(Introduction to the screening of Behind the Trees. Prof. Oommen Thomas and Modern Architecture in Kerala, at CETAA hall, College of Engineering Trivandrum, Kerala, India.)
I’m supposed to introduce you to this film, so that you have some context to view the movie. However in one sense, the film requires no introduction. As a product in the medium of film, made by Prahlad Gopakumar who is among the most talented of your graduates, it stands on its own merit. But despite that I will attempt to introduce some of the questions/themes that this documentary deals with, so that you can keep it in mind as you watch it.
Any introduction to this film then, would also be an introduction to modernism and simultaneously an unlearning of that story of modernism – which always seems to exist in some place other than Trivandrum, always somewhere outside Kerala- always somewhere North. But we know I cannot give this introduction now. That would be a semester or yearlong course. Instead I would ask you a simple question to keep in mind as you watch this movie.
What does it mean to be Modern? Is it the clothes we wear, the technology we use, the kind of buildings and the environment we spend our time in or the beliefs we hold as modern individuals?
Specifically, what does it mean to be Malayali and Modern?
This is a fairly broad cultural question. But asked in the specific context of the arts, and with some basic research it is not impossible to get a sense of where Malayali modernity and its corresponding modernism might lie. In literature, it encompasses the entire spectrum of work say between Chandu Menon’s Indulekha of 1889 to MT Vasudevan’s early work in the 50’s to O.V. Vijayan’s Kazhakinte Ethihaasam. In cinema we know Malayali modernism and modernity has much to do with the form and content of the films of Adoor and Aravindan.
But we are yet to ask this question in Architecture. What does it mean to be Malayali and modern in architecture? It is a question critical not only to architects and architecture students situated in Kerala but to anyone interested in Malayali culture – because architecture is after all the most tangible manifestation of cultural values. I want you to think about what the tradition of modern thought that we are part of – of this CET Main Block we sit in, designed by Prof. J.C. Alexander or the architecture department designed in the late 70’s by Prof. Oommen and his faculty team. What is the heritage of modernism we have inherited? What are its sources? What have we done with it?
These are questions irrespective of your ideological position in architecture or your attitude towards modernism – because it is in the context of a peculiar if not unique modernity and a belief in its values and attitudes that this college of engineering and this architecture department – both among the oldest in India, were established in Trivandrum. Generations of students have been educated, have shaped and are shaping our state. This discussion of what Malayali modernity means and what form of modernism it has taken is immensely consequential for our future. This is the discussion we hope to set in motion.
The journey of this documentary, started with these questions and discussions – it did not actually start with an idea to document the life and work of my father – Prof.Oommen or his outstanding teachers and students. With the help of Rajshree Rajmohan and Prof. Jayakumar (whose time Prahlad and I have generously wasted ) as we interviewed individuals, looked at modern architecture in Trivandrum and discussed – we realized that Prof.Oommen’s life and work provided a unique narrative thread to tell this story of modernism. His life both as a student of the first batch of architecture of the University of Kerala (1963-69), as a professor in the very architecture department he studied since 1971, as its first full time head (1979 – 91) and as an active architect participating in competitions and producing projects – drawn as well as built. It did not start as a son’s tribute to his parents, but I have to say that at the end of this process, it feels like that too is true. It is also a tribute to the dollops of time that Prahlad and I have wasted, just hanging out talking, and the time of many close friends we have wasted drawing them into these conversations.
All said and done, this documentary is only one story of modernism, one set of questions. There are many such stories to be told. We hope our work begins that process and that this conversation we have attempted to begin will continue.
Now to the film.