Women Architects in India – Histories of Practice in Mumbai and Delhi, by Mary N. Woods, highlights the stories of pioneering Indian architects and how they succeed in unwelcome environments.
When a country goes through a period of great flux, be them wars, revolutions, or economic depression, a unique set of opportunities arise within it. Women all over the world, and across varying decades in history, have often benefited and brilliantly capitalised on such opportunities, denied as they are in calmer times.
Mary N. Woods dwells on this dichotomy, among many others, in her book Women Architects in India (Histories of Practice in Mumbai and Delhi). It is an important piece of research in a literary pool that is missing many pioneering female names. In her book, Woods, a historian of architecture at Cornell University, gathers up names and personal histories, and places these architects' works against the era they lived in and the typically gendered limitations they grappled with. The story arc traces the feverish period of construction activity that followed India’s independence in 1947, to the current landscape, primarily of the two metros mentioned in the title, where a crop of famous names represents India’s female architectural identity, so to speak.
The book is a great chance to look back and fortify one’s understanding of how much of the India we see today started and was realised with the ideas and efforts of women builders and designers. As the decades flew by, the feminist narrative within the architectural narrative of India got washed out, only to find a gradual revival in the post-1991 liberalisation era. Women architects have spread their wings across every arena of architecture in India, be it commercial, residential, conservation, urban planning, public buildings, social housing, and more. But it still is an environment where inspite of female students outnumbering the male in professional institutes, women remain unsung and underrepresented at all levels of the playing field.
Woods’ research brings out facts, fascinating personal stories, and photographs, as well as the more abstract paths to success these female professionals often have to navigate to manage a successful career in a largely patriarchal set-up. “If the mother-in-law was supportive, it made a big difference,” Woods mentioned in an interview. What also made a difference: complying to a constant pressure to think up unusual ideas.
A book like this one is essential reading if you have, and especially if you haven’t, heard of Anupama Kundoo, Brinda Somaya, Sheila Sriprakash, Sunita Kohli, and so many more remarkable women who are re-writing the Indian modern architectural study book. The pages will reveal that this hard-fought journey for recognition and opportunity began in the 1930s, and will continue in the decades to come.