City and Plasticity

in Article
Published on: 14 December 2018

Ar. Binita Pandya

Ar. Binita Pandya is a researcher and professor based in Surat. She is a founder member of the TAPI Research foundation, Surat and has worked extensively on the old city of Surat. She also teaches at BID, V.N.S.G.U and AURO University.


As a child, your relationship with a city is confined to the area with which you share a sense of belonging and the one you are familiar with—your family, your pet, your school, the people whom you meet every day, and your possessions. One walks, runs, drives through the same spaces time and again, accumulating its myriad flavours—the sensorial experience—the sound, smell, texture or light of that space.  Sensorial experiences are quite subjective—one might feel eerie in a bright open chowk (small public square); one might cherish the memories of favourite games in dark and dingy places. The favourite shop for colourful marbles or for much-coveted stationery might look dingy today; the image of the dahiwala (curd seller) might still linger in one’s memory, though the shop is gone. The few streets would always appear as space for adventure in the by-lanes of nostalgia. This sensorial experience changes from time to time, replacing old images and experiences with new ones, while some remain intact. You move on with life as layers of the city keep changing and the mind opens to even more challenges. 


A stage arrives when you see with your eyes and understand what the real world is like. Your emotions struggle to accept the change and at the same time, they allow reason to speak. One is ready to overcome fears and face facts—the facts of human aspect that throb in the city streets and its activities.


Probably that is why old cities are revisited: in search of the past, to overcome that fear, to embrace childhood pleasure, to cross prohibited boundaries, to learn the skill of survival, to find pleasure in small things and to feel the warmth of cosy spaces. The incomplete, hazy, overlapping characters, images and culture mesmerize you, at the same time they draw detachment. The detachment is the beginning of the process to see how the layers of history got frozen into expression in architecture. 


The house in Gopipura that I stayed in during my childhood for five years was a rented house. The owner’s ancestor was a diwan sometime in the court of the Nawab of Surat. The property had a high plinth and a garden with a railing of casted cement through which we could peep out whenever allowed! The interior of the house was simple, and so was its façade. The toilet was outside, near the zampli (a small gate). Our family lived on the first floor which had a steep stair—a typical Surti staircase where you hold a thick rope to climb up and down in a jiffy. The most enjoyable games were hichko (swings), inside the house as well as outside. The owner of the house fondly celebrated festivals of Ghogha Rana, the local deity of a community who used to sail in the sea, and yet was a Vaishnav (a member of the religious sect that worships Vishnu). City elites also celebrated the festival of Ghogha Rana during Navratri in the early 60s. That was originally a ritual of the Chipa community. As per an anecdote, Ghogha was a pirate who had rescued the port of Surat; Ghoga’s deeds are sung till date as a part of the glory and victory of the past. The house was on the main road of Gopipura, which was almost the city centre, and a prime place to stay in. The roads were wide enough for a horse-cart and not many cars plied on the road in the 1960s. Later we moved into a housing society; the latter, originally a wadi was the first of its kind and was a bungalow with a garden. The period must have been the mid-1960s when the new migration had begun. By then, Bombay had been established as an economic capital and many households had connections in Bombay, rather than in Ahmedabad.


One such plunge into deciphering the layers of the walled city of Surat happened when working for the ‘Tapi Trust’, we started wandering in the streets of Gopipura. We observed that there was a stark and elaborate layering that had happened historically and which informed the place, houses, lifestyle and its people. The city had many mixed influences in terms of its architecture. For instance, one could shift swiftly from a Jain community to a Muslim street. The first character of plasticity is observed at the level of acceptance. Surat has not seen major riots due to economic dependence. Jain traders also sought protection from Muslims attacks that happened in the post-Mughal period. The trend of giving protection against money continued for quite some time even after Independence. B. G. Gokhale mentions in his book Surat in the Seventeenth Century: 'Though the European accounts describe Surat as a conglomeration of diverse communities living alongside each other, the total evidence suggests that in some respects Surat did develop a ‘genuine community’ of its own.' The town does have layers which have left the impression of the history. The names of areas such as Turkwad, Saudagarwad, Nanavat, Parsiwad, Shahpore, Rustompoora suggest that they belonged to a specific religious community. But it never had single community residing in seclusion. B. G. Gokhale also describes this: 'despite the pluralism of its population the city was bound together by strong economic ties and had developed both the appearance and spirit of a thriving metropolis whose ties stretched far beyond its immediate surroundings to towns and cities hundreds of miles away' (Gokhale 2004). As one entered one street after another, the relation between the environment and architecture changed and transformed ephemerally.


Surat was devastated in a great fire on April 24, 1837. It began in the evening from a house of a Parsi trader making tar. The fire spread within a radius of three miles and the flames could be seen from the outskirts of a radius of 50 miles at night. The wind spread further and a radius of ten miles was under the fire; it took the entire morning of the next day to subside. The belief that Parsis consider fire to be holy, or that it could not be controlled with water, or whatever may have been the reason, the city was in smashanvat shanti (crematorium-like silence). In residential architecture, this is seen as a new beginning. No houses seen today are older than that date. The wooden houses burnt out and the stone houses were extremely hot for any human to be able to bear the heat.


