In 1936, Perin Jamshetji Mistri (1913–89) was the first woman in India to graduate with a degree in architecture. She went on to work as an architect in her father's office, which, with her inclusion, if not earlier, became a family practice. Eight decades later, female students constitute the majority in many Indian schools of architecture, yet there is still no history of the practice of architecture by women in India. Female Indian architects lack the national and international visibility of their male counterparts, some of whom, such as the eminent architects Charles Correa (1930–2015) and Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi (b. 1927), have achieved global prominence.
Recently, women architects across the world have begun to receive attention, but only three (two in partnership with male colleagues) have received the Pritzker Prize, the so-called Nobel Prize of Architecture, awarded annually since 1979. With her edited volume Gender and the Built Environment in India, Madhavi Desai has been a pioneer in drawing attention to the role of women architects and builders in India.1 Yet much work remains to be done. It is no coincidence that two books now aim to fill this lacuna in our knowledge: Mary N. Woods's Women Architects in India and Desai's Women Architects and Modernism in India.2 These books are the result of a project originally undertaken jointly by these two scholars. Later, after parting ways, they shared the research they had gathered together. It is Woods's timely book that is the subject of this review, and it constitutes, as she declares, “the first history of how women architects made a modern India” (3).
In Women Architects in India, Woods contests the dominant global historical narrative on women architects, patrons, and clients, which privileges European women and women of European descent. Thus, she makes a significant contribution that will aid in upending the Eurocentric account of the history of women's architectural practice, helping to shape a new narrative that also reckons with multiple modes of architectural practice across the world, including the global South. Approximately 27 percent of the architects practicing in India are women, a higher percentage than in the United States or Great Britain, where the field is largely white and male, and professionally educated women serve as employees rather than hold positions as partners or principals.
Focusing on two cities, Mumbai and Delhi, Woods's account juxtaposes the personal and professional lives of twelve women architects representing several generations as well as some significant moments in Indian history. Between its introduction and short conclusion, the book is organized into three major chapters, each of which discusses the work of four architects. In presenting their work, Woods also pays attention to the absorption and translation of modernism in India. Given the lack of architectural archives in India (a lack that is only now beginning to be rectified), research for this book was undoubtedly challenging, especially in regard to early architects. Woods has thus relied on oral histories and interviews as important sources in writing this history, which attends to women patrons and clients as well as to architects. This research is timely. For example, although Mistri had died by the time Woods embarked on her research, the author was able to garner information on the architect through interviews with colleagues and an interview with Mistri's brother available on the website of the HECAR Foundation, which supports education on South Asian architecture; she also visited and photographed two of Mistri's extant buildings.
Chapter 1, “Designing for a Post-Independence India,” profiles Mistri and Pravina Mehta, the first female architects in India, who graduated in the 1930s and 1940s, when India was in the midst of its struggle for independence; also discussed here are Hema Sankalia (1934–2015) and Smita J. Baxi (n.d.), who came of age in the following two decades.3 All four women were graduates of the Sir J. J. School of Art in Mumbai, which gives Woods the opportunity to discuss the school's architectural program from its inception in the 1890s to the independence struggle of the 1940s. The section on each woman opens with a subhead that includes her name and a characterization suggesting her significance or contribution. For example, the subhead for Mistri is “The First Woman Architect,” while that for Mehta is “A Practice of One's Own.” Apart from subdividing individual sections to discuss aspects of each architect's life, practice, and projects, Woods uses the subheads as springboards for other thematic issues. In her discussion of Mehta, who was arrested in 1942 at a Quit India demonstration, we get glimpses of the independence movement, urban planning in India, and the Festival of India in the 1980s. In the section on Baxi, who moved to Delhi to become an exhibition designer at the new national museum, Woods discusses museums and their management in the newly independent nation-state, where women emerged as the “tsarinas of Indian culture” (53). This sort of contextualization allows for a rich and deep appreciation of each individual architect and also links each one to broader cultural and social currents.
The format used in the first chapter provides the template for the next two. Chapter 2, “Building a Practice in Indira Gandhi's India,” highlights four architects from the middle generation, all now in their sixties. Having begun their careers in the 1970s, these architects benefited from the huge expansion in construction in the 1990s, which enabled them to build substantive bodies of work. Woods finds a commonality in the works of the members of this generation, noting that Brinda Somaya, Neera Adarkar, Revathi Sekhar Kamath, and Nalini Thakur “all articulate social, cultural, and architectural values that are either explicitly or implicitly Gandhian” (130); here she is referring not to controversial Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the chapter's title, but to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the great freedom fighter and national leader of an earlier era. Chapter 3, “Practicing in Neoliberal and Global India,” focuses on Shimul Javeri Kadri, Abha Narain Lambah, Sonali Rastogi, and Sudeshna Chatterjee, all of whom received professional training in India followed by advanced degrees abroad. All of these women began their practices during the past twenty years, amid the effects of a neoliberal economy and the rise of identity politics.
Woods does a good job of embedding the works of each architect in a given context, yet the format does occasionally prove rigid and repetitive over the three chapters. For example, although the structure allows the author to summarize important issues, such as the plight of mill workers and the status of the conservation movement in India, it prevents her from engaging in more nuanced discussions that could have taken her in other directions. I found it fascinating that Charles Correa and, to a lesser extent, engineer Shirish Patel were threaded into the lives and accounts of so many of the women covered in the first two chapters. Similarly, many of the women architects in Delhi worked in the office of American architect Joseph Allen Stein (as did I) and came away with an appreciation of his concern for craft and his sensitivity around locating modern buildings in historical contexts. Woods uses Stein's involvement to showcase change over time. Apparently, he refused to hire Baxi, as “he felt her presence in the office would prevent him from arguing and cursing” (52), but subsequently, he did employ many other women and eventually took a female partner. As a former employee, I was surprised to learn of Stein's desire to argue or curse, but my larger point is that this book would have benefited from further exploration of the networks among various individuals. The book highlights the support of women mentors, patrons, and clients, but not the support of men, thus presenting a somewhat skewed picture.
Woods appears frustrated that most of the women did not see themselves as feminists or as “women architects.” A central question raised in this book is, why was being a female architect not a matter of pride in India? Woods does not find a good answer to the question, nor does she examine why it should have been important to these architects to define themselves as feminists. If it is true—that being a female architect was not a matter of pride in India—what might that mean? Given the focus on individual lives and practices, it is disappointing that the only photograph of a woman architect featured in the book is one of Pravina Mehta. On the other hand, the building projects of the architects discussed are generously illustrated.
Clearly written and well illustrated, this is an important book that will be of use to architects and architectural historians. In tracing the history of the contribution of women architects to India's built environment over multiple generations, Woods has produced a volume that is likely to become a standard reference on the subject and will have to be taken into account by scholars writing new histories of architectural practice in India and across the globe. Finally, then, Indian women architects will assume their rightfully deserved place at the table.