Friday, January 20, 2012

The Olive Ridley Shelter Design

In the initial stages of the “Designs on a Delta” project, various dwelling units were designed by the team members and all of them had one common feature – they were all based on the same materials: bamboo and clay. The reasons that shaped this decision apart from the fact these homes needed to be low-cost was the convincing arguments in its favour by our architect friend Laurent Fournier, who has been designing houses with bamboo and mud for as long as his love-affair with the Sundarbans started about a decade ago. Laurent is so enamoured by the qualities of bamboo that he insists on its use as an eco-friendly, renewable source of building material. His designs speak volumes about the versatility of bamboo and clay.
Laurent Fournier
However, due to increased salinity, the clay of this area is unusable as a building material unless mixed with cow dung. Agriculture too as a consequence has been badly hit. Experts rue the short-sightedness of successive governments and policy makers for this malaise*.

The Olive Ridley Shelter (Front Elevation) 

Floor plan accommodating six persons
Laurent has all along been discussing ways and means of treating bamboo economically, devising alternative foundation designs, load factors and resilience to the natural elements. His detailed calculations to ascertain the safety of the Olive Ridley Shelter has put me at relative ease. “The house will not topple over even in a Super Cyclone** (above 220kmph)” he says. “But, we cannot guarantee the safety of the inhabitants” he warns. “Low-cost doors and windows cannot withstand that immense force – work on it Abhida” he cautions.

Statistics reveal that West Bengal has never witnessed a Super Cyclone. The worst that we have seen was Aila (120kmph). “Your design is perfectly stable otherwise” our consultant architect adds as a consolation.

The concern here is should we depend on statistics as an insurance against the fickle and formidable forces of nature?

*To know more about what ails the Sundarban Delta please log on to:

**To know more about Tropical Cyclones, please log on to:

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Travelling to this sleepy hamlet one has to take a train to Canning station, followed by a bumpy ride on a three wheeler to Sonakhali, a boat across the river to Basanti Bazar and then ride on a motorized ‘van-rickshaw’ to arrive at the Maheshpur Jasoda Vidyapith. The distance can be traversed in about 3 hours from Ballygunge station - all for a princely sum of 33 rupees per person!

Situated on the eastern bank of the Matla River and south of the town of Basanti, this village is separated from the river by large tidal flats edged with mangroves in the distant. Laurent Fournier, Smriti and I took a non-motorized van-rickshaw for the last leg of the journey, which took longer, but we enjoyed the view while the rickshaw puller entertained us with his good-humoured chatter.

The Late Rakhal Chandra Pandit had arrived here as a young man from Midnapur in the early 1940’s after dodging the police who were hot on his heels for his activities linked to the Indian freedom struggle.  He set up the first school in the Sundarban delta in 1959 in his wife’s name – Jasoda. It is now a large government aided school with about 1200 students and has separate hostels for about 70 boys and girls.

Amal Krishna Pandit

Arriving at the School compound we were greeted by a smiling, energetic man - popularly known as Amal Pandit, a teacher and social activist, who started a home for orphaned boys about 20 years ago. It is called the Maheshpur Rakhal Chandra Sebashram. At the moment the Ashram is home to eighteen boys between 3 to 18 years of age.  I was told that there would be two more coming soon. Accommodation in the ashram is basic and has no more room for expansion. Amal da, therefore plans to shift the ashram to a new location 5 minutes away. This is where our first “Olive Ridley Shelter” will come up…and hopefully more.

The site...behind the trees.

We visited this location and talked to Amal da’s brother Shyamal da and their cousin Haradhan Bera about skills of local artisans and builders, as well as, availability of raw material.  Things look satisfactory. We have been offered a room at the ashram for us to stay and have our daily meals with the children.

After more than two years of agonising and trying to find partners the project is all set to finally see the light of day, thanks to the support of CESC Ltd and our friends.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Designs on a Delta

Areas of North & South 24 Parganas, bordering the Sundarban forests in West Bengal has been and continues to be an inhospitable and almost inhabitable terrain. This area is lashed by severe cyclones and regular tidal inundations. 

The cyclone “Aila” left in its wake, a devastation hard to imagine. Given this scenario, Khoj Kolkata’s workshop “Designs on a Delta” attempted to study and suggest design interventions that could benefit the local people.

The participants at this workshop included: Abhijit Gupta (project initiator & coordinator), Chhatrapati Dutta, Tamal Mitra, Saikat Surai – (all visual artists and members of Khoj Kolkata), Laurent Fournier (an architect from France now based in Kolkata), Prof. Oliver Vogt (designer from Germany), Sayak Mukherjee and Kazima Khan.

The participants traveled in the area, interacted with local people and brain-stormed in an intense 15 day workshop ending in Kolkata. The results were presented at a seminar on “Aesthetic Designing of Energy-Efficient Technology” at Dr. Triguna Sen Hall, Jadavpur University on Wednesday, 16 September 2009.

This workshop had been jointly organised by Khoj Kolkata and Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata.

Khoj Kolkata Arists’ Initiative is an associate of Khoj International Artists' Association - an autonomous artist led, non-profit, registered society based in Delhi with working groups of artists in different parts of India.  

To know more about Khoj Kolkata Arists’ Initiative (please visit