'The world revolves around an idea'

Updated: Jun 18, 2019, 13:13 IST | Meher Marfatia

Visionary architect and Swatantra Party pillar, Piloo Mody, the infamous thorn in Indira Gandhi's side, contributed candidly to the country's artistic and political dialogue

'The world revolves around an idea'
Visiting from Nebraska, Vina Mody, in the Bombay family apartment, holds a copy of her architect-Parliamentarian husband Piloo Mody's compilation of writings, Critique. Pic/Ashish Raje

Meher MarfatiaI am a CIA agent," proclaimed the bold tag he sported to the Lok Sabha, with insouciance verging on glee. The bait dangled at the Indira Gandhi government was delicious revenge, for the Congress repeatedly denouncing him as "a Washington parrot".

Sometimes witty, sometimes whacky, ever topical and trenchant, that maverick architect-politician was Piloo Mody. The youngest son of Sir Homi Mody, after the redoubtable brothers Russi and Kali, was an alumnus of the JJ School of Architecture and University of California, Berkeley. Piloo possessed idealism tempered with realism. The blend attracted him to the liberal Swatantra Party, headed by C Rajagopalachari, of which he was an ardent founder-member.

Piloo Mody
Piloo Mody

Pertinent Piloo-isms ring chillingly true amid today's hyper-jingoist rant and caste combat. Take a 1973 quote from March of the Nation: "It's disgraceful enough if looking down on human beings was confined to keeping out of their way or barring them entry into temples. What cannot be countenanced is when bigotry erupts in vicious, senseless cruelty, connived at by society or condoned by the authorities." And, more positively, "The world revolves around an idea. Every problem has its solution, given a clean heart, good intention and determination."

"Nothing has changed, Piloo's writings hold relevance after over 40 years," agrees his wife Vina, now 94, visiting from Geneva, Nebraska. We are in the penthouse apartment of her nephew Jimmy, Kali's son, at The Cliff, a Carmichael Road mansion built by Austrian-Jewish jeweller Victor Rosenthal, overhanging handsome homes by Claude Batley and George Wittet.

This block of flats for senior staff of the Tata Iron and Steel Company, at Marine Lines, was the first assignment the Mody and Colgan firm bagged in 1953-54
This block of flats for senior staff of the Tata Iron and Steel Company, at Marine Lines, was the first assignment the Mody and Colgan firm bagged in 1953-54

Piloo Mody and Lavina (Vina) Colgan were students at Berkeley. Studios in the architecture department were lined with long tables to accommodate drawings. "There was a vacant space beside Piloo, where I parked myself," Vina smiles.

Returning to India, Piloo inimitably describes two years spent on the Chandigarh Capital Project: "Apparently France has produced in the same generation Le grand Charles de Gaulle and Le grand Charles Corbusier… I allowed him to work without disturbance, while I relaxed on an easy chair. This prompted him to name me L'homme Horizontal."

Piloo Mody's design for the Chennai headquarters of Engineering Construction Corporation, a former subsidiary of L&T, is India’s sole winner of the Federation Internationale de la Precontrainte prize for excellence in pre-stressed concrete. Pic courtesy/Shirish Patel & Associates
Piloo Mody's design for the Chennai headquarters of Engineering Construction Corporation, a former subsidiary of L&T, is India’s sole winner of the Federation Internationale de la Precontrainte prize for excellence in pre-stressed concrete. Pic courtesy/Shirish Patel & Associates

Piloo and Vina set up Mody and Colgan in 1953 at Stadium House, Churchgate. "We sat and sat for six months till our first assignment, flats for senior staff of Tata Iron and Steel Company at Marine Lines. Then, air-conditioning relatively new to Bombay, we designed the front casing of Voltas' one-ton machine."

The Modys grew close to the acknowledged pioneer in that field. Mohan T Advani, who established Blue Star Refrigeration and Air-conditioning in 1943, dreamed of an ultra-modern residential block where his mother and siblings, in Bombay post-Partition, could live. "Olympus was the abode of the Greek gods," he declared. "That's what I'm going to build."

The Modys on holiday. Pic courtesy/Mody and Colgan
The Modys on holiday. Pic courtesy/Mody and Colgan

He did, with Piloo. "Blue Star was a sole proprietorship when Olympus on Altamont Road was constructed, self-sufficient with a dhobi, tailor, seven elevators in two wings, car spots and a provision store," says Advani's daughter Suneeta Vaswani. "Dad hit it off with Piloo, who understood his obsession for the extraordinary, and Vina for her American concepts. They were a perfect match. I followed them, listening and learning about finishes and colours. Vina helped select Vitrum mosaic for bathroom counters and created the tile clock you see at Olympus' entrance."

City buildings Piloo contoured include three TELCO offices, the headquarters of Bharat Bijlee, Mukand Iron and Steel, Sandoz, Voltas and Diners Club and Business Service centres. Reviewing his oeuvre, Vina says, "Piloo was practical, curious, eager to use innovative elements. A fun project was The Oberoi, Delhi, perhaps India's first multi-storied, precast building. The beams were brought to the site, suspended between bullock carts lit by a lantern."

