People’s Buildings 
Tracing Pune’s Architectural Past

On 23rd and 24th January 2024 the first exhibition in relation to the OMHI project was held. This research-in-progress exhibition offered a sneak peek into the diversity and historical value of materials stored in the archive of the Pune Public Works Department and showcased  projects by 9 CEPT students in the research studio taught by Sarah Melsens and M Mallika. By deliberately not imposing an overall narrative on the displayed archival items the intention was to trigger the viewers. The interactions provided an offshoot towards the research leads that could be further developed in the OMHI project.

The exhibition displayed the works of Aditi Verma, Ashmita Gupta, Ashwini Balu, Kairavi Maniar, Richa Shah, Sanjitha Suresh, Sharayu Wadekar, Shivani Iyengar, and Shivani M. With informative labels in English and Marathi, the students’ research was presented through posters, video documentaries, and website formats on the ‘Central Building’ campus of the Pune Public Works Department.

It featured archival drawings of important buildings in the city, such as the Sassoon Hospital, Anglo Urdu School, and the State Alienation Office (Peshwe Daftar), among others. Additionally, it included government circulars, staff records, correspondence letters between PWD Engineers, and rare books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Special gratitude is owed to the Pune architects, engineers, site supervisors, and building workers who graciously agreed to be interviewed by the students, contributing invaluable insights to this enlightening exhibition.

blog article

The one where people touched their past

by Shivani Madhusoodanan

People came and engaged with the material exhibited, striked conversations on their thoughts and perspectives. The main segment of the exhibition was touch, how they held the plastic covers on the archival drawing, drew invisible reminiscence over the photographs, and how they communicated their recollection using hand gestures. To look through archival drawings and photographs is to encounter elements of fascination, to analyse the whys and whats, to sit down with the past and to have a conversation with it. The People's Buildings exhibition unfolded an array of interactions, not just amongst people themselves, but between the visitors and the materials exhibited. Here people moved their fingers along the maplines, traced their recollections on the plastic covers of the drawings, walked through the timeline right into the history it was narrating, and most importantly remained as a co-created idea of Pune's pasts. 

What was exhibited?
A collection of ideas, analysis, observation, a timeline and documentaries, this is to name it vaguely, perhaps even count it off the checklist. But an entire collection from PWD's record room created a momentum of fascination amongst the visitors. The drawings with their plastic covers swayed in the wind, to and fro, back and forth, except for moments when they were held delicately to be read closely, to be looked at with a deliberate intent, an intent to be. Some torn edges stayed highlighted, with its fading colours and extending edges, eating into the delicate outlines of the drawings (Photo.1). Another set of what was exhibited was the students' works. from their previous semester's studio - Historicizing Pune's Architectural History. The timeline poster spanned 15 metres, almost like an intense boundary, stretching from one end of the exhibition space to another. If our fingers bled paint, one could see the zigs and zags, blotches of touches on the timeline sheet. The timeline, along with the video documentaries, the website, and the individual 6'x6' research posters, all were a collage of what the semester intended to put forth. Combining it with the archival drawings is like putting together the evidence and the findings, the analysis coming through, and the intent with which it was summarised into each panel. Hung from the rafters of the parking lot in Pune's PWD campus, what was exhibited seemed like a reflection of the campus itself.One starts to wonder what these drawings would have talked to those who touched it. Conservation architects tried to identify each building on the drawings, others simply admired the ink on cloth drawing techniques. Few wandered around reading the timeline and students’ work, some stood with utter fascination gazing at the photographs. The gaze with which each visitor viewed the exhibits is unique. Some viewed it analytically, some reminisced, some were fascinated and others gave a quick scan. 

What were the interactions like?
Slow and intensive, subtle yet profound, immensely casual yet loud and formal. The exhibition had a new definition each time someone new walked into it and conversed with the material, perhaps the interactions made the experience seem more or less like a mirror. What each person chose to disclose in the exhibition was personal yet relative to the material. One of the visitors, a person from the PWD office pointed at the archival photographs of the labourers and shared that he started out by being a ‘mile mazdoor’, and narrated his experience of being one. In a way the exhibition was also about what it triggered in people, and what all experiences came to surface during the conversations. Another interaction with a PWD officer brought out a dialogue about Mr. Narayan Joshi, a former Union leader. So all these conversations sort of seem like a mixtape played on loop during the exhibition. The materials are not just a visible medium of observation, but are texts and visuals that trigger people’s memories.

