A philosophy of built form

Indian Architectural Theory
January 7, 2000

Vastu Vidya is the traditional Indian science of architecture, and Vibhuti Chakrabarti's book sets out to explore this in terms of theory and contemporary practice. This academic study, illustrated with useful drawings and diagrams, will therefore appeal to those interested in the theory and practice of Indian architecture. Although the focus is on secular architecture, the inseparability of secular and sacred in traditional India is recognised.

However, while the Vastu texts constantly point to a spiritual dimension, the science is not "mystical". Vastu Vidya, the author claims, was once the highly practical basis for a total architectural programme.

It is urged that the coherence that the system provided is ignored by the two kinds of practitioner now prevalent in the field of secular architecture in India. First, the burgeoning band of present-day Vastu pundits - those who, in the caricatured view, advise middle-class Indians on the auspicious placement of refrigerators - have little regard for architectural form. Second, those contemporary Indian architects, trained in the western manner, who strive to relate to Indian roots, select a few formal aspects of Vastu Vidya to "spice up" their modern designs. The polemical point of this book is to show that, while these two modern attitudes to the traditional theory are fragmentary, the theory as a whole can still offer a practical, holistic and culturally valid architectural method.

Whether or not this point is made convincingly, the scholarly achievement of this study is its synthesis of numerous texts, both the Vastu shastras (architectural theory treatises) and the various sacred writings containing passages on Vastu. Following a survey of the texts themselves, each chapter explains the teachings of Vastu Vidya on a particular issue, followed by an analysis of the corresponding approach of today's Vastu pundit and by the Indianising modern architects.

But if the integrity of the Vastu system comes across in this book, its practicality, though insisted on, is not demonstrated. Many of the injunctions of the texts seem either poetic or pedantically classificatory. It is not, however, the author's intention to show how, or whether, the traditional texts were followed in practice. Scholarship is still

a long way from resolving this obvious question. The vision of a revived, integrated use of the science is therefore problematic, yet Chakrabarti makes it alluring.

More concretely, she provides us with a lucid overview of the labyrinthine literature of Vastu Vidya and convinces us that its actual contemporary practice is far from holistic.

Adam Hardy is reader in South Asian art and architecture, De Montfort University.

Indian Architectural Theory: Contemporary Uses of Vastu Vidya

Author - Vibhuti Chakrabarti
ISBN - 0 7007 1113 9
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £40.00
Pages - 212

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