PHOTOGRAPHS of the recent devastating tornado that swept away five villages near Kandi in West Bengal's Murshidabad district show some high walls still standing amidst surrounding debris -- mute witnesses to nature's wrath. A closer look shows the walls are made of mud and they were part of the double- and triple-storeyed mud buildings for which Murshidabad was famous. The Murshidabad tradition is dying because people like Idris Ali, an octogenarian mistry from nearby Khargram, are no more. Ali was a mud-building genius who died in 1977, regretting that he was unable to pass on his skills because his sons were not interested and he himself was illiterate.
Ali would have been gladdened by Mud, a simple, do-it-yourself manual for building a mud house, put out by Laurie Baker, a Birmingham-trained architect who served as an anaesthetist in China during World War II and came to India in 1945, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. He has spent a lifetime studying the problem of providing cheap yet aesthetic dwelling places for the poor and this book is a distillation of his experiences. It takes the reader to rural India, where people even today live in homes and worship in temples and mosques that are made of the very earth that sustains them. No wonder, for mud is far more eco-friendly than brick and requires much less energy to manufacture.
Ali thrived in Murshidabad, where the soil is clayey; perhaps he would have been at a loss had he lived in the Deccan, with its black soil that's excellent for cotton. Baker utilises his scientific background to describe at length various kinds of mud and how to stabilise and compress each. He discusses in detail such aspects as foundation, location, waterproofing, termite-proofing and doing all this without losing either aesthetics or simplicity.
Baker speaks echoing the soul of rural India and CAPART has done a great service by bringing out this bilingual edition, with the Hindi translation by Avinash Deshpande. Simple illustrations and diagrams enhance the usefulness of the text.
But is mud housing truly cheap? Baker and his low-cost housing proposals are based on low labour costs -- an assumption that is true only if people build their own houses. But not many do this and as prices and wages soar, even mud housing may become unaffordable. After all in his old age, Ali was unemployed for much of the year because few could afford to pay for his skills.
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