By Aman Amin
Ahmedabad, like many other Indian cities, experienced significant transformations with the opening up of the country’s economy in 1991. Life under ‘license raj’ was over. Post-liberalisation, Ahmedabad, known for its native commercial flair, soon became a hub for large businesses that, in turn, led to the rise of a number of prominent industrialists who emerged as its chief beneficiaries. With the trade flood gates wide open, the nexus between politicians and local business barons strengthened; together, they were able to wield considerable control over the economic as well as the socio-cultural climate of the city. Deeply mired in communal riots and divisive politics through the decades following independence, with the Godhra carnage of 2002, it seemed as if the ‘casual’ violence embedded in thought, speech and act had become part and parcel of the city’s character.
How does a city rooted in the Gandhian principles of non-violence become a culturally hostile place? Why does a city, once a Mecca for architects, designers and artists from across the globe, become insular over time? Since pre-independence, Ahmedabad has been home to visionary business families, among them the Sarabhais and the Lalbhais, who have contributed not only to its once-thriving textile industry but also played a pivotal role in the shaping of a modern, vibrant and inclusive discourse. They connected Ahmedabad to the globe, boosting commerce with exemplary business acumen, while simultaneously being equally engaged in refining the socio-cultural and educational ethos of the city by building pioneering Institutions of national importance: Center for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT University), National Institute of Design (NID) and Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A). Members from the two illustrious families also took hands-on interest and were involved in establishing the pedagogy and ethics for these Institutions. Their vision was not only limited to providing quality education within a formal set-up but also to facilitate critical conversations around the social, cultural, economic and political pluralities of the nation and the world. These Institutions were envisioned as lively ecosystems for students and citizens alike.
By late 1970s, with the flourishing Institutions and a conducive atmosphere for artists, architects, filmmakers and also business entrepreneurs, Ahmedabad became the new cultural hub of the country. Forms of business as well as art, both nurtured by these Institutions, maintained an equilibrium for economical as well as cultural growth of the city. Ahmedabad’s Institutions became exemplary models for the new vision of modern India. However, with time, one can sense a middling degree of rigidity to the framework of these institutional ecosystems. They are growing in size as well as reach, making it difficult to maintain the exchange of thoughts, values and stimulus between the student community and the citizens. Institutes like CEPT, NID and IIM-A have over time tended to become rigid, exclusive and introverted spaces, where taking an account of the shifting tides of the city can seem complex. Architecture and design students do find the pol houses intriguing to explore as case studies, while business students get inspired by thriving local entrepreneurs. However, their engagement with the city is merely superficial and does not allow them to step beyond the romanticised. As a consequence, do these Institutions really feed into the cultural landscape of the city? Are these the spaces where one could find, raise or nurture a voice? Perhaps the promise of these institutions isn’t justifiable anymore.
The Institutions of Ahmedabad may not have been able to impact the cultural landscape of the city much. But over the last few years, Ahmedabad has experienced cultural undercurrents in its environment. These undercurrents are guided by a new, homegrown landscape in the making. With the hope for non-violence and cultural inclusivity, one can sense the rising of a new wave. From family dining table discussions to the chai stalls, the new wave seems to have penetrated deep. The wave that seamlessly flows along the rhythm of the city, is one with a structure. These begin by honest and unprejudiced conversations in safe environments, the likes of which were envisioned to be in our mighty Institutions but aren’t. These safe environments in Ahmedabad exist as bodies of level-minded individuals creating a space – permanent, temporal or virtual in nature – to discuss matters of mutual interest and establish a public opinion.
One such example is Queerabad, an organisation working on-ground prior to liberal Acts such as the decriminalisation of section 377 or the passing of the trans rights bill. With an aim to create safe spaces for the queer community of Ahmedabad, Queerabad engages in various intersections of art, culture, education, and politics for Queer and Queer-allies. Along with hosting anonymous awareness sessions, they attempt to reclaim public spaces of the city for the queer and allies through ‘Rakhad-Patti’ (loosely translates in colloquial Gujarati to the act of aimlessly roaming around the city). Meeting at a public location also allows and encourages individuals identifying as queer to slowly begin being comfortable with oneself and others in public. This bravely challenges and evolves the idea of safe spaces being closed, to ensure their safety as physical spaces into the act of making an unsafe, open public space, safe. This act acclimatises the masses to accept the use of public spaces, inculcating and practicing the values of multiculturalism. Slowly and steadily, Queerabad has not only managed to delve in larger discussions of the politics of a space but also takes a deeper plunge into the individual roles and responsibilities towards a growing community in the city. The temporality of space being key to the nature of Queerabad’s gatherings, it allows a rhythm in their thoughts and discussions. The community gathers at different spaces with a focused aim to manifest and then disperse back into their individual lives. These thoughts then seemingly weave into other conversations over time.