Why the location of the exhibition mattered
The PWD Campus too stood as a site of archive, the buildings with their long admitted past, the stone blocks etched with an institute's colonial history stood as a marker to what the exhibition intended to pose. But then again the question arises, as to what makes the archive an evidence for something historical, and who decides the value of those drawings.The internal coherence of the archive, its material, the content of the materials, and its significance can be a little subjective and opinionated when put out as an exhibition. But this contestation, of its value, of the material portraying a mobilised plethora of PWD’s historical narratives is what justifies the title of the exhibition. Anton Springer says that “photographs were to art history what the microscope had been to natural sciences”. As each person extended their fingers to touch the glass top over the photographs(Photo.2), they were zooming into what they could relate with the photographs.

The authors of Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process understand archives, according to the anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler, as epistemological experiments instead of viewing them as things. The authors describe that how a collection of records is noted from a perspective of interest, it is also from a perspective of interest. The essays further demonstrate the complexity in curating an archive for a particular set of audience by recognizing that the history that is being constructed is contingent and limited. In the exhibition, the set of drawings and photographs put out for viewing and experiencing, the history constructed there has much to do with the PWD campus itself. The site of the exhibition, and the content of those archival materials have a direct link with the length of PWD’s past. Why these archival drawings matter, or what gives it that sort of value isn’t just their age, but the value of the campus. The exhibition’s intentions also involved in constructing a narrative involved in unfolding the history of PWD, and through that various other subsets involved with it, for example that of labourers. The labour files with the names of the maistries and construction workers written beautifully in cursive ink become a part of collective memory of people who could relate to the files and photographs, and to contractors who deal with labourers, to the PWD officials who sign labour documents, and to the general public who see labourers as a part of their daily landscape. The protagonists in the archival material and the protagonists on the exhibition site were similar; the PWD clerks, engineers, contractors, and labourers who were a part of the archives, their stories came into being during the interactions in the exhibition. Thereby making the location an apt site of interaction. 

In Beyond the Archives, the authors extend the definition of archive beyond prints or ephemera. The collective memory that resides within the public that experienced the exhibition is visible in their verbal recollections. There were emotions involved in the touch, their touch on the plastic covers of the drawings, it was almost metaphorical, how when they stood in front of a drawing, for a person on the other end of the drawing the head of the viewer was covered by the drawing. Quite literally creating a scene for ‘head in the past’ (Photo.3). Gesa E Kirsch and Liz Rohan write in their essay titled ‘The Role of Serendipity, Family Connections and Cultural Memory in Historical Research’, that ‘a collection enriches our notion of what actually constitutes an archive’. The collection at People’s Buildings was not coincidental, or unintentional, rather it was a planned collection, an inked plan of Ganeshkhind, sections of Anglo Urdu School, elevation of Record Office for State and Alienation Records, a general plan of Government House in Ganeshkhind etc. The aim was to not just put together a rich collection from PWD’s record room, rather it was to curate a collection that would trigger the collective memory of people. And the hanging of the drawings, the glass tops with photographs beneath, was intentional for unintentional touches, for tracings and invisible marks of fingers.

Megha Chand Inglis writes in her article ‘Living(in) the archive’ on the idea of archive; the pragmatic significance of archive constitutes within its fragments and narrations of its queries, what it really means within itself -’an institutionalised repository of textual knowledge’. Ariella Azoulay mentions that an archive, rather than being by itself, is made up of people who have produced and used it. Does every single touch measuring each story tied to the archive become a part of the narrative its weaving?

Inglis, M. C. (2022). Living (in) the archive. arq: Architectural Research Quarterly, 26(1), 57-74.
Kirsch, G. E., & Rohan, L. (Eds.). (2008). Beyond the archives: Research as a lived process. SIU Press.
Osman, M., & Abramson, D. M. (2017). Evidence and Narrative. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 76(4), 443-445.