Piloo's political priorities were clear cut. He was with the Swatantra Party from 1960 until he died in 1983. A staunch opponent of the Congress regime when public discourse revolved around socialism, the Swatantra Party and its supporters rejected the Nehruvian consensus of the age. "Piloo found designing pretty buildings unsatisfying with the country going to the dogs via the socialistic road," shares Vina.

A passionate parliamentarian, elected from Godhra in 1967, he urged the passing of an important bill that enabled The Architects Act of 1972.

The legislation critically gave his profession formal recognition, securing it with sanctions and regulations. Before this, architects were clubbed with engineers.

On India launching its first satellite, Aryabhata, in April 1975, hosannas to Mrs Gandhi expectedly echoed. Irrepressibly, Piloo shot out, "Madam Prime Minister, we know our scientists have taken great strides in technology, I'd be obliged if you could enlighten us as to why our telephones don't work."

That was mild sarcasm. When the Modys moved to Delhi, Piloo's characteristic candour on behalf of the largest Opposition party surged strong. As a result, he was among the initial 1975 arrests. The fateful June night he got picked up, to be detained under MISA for 15 months in a Rohtak jail, his Swatantra Party colleague Madhu Mehta phoned an Ahmedabad reporter. It was one of the Emergency's earliest leaks.

Piloo straddled public life and a design career with equal verve. His manner of drawing plans for buildings was unique. Civil engineer Shirish Patel recounts how stimulating it was to watch the iconoclast work. The collaborators were neighbours too. What is presently the Japanese Consulate was the Mody bungalow, Spiro Spero (from the Latin "Dum spiro, spero — While I breathe, I hope"), which faced Patel's Nanda Deep.

"Unlike any other architect, Piloo wouldn't put pencil to paper without the structural engineer before him," Patel recalls. "You were summoned to a cigarette smoke-filled room which you left with eyes watering for hours. He'd discuss dimensions and spans that then became outstanding sketches." When Piloo assigned Patel the engineering for his Delhi residence, the plan he doodled was strewn with intricate patterns. "These are my carpets," he said. The home was designed around his carpets.

Patel indicates the intelligence Piloo brought to a distinctive project they embarked on in 1977 while Piloo was still a Member of Parliament. The Chennai headquarters of Engineering Construction Corporation, a former subsidiary of Larsen & Toubro, that is the country's sole winner of the Federation Internationale de la Precontrainte prize for excellence in pre-stressed concrete. "Won't he be busy?" L&T President, Nicky Desai, asked when Patel suggested Piloo as the architect. "But for Piloo, architecture was a holiday from Parliament," says Patel. "From site we went to the boardroom, before the suited-booted ECC Joint Managing Director, CR Ramakrishnan. Piloo started sketching on a little envelope while he and I tossed ideas back and forth. Our meeting done, he flapped the envelope under Ramakrishnan's nose, saying, 'Believe it or not, Mr Ramakrishnan, this is the design of your building.'"

Noman Fatehi, an architect with the firm in the 1960s, says, "Piloo being a connoisseur influenced not just our work ethic but theatre and music choices too. I must add that the dedicated way Vina sourced artefacts for CAC showed her as more Indian than anyone we knew." He refers to her establishing the legendary Contemporary Arts and Crafts (CAC), the country's first such wonderfully curated home store, on November 29, 1962, the birthday of her mother-in-law Lady Jerbai Mody. "Thoroughly in tune with our traditions, even how she draped her sari daily was beautiful."

I'm introduced to Fatehi by Amy Irani, whose husband, Mody and Colgan senior associate Rashid Irani, specialised in dressing home interiors with Vina. The duo also decorated restaurants like the Ritz at Churchgate and Bistro at Flora Fountain, and the Rhythm House store at Kala Ghoda. The secretary since 1959, Amy typed drafts of her employer's 1970s cult books, Zulfi My Friend (Piloo was in Bhutto's class at Cathedral Boys' School before shifting to Doon), and Democracy Means Bread and Freedom. "No one can have bosses like mine. That we functioned as one happy family is no cliche but the truth," she says.

"Staff birthdays were celebrated with Mr Mody treating us in the office. Twice a year we were all invited home for brunch. Mrs Mody whipped up scrambled eggs and pancakes in
her kitchenette."

Amy considers every project aesthetically handled — "Piloo Mody moulded client taste with his convincing way of putting forth a point of view." Fatehi singles out an exceptional feature of the original Juhu Hotel, done in partnership with Shirish Patel. Piloo drew it low, chalet-type, with a wooden roof truss of different structural calculation. From the trusses he hung the bar on the mezzanine level.

"Mody and Colgan cared for client values," says industrialist Rajen Kilachand. "My father moved from Girgaon to Bakhtawar building (in Colaba), to find Vina mindful of a joint family's requirements. Interconnected rooms led to our grandmother's room, so we could open a door and run in to hear her amazing stories about ancestors. Vina styled for us living and dining rooms ahead of their time; my dad had a classy black and white marble, crescent-shaped desk. Both Piloo and Vina finely balanced an international sensibility with respect for Indian culture."

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at mehermarfatia@gmail.com/www.mehermarfatia.com

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