A similar yet different example is The Nomad Cafe, a culture club for the city of Ahmedabad. The Nomad Cafe curates independent regional and parallel films from across the subcontinent and hosts screenings and discussions to generate a larger discourse around films. The organisers primarily being architects, create experiences of consuming these films in spaces that would often suit the context of the subject. The spatial curation includes spaces such as museums, architecture studios or old havelis that are primarily not meant for experiencing films, making the set up and experience of watching a film temporal in nature. This act of creating a temporary set up for consuming content in an unexpected space allows them to create a conducive atmosphere where the audience can engage with the filmmakers and curators in a larger discourse of the impact of the visual medium at the scale of the individual, the community or the city at large. Over the last three years, the club has established a space for art to thrive and be consumed by the locals without the pressures of a bureaucratic system, cultural exclusivity or intellectual elitism that exist in gatherings held at formalised institutions.
Queerabad and The Nomad Cafe have been rigorously in practice for over three years. Their concerns may be different but their structure of engagement with the city run parallel to each other. The temporality and informality of these gatherings allow fluidity in form and in content. An example of a non-temporal, yet focused, safe space that has now successfully woven itself into the fabric of Ahmedabad is Conflictorium. The museum found its place in a crumbling mansion, The Gool Lodge. The home of a Parsi lady Bachuben Nagarwala was donated to the Center of Social Justice with a wish to ‘do good’ for the society. Situated in the heart of the old city of Ahmedabad, Conflictorium is an art and culture museum investigating the idea of conflict. Physically the museum is located in an old yet familiar structure in Mirzapur, an area demographically consisting of a religious mix of marginalised communities. Being placed in a sensitive area, their curated exhibitions are often experienced by their immediate community as well. The act of placing the museum in a context such as Mirzapur reflects upon the principles of inclusivity that are deeply embedded in the ethos of the organisation. As an approach to participatory investigation, Conflictorium has been able to inculcate a sense of belonging for the locals by creating a space for safe conversations for a city that grew around conflict. At a pace of its own, like a microcosm of the city, the safe space of Conflictorium has given the people of the city a voice.
The German Philosopher, Jurgen Habermas defines the public sphere as a virtual or imaginary community that does not necessarily exist in any identifiable space. Through acts of assembly and dialogue, the public sphere generates opinions and attitudes that guide the socio-cultural and political movements in the masses. The three safe spaces in Ahmedabad when looked through the lens of a new public sphere could be potentially imagined to be the future coffee houses or salons of eighteenth century Britain and France, as spaces for discursive interactions that guide organised movements. With their disregard for the status quo, respect for inclusivity and unity as a result of common concerns, they fulfil Habermas’ institutional criteria of preconditions for the emergence of the new public sphere, in turn, attempting to institutionalise multiculturalism at a smaller scale in the city.
Today, with a clear and focused structure towards content curation and informality in their organisational and engagement methodologies, these safe spaces with several contemporaries in the makes of it have been able to impact the cultural landscape and the ethos of Ahmedabad in their own capacities. Gauging from the rigour, clarity in articulation and the drive towards inclusivity in these spaces, one can assume a more significant and holistic new cultural wave being born; likes of which were expected from Institutions which laid their foundation in the mid-twentieth century Ahmedabad. Sociologically, an institution is formed with a purpose to influence the behaviour of people and the way they live. Maybe these smaller, informal yet structured discursive spaces are the envisioned Institutions of today’s Ahmedabad. Perhaps they were born out of need, but will thrive with a hope for a better tomorrow.
 Institutions – For the purpose of this essay, ‘Institutions’ refers to the three pioneering Institutions of Ahmedabad namely, Center for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) University, National Institute of Design (NID) and Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A).
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Aman Amin is an architect, film curator and a visual artist based in Ahmedabad. With his keen interest in collaborative practices, he co-founded Compartment S4, an architectural collaborative with a focus towards sensitised bottom up approach to design. Along with this, he co-founded The Nomad Cafe, a culture club for Ahmedabad that curates regional and parallel cinema from across the subcontinent and aims to further investigate the relationship between visual culture and built environments. His current independent work includes photographic stories exploring the emotive relationship between inhabitants and their homes in Ahmedabad.
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