The port town of the Mughal Empire, the seat of many artisans, and a great trade centre for import and export had slowed down during British Rule. The cosmopolitan town had seen the migration of the artisan and trading community from the hinterland, and of people coming in from across the sea for the purpose of trade. Boundaries of regions were not defined. Migrants came from Persia; Khojas and Muslims too came from different parts of the world following the land route. It may have seen different governance, world-class custom houses, trading traditions, exchange of culture and food, and much more. It also experienced negotiations with different traders from other lands. After the Battle of Suvali, the British took over the base and the East India Company had a major seat in Surat. In 1800, the British took over the rule from the Nawabs. During the time when the British rule had struggled, Surat went through a great change. Repeated floods and silting made the waterway difficult and in 1860, due to the Railway in the city, lost its importance as a trading town.


But all this did not stop the growth of the town. It was blessed with a very complex system that somehow sustained changes in governance. The traders and artisans shifted to Bombay and other regions. The Hindus of the pre-Mughal period enjoyed good business relations with the Portuguese. During the Mughal period, the Muslims had better relations with the Delhi and Agra court of emperors. During the British period, the Parsis were in the good books of the East India Company. History does recount various stories about the interdependence of communities due to economic links. These were somehow reflected in customs, food and rituals. It does not seem that it did not have competition, animosity or other survival issues. But the city was fortunate to have experienced constant progress, in spite of calamities such as flood, plague and fire; this was because it had slowly inculcated endurance, inclusiveness, and above all had learnt the importance of ephemerality. It had developed its own way to communicate, enjoy and keep interest in life. With a very good understanding of aesthetics, it continued showing indifference to elitist culture. How did this attitude transform its architecture, especially residential architecture?


The cosmopolitan town has many vices but it gives way to freedom to do anything in terms of work. It is noted that every third or fourth generation in the city changed the trade. It also saw the rise of many institutes. Every religion had one of its important seats over here. Parsis had an affiliation with Atash Behram (the major Fire Temple) and many public welfare institutes; the Vaishnavs had a major seat of the Vallabh sect at Mota Mandir, the Jains were associated with an umpteen number of derasar, upashrayas (temples of special significance). Muslims of all sects, both the Shia and the Sunnis, settled here; the Nizari Ismaili (Khoja) Muslims had important mosques. The Dawoodi Bohras also have major centres of faith here. The sect that followed Kabir also manifested its presence here in the early 15th century. Important Protestant and Catholic churches can also be seen here in the city centre due to the presence of Europeans. Needless to say, one cannot overlook the presence of the European cemeteries. Apart from the various religions practised in this small densely populated town, the latter also saw the rise of many institutes of public welfare, educational institutions and libraries; the few noted ones of the latter are the Qamar library, the Andrews library and the Parsee libraries. These institutes have stood in their original states, barring a few changes. The fort, custom house and some other administrative institutes were adapted for new administrative purposes.


When research was taken up under the TAPI Research Initiative, Surat, to study façade architecture, the observations surfaced in a very interesting manner. The reports showed the presence of caste and community-based expressions; at the same time, they showed certain details that were identical in style at many places. The houses which supported the British Empire are distinctly different and they may not have changed hands much. Houses of traders have changed hands due to various reasons, the major reason being either a loss in business or shifting to Bombay and renting out houses. Many of them are in a dilapidated condition. Some exclusive details that are used to show personal identities and choices are the beginning of facade architecture. The gala houses had only one wall to express the prosperity of its owners, and individual bungalows had variations of colonial influences. Plans were a mixture of European rooms with many doors, verandahs (semi-open transition space) and arches of various styles. Surat has many types of arches— semi-circular, four-centred, three-centred, pointed, segmental, stilted, flat, five-pointed, Tuscan, Tudor and Ogee.


The influence of Islam also played an important role in architecture. Openings are of countless variations, but of very beautiful proportions. The styles and openings are disciplined for certain communities. But there was no rule. Stylization varied from Indian decorative architecture to colonial, from Indo-Saracenic to art deco, from Bombay art deco to art nouveau. Although sparingly, but we do see the presence of load-bearing structures, especially in institutes made of bricks. Residential architecture shows a wooden framework with heavy walls. The construction here was strong and well-crafted.


A typical characteristic is the otla (extended plinth) and the way each community was associated with its use. The height of the otla was set to primarily save household possessions from floods. But at many places they were identified with exclusivity. In the streets where money lending was done, they were large and deep-seated. A few cases today show two layers of otla—one for money borrowers to sit and the upper otla for money lender to sit. The otla in homogeneous communities, such as those of Brahmins and Bohras, were very close to the ground. The Parsis showed a railing around the edge to stop animals from coming in.


The streets were juxtaposed by very rich houses with very ordinary ones in terms of style and height. The different financial gains were expressed differently in terms of style. If we consider a span of 180 years, the earlier houses had distinct variations all over town. By the time art deco and art nouveau were in vogue, this variation had a presence everywhere. Here, it is worth noticing that the art deco in Muslim and Bohra houses are extremely decorative with genuine use of coloured glasses and detailing in cast in situ facade to door details. Parsis have had an inclination towards colonial expression and simplicity. But as it became a fashion, the expression did not limit to any particular caste. It became less ornate. At some places, it only remained as gesture. The expression gets mixed all the more when the property changed hands, especially in the last 30–35 years.


The city with its rise and fall, showing an adaptive character to survive, expressed easily the exchange of culture, customs and ideas. ‘Plasticity’ is the keyword that surfaces to justify the spirit of the dwellers of the town and its expression in architecture.




Gokhale, B.G. 2004. Surat in the Seventeenth Century: A Study in Urban History of Pre-Modern India. RoutledgeCurzon.