Hema Sankalia Image, courtesy Sankalia Family

Hema Sankalia – A Woman Who Climbed A Hill And Came Down A Mountain

Sarayu Ahuja (formerly an editor at the Indian Architect and Builder), explores the remarkable life of the trailblazing female architect, Hema Sankalia.
Hema Sankalia Image, courtesy Sankalia Family

“I am not very persuasive. I lack persistence. I give up easily.” Hema confessed. I couldn’t believe her. In fact, I thought she was exactly the opposite. For the first time when I had met her, way back in the early 80’s when I was a visiting lecturer at the Academy of Architecture, she was full of infectious vigour. She was then, besides the other things that she did, a member of the Save Bombay Committee; working with Kisan Mehta and she had come to the Academy in search of volunteers to assist with their critical appraisal of the new draft plan for Bombay. Hema was dressed in a carefully chosen cotton saree and a blouse that didn’t match but its colour fused with the colour of the saree, in an unusual way. Only someone with an acute aesthetic sensibility could manage this. Her salt and pepper hair was neatly tied in a knot at the nape of her neck. She spoke confidently in a husky-carrying voice, stopping only to puff at her cigarette and gaze up reflectively at the low, hot ceiling. It wasn’t so much what she was saying that interested me, but the manner in which she said it, the manner in which she carried herself and the way she looked.

She was talking about all the mistakes made in the draft plan. She possessed an arresting personality and that special individuality called a personal style.

“We come from a Brahmin family,” she said reminiscing her past. 14 years had passed since I first met her. She obviously looked older now and her grey hair hung loose to her waist. She wore a loose cotton kaftan, again of subtle colours which over the years I had realised was her choice. She had the same husky voice, only mellowed and one that had lost its eruptive fire. But an understanding of the tribulations of life had replaced it. “My grand father came from Wai,” she added softly. “He joined the army.” Her grandfather had not liked living in Maharashtra so he had migrated to the North; he had three sons and his dictum was that they had to choose between property, gold or education? Hema’s grandmother at that time opted for education and all her sons were educated in England. In those days, people went to England for further education not to America, like now. When her father returned, he joined the ICS. He had three options: to work in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra. “But my grandfather was against Maharashtra,” Hema said, “so, he went to Punjab.” Later, he married Hema’s mother who was a Maharashtrian from Madhya Pradesh, not from Maharashtra. She was one of the first women graduates from the Karve University. Hema sat forward, rested her chin in the cup of her palm, “my father had a very short life; he died at the age of 32,” she said. “Just 8 years of service, he died simply of typhoid. We were in Lahore then and I was only six months old. My mother had the choice of staying on with my grandparents because it was still ten years before the partition. But, my mother wanted to get out of Punjab, she didn’t want to stay there any more. So she took shelter with my chacha, my uncle who was in the Railways.”

Like the railways, life took them places. They travelled to Bhusaval, Jhansi, Nagpur and finally landed in Bombay. When Hema was 15, her uncle became the General Manager of the Western Railway; he was posted to Delhi. Her mother decided not to go with him since Hema and her sister were in school and her mother did not wish to disrupt their studies. “There was no accommodation available; it was a very trying experience,” said Hema. “But, the family had always believed in being able to fend for oneself.” Her mother eventually found a place of shelter in Sion. “I remember those days,” Hema said, “the Harbour branch, Western railway and Gamdevi where our school was. We commuted each day for three years, my sister and I. I was disturbed; our whole environment had changed. The Chhaya Chatra was no longer there.” Hema did not do well at her school finals; she was not even qualified to enter a college. But her maternal uncle, an artist helped Hema’s sister join the JJ College of Arts and Hema, architecture. “Until then, I did not know what architecture was all about,” Hema confessed. “but, my uncle saw in me a certain aesthetic talent and a different personality.” She did well in the entrance exam which she ascribes to her western upbringing since, all the men in the family had gone to England and they were in Government service. Then with a hearty laugh she said, “There was a question about Venice, I remember.” Hema twisted a strand of hair around her ager and smiled. “Many students wrote that it was a string of flowers to be worn in the hair-venis. Others wrote that it was a woman who was Venus. Ruben was happy to have me. He wanted more girls in the college. We were three in a class of 60, that year.

It was a casual environment at college in her days. The teachers never really bothered whether they did well or not. Most subjects were taught through books, academically. History was plain history. Hema regrets that they were never taken to the Victoria Terminus and told about Gothic architecture. “Today, there are a few teachers who try hard to teach well. They try and explore the capabilities of the students,” Hema, who is now teaching at three colleges, added. After finishing the third year many students went to England, some to America. Hema was keen to go to England. But her uncle dissuaded her mother saying, “What is she going to do with all this education?” Hema recollected. In those days, she explained, there was not much respect for women.

Hema’s uncle introduced her to Bajpai. “He was back from the Scandinavian countries; he was a breath of fresh air; he designed the Jehangir art gallery,” Hema’s eyes filled with admiration as she said this. “He had a wonderful set-up and I was keen to work for him. But he was very ill.” Instead, Hema joined Piloo Mody who sent her with bags packed to a faraway site, immediately. That was the first time Hema learnt how a building was constructed. Hema went into the kitchen to make some tea. She returned with a beautiful Chinese pot with cups to match, sitting on a round cane-matted tray. All this was so typical of her carefully selecting each and every item of use. Pouring the tea out she said, “I met Shirish Sankalia through my friend Dilip Purohit. Shirish was not an architect but was very creative. He was always making something or the other. He used to design ties and boxes and sell them to all the designers and architects. I married him in ’57.” Hema’s mother was shattered since he had no job and also because Hema’s sister had married a non-graduate, who had lived on the pavement outside his uncle’s home in Kerala. “We had both let her down because she had sheltered us through thick and thin and expected that a good marriage would shelter us forever,” Hema