re-posted from the New York Times
August 17, 2012, In the Sundarbans, Folk Homes for Modern Living
By ANURADHA SHARMA
(PHOTO: Raj BasuA mud house renovated by Bidyut Roy in Sundarbans’ Bali Island in West Bengal, July 16, 2012.)
Most of the residents in the Sundarbans in West Bengal live in mud homes, but only until they get the money needed to build concrete houses. Bidyut Roy, an artist and architect, is on a mission to persuade locals that mud and other natural materials can make for a modern home.
For the past three months, Mr. Roy has been using clay, bamboo, dried hogla leaves, stones and cow dung to renovate one of four mud homes on Bali Island that belonged to four families who sold the buildings and a 3.3-acre plot of land to Help Tourism, a private company based in Siliguri that develops and promotes tourism destinations. The families sold their houses to move inland because Cyclone Aila, which devastated the area in 2009, made the land too saline for cultivation.
Help Tourism is rebuilding the homes, at a cost of 1.6 million rupees ($28,800) each, as part of its Sundergaon Heritage Earth Villas project, which will serve as a resort for tourists looking for a village experience on the island. Like the group’s earlier successful enterprise, Sunderbans Jungle Camp, the current project is intended to promote folk architecture and tribal art that make use of locally available materials and modern techniques to build structures that are strong and safe.
The project is also an effort to battle the trend in tourism infrastructure in the Sundarbans, which has seen the construction of several multi-storied hotels and lodges, especially on Gosaba island, stick out like sore thumbs in the otherwise idyllic delta.
Anuradha Sharma for The New York TimesArtist Bidyut Roy at his home in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, July 24, 2012.
“Why should people mindlessly use industrial products when our traditional natural materials are just as strong and beautiful?” said Mr. Roy with the zeal of an activist. He himself lives in a two-storied mud house in a village in Shantiniketan with his wife, Lipi Biswas, a potter, and 9-year-old daughter, Kattayani.
“Why cannot bamboo be recognized as a building material and its use encouraged on a large scale? There must be some sort of an incentive, such as insurance cover, for people to go for homes that minimize the use of industrial products. We need cement, fine, but why overuse it?” he said.
The durability of natural materials was tested during Cyclone Aila, which wreaked large-scale destruction in the Sundarbans. “Many homes were destroyed, but our cottages at the Sunderbans Jungle Camp, made from largely local materials, were not much affected,” said Raj Basu, founder and director of Help Tourism. “This made us realize that locally available materials can be used in a proper way to build stronger homes.”
The mud homes of the Sundergaon project had suffered damage — the thatched roofs were blown off — but the clay walls withstood the onslaught of floodwaters.
Mr. Roy isn’t averse to using non-organic materials like cement, but only in limited amounts. He covered the clay floor of the mud home he is renovating with rectangular stone slabs that are joined together by cement. “I’ve used small quantities of cement in some places for extra strength,” Mr. Roy said.
To the two-room house, Mr. Roy has added a courtyard —“What’s an Indian village home without a courtyard?” — as well as gable windows, wide steps, long verandas, a kitchen and an attached bathroom, which is the only Westernized change (in villages, bathrooms are generally not attached to the main house).
The bathroom has a Western-style toilet and a bathtub, but the shower area is a curved floor made of brick, resembling the traditional bathing spaces in the villages, and the tub has been made by arranging stones brought from Jharkhand.
For the roof, in his trademark style Mr. Roy used khapra, curved earthen tiles used as roofing material in many states, including Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. The curved tiles are interlocked to form the roof. “With air pockets inside, the roof works as an insulator. So the house is cool in summers and warm in winters,” Mr. Roy said. “They told me that the winds blow really strong here. So I’ve made the roof low, like a bird perched on the ground with its wings spread wide.”
Dried leaves of goran trees, indigenous to the Sundarbans, have found their way onto the door made of mirror glass. “The leaves and the image of the visitor on the door at once become a part of one big landscape of the house,” he said.
For Mr. Roy, his architecture is more an open canvas for his art. “I’m actually a muralist, you see,” he said. “I started making homes because I wanted walls to do my murals.”
Over the past decade, Mr. Roy has made over 15 homes — one of them in Spain — using the traditional materials and techniques. “It was some fun going out in search of cow dung in the Spain countryside,” he said, chuckling.
“For Sundergaon Villa, as with others, my design is very functional,” said Mr. Roy, pointing out how big steps and different floor levels can be used as sitting areas. “I didn’t have the whole plan laid out at the start. Just like a tree that shapes up with the influence of the rain, sun, wind and soil, the house took shape with each passing day,” he said.
Help Tourism, which is well known in West Bengal and northeast India for promoting community-based and sustainable tourism models, plans to rent out the Sundergaon mud cottages to tourists, at the rate of 25,000 rupees ($450) for three nights.
“Sundarbans Delta has a lot to offer than just the forests,” said Mr. Basu of Help Tourism. “Village life in the islands of Sundarbans is a unique experience. The people, their daily lives amid struggle with nature, and their culture make it truly one of the most interesting places in the world. So many stories, myths and traditions populate these islands.”
The three remaining homes, whose mud walls are now covered with plastic to shield them from the rain, will be similarly rebuilt in the next phases. The plot, which also has a pond, is largely fallow now, but the organization plans to set up an organic farm after treating the land for salinity.
In the meantime, Mr. Roy’s work on the mud home has become quite the attraction for people in the village, who have flocked to see the changes. As they watch, they regale Mr. Roy with their stories of encounters with the Royal Bengal tiger, which lives in the Sunderbans, and of collecting honey in the forests.
Mr. Roy welcomes the attention. “Like with my previous projects, I want this house to serve as an example of how modern homes can be made using indigenous products, such as bamboo and clay, with minimal help from industrial products such as cement, if needed,” he said. “Mindlessly promoting concrete jungles in places such as this will only prove disastrous for the future.”