I was barely thirteen when I was wandering around the complex of beautiful earthen houses in Kandbari – without an inkling of a clue about the genius and the beauty that had their home in its maker. Walking on a flower-lined path, munching on a bag of chips, I was in a universe of my own when I came across Didi Contractor. And she was furious. 

An Ode to Didi Contractor - Sheet1
Didi Contractor_ ©Photographed by Ar. Bani Kaur

‘How can you carry around that garbage near my house?!’

She was referring to the plastic bag of chips. And all they stood for-

Capitalism. Greed. Disregard for the Environment. Pollution. Conformity. Anti-nationalism.

The seven deadly sins in Didi’s Holy Book.

Didi contractor features in a movie about her life and works – Earth Crusader.

It is a beautifully made film that showcases Didi’s dedication to campaign for the environment and build truly sustainably. Her determination to create architecture that is purposeful yet beautiful.

Having known her for a decade, I have come to believe that her crusade is a consequence of her beliefs. The principles on which she led her life were no different from the principles that she later preached.  And crusaded for. 

An Ode to Didi Contractor - Sheet2
The pathways around Didi’s House_ © Photographed by Ar. Bani Kaur

Despite her anger at me for kowtowing to capitalistic greed – she took me back to her artistically decorated living room. Light filtered in through beautiful glass bottles, puncture windows framing the beautiful landscape outside and the faint noise of a neighbor calling out to his pet parrot. It was a setting out of a storybook. 

An Ode to Didi Contractor - Sheet3
Didi’s Living Room_ ©Photographed by Ar. Bani Kaur

Perched in her chair, she proceeded to explain to me the dangers of plastic aggregation in the environment and after having thoroughly convinced me that plastic was the devil’s work – she took from me the finished bag of chips and placed it in a pile of other plastic bags she’d vowed to remove from the environment.

Her belief in sustainability was not for applause, it was rooted in her firm vow of leaving the world better than you found it. 

“You want the same burger, the same T-shirt, the same Jeans everywhere and its fine.

But what you’re buying it with – is your life.”- Didi Contractor

Her desire to preserve beauty in its purest form – came through in both her words and her buildings. She believed that there was no natural landscape that was made better by human intervention but that architects had the power to create environments in which nature would flourish. 

Her reverence of the vernacular and respect for ancient systems was faultless- they were the inception to her design thinking. But what bolstered her adaption of these traditional systems into modern buildings was – scientific thought.  Didi was a romantic rationalist. She believed in truth and beauty and philosophy and how they could be better and more widely delivered through science and technology. 

Joining Didi Contractor and Ar. Savneet Kaur (Imarat Architects) in their early stages of design for Sambhaavnaa and Dharmalaya campuses prove to be the journey of a lifetime. It was then that I learnt of Didi’s unyielding passion for finding art in architecture at every stage – in the determination of the meandering paths to green wooden doorways to the trusses that held together the gray-slate roofs. 

It was her passion and (ferocious) insistence that led me to architecture school and I have nothing but gratitude for her fervour. It was during my official architectural internship in 2018 that revealed to me the inner workings of her genius – her reverence of her tools, her child-like spirit and her deep desire to always be learning something new even at the age of 87!

Immensely fascinated by new age media and television shows, she would turn to me and proclaim “All of this holds much appeal Bani, but you must read! There is no world like that of books and no power like that of the imagination!” One couldn’t turn a corner in her house without encountering a pile of books! She was always reading, researching and learning.

“Every tiny bit adds up”, she’d exclaim.

Whether it was the careful deliberation of room sizes based on standard available rafter sizes to avoid unnecessary ‘customization’, or the poetics of light in a room of earthen walls

Whether it was the collectors medley of small slices of baked goods in her kitchen or her thoughtfully built collection of books

Her tireless dedication to and veneration for her work added up to a pristine legacy in not just earthen architecture but also in how to live thoughtfully a life of purpose. 

Her spirit for life put to shame even the enthusiasm of some of the most motivated youth I’ve met.  Her life, her work and her spirit soared beyond the ordinary and in a realm of greatness.

She truly lived her life as a testament to her soul. 

Author

Bani is an architect with a pen, potential and potentially a poem. She often finds herself adrift on an ocean of ideas she believes can be best delivered through prose and poetry. Passionate as she is about architecture, she believes (at the risk of sounding extremely corny) writing is her one true calling.

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