, the financial policy had a lot of flexibility and there was a trust factor." LIC built about 60 buildings, with a total of 1,900 flats. Surprisingly, it hired the best in the business - and the most public-spirited - Charles Correa.

The mango grove
The mango grove

"There's a famous Marg publication that came out in the early 1960s," cites Shivkumar, who is also dean of research at Kamla Raheja Institute for Architecture. "Correa, architect Pravina Mehta and civil engineer Shirish Patel had made an argument for New Bombay [Navi Mumbai]. Correa was able to think about his practice as something that not only involved the making of aesthetically good buildings, but architecture as a tool for the development of a better society."

A bridge that leads into the C-type buildings. These emerged from Correa's careful integration of the building design to the topography of the site
A bridge that leads into the C-type buildings. These emerged from Correa's careful integration of the building design to the topography of the site

Correa's signature move was to bring the outside inside. "In a climate like ours, Indian architecture can be much more porous and fluid," says Shivkumar. "He coined a phrase: the blessings of the sky. He said, 'That is what we have in India: the blessings of the sky.'" LIC Colony was built on a hill, next to a monolith called Fossil Rock, surrounded by a mango grove. Most buildings he designed have terraces that overlook the green cover. Even the Sahakari Bhandar on ground zero has a courtyard. He created a ring road outside, and gave dead ends inside. Four decades later, the colony is safe from screaming cars at odd hours of the night. "There is a certain looseness in the space," says Shivkumar. "As a young boy or girl, the landscape becomes a sort-of fantasy land. In a sense, its mystery deepens and you're able to make your own stories. Because of the terraces, because of the windows, because the spaces intermingle with each other, so do the stories."

Fossil Rock is believed to be as old as the Kanheri Caves
Fossil Rock is believed to be as old as the Kanheri Caves

One such story is going to be retold by Shivkumar this quarter. Because ghar ki murgi is sometimes your ghar, 47-year-old Shivkumar did not think of his building, Lovely Villa, as a blueprint of the future. "For me, this was the natural way in which people lived. After Correa passed away [in 2015], a few Dutch friends came over and they made LIC Colony part of an exhibition on Correa. I realised, there is a great story to be told, which hasn't been told before about Correa, about the idea of the nation-state and the way it was imagined. And, of course, a personal history in terms of how spatial background constructs and choreographs everyday life."

Avijit Mukul Kishore and Rohan Shivkumar
Avijit Mukul Kishore and Rohan Shivkumar

So, Shivkumar partnered with frequent collaborator, film-maker Avijit Mukul Kishore, to create a half-hour docu called Lovely Villa. Kishore, 49, who studied cinematography at FTII, Pune, and has been working in non-fiction film since, has known Shivkumar for nearly two decades. Officially, they've worked together on five films; unofficially, "a bunch. It's confusing," says Shivkumar. "We discuss our work quite a bit, and I like accompanying him on shoots." Directed by Shivkumar, shot by Kishore, produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust with a grant from Doordarshan (DD), Lovely Villa will be telecast on DD in March, and then uploaded online. "Films of a particular kind have a very long shelf life," says Kishore. "I imagine this is in that category, because it's looking at architecture as an imagination of society that the government was imagining."

MP Gangadharan is among the earliest residents of LIC Colony
MP Gangadharan is among the earliest residents of LIC Colony

Visually and vision-wise, the LIC Colony was a path-breaking project. Each flat had a different configuration: from a small room to a 3BHK. "Which meant that people from different classes could live here," says Shivkumar. "It allowed for different kinds of people, with different sorts of payment plans, to be able to access affordable housing in suburban Mumbai. Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, probably some Dalit families as well [shared the same space]. Your access to a home was not determined by your last name. The state is blind in some ways, and it was possible for that sort of alchemy to form.

I doubt that is possible in the housing currently being made in this city. Developers now place a premium on exclusivity, not on inclusivity." With bricks and mortar, LIC managed to create Shangri-La. "Utopia never works," says Shivkumar. "But, the desire for utopia is real. Without the utopian urge, there can be no progress. That's why this colony was an experiment. I think it worked. I don't know why that model of housing cannot be [sustained]? Why have we given up on the idea of housing as a provision for nation-building?"

In fact, part of the LIC's mandate was to create a fund for nation-building. "So, if you think of this colony as a nation-building project, then that idea of the nation is embedded in the architecture of this place. My father was the classic success story of middle-class India. He went to IIT, he went to IISc, and then TIFR. He epitomised the modern Indian." The docu, then, is a tribute to the dreams and ambitions of the modern Indian in the 1970s. "My father died in 2014, Correa died in 2015. So, the film is also about the death of my father, the death of Charles Correa, and the death of the nation and its imagination," says Shivkumar.

As we exit his house on that morbid note, Correa throws in a sunbeam. On one of the roads, a geriatric man, leaning on a walking stick, is standing with his eyes closed in exactly one tile space where the sun is sharing its light. He is taking in the warmth, the blessings of the sky.

Kishore

Correa's vision
Correa designed three kinds of buildings in lic Colony. A6 had around 22 buildings, with 60 flats per building; C-type had about 25 buildings with 16 flats each; and S-type had 12 buildings, which were for LIC employees. They have remained the most unchanged, since employees wouldn't stay long enough to establish roots. The A6 was designed "aage-peeche," which meant one wing had a front yard and the next wing had a backyard. The C-type had step terraces, so there was a relationship established between the forest and the buildings. Kishore, who is from Delhi, is reminded of home whenever he visits: "For me, this is like Delhi: low-rise and so green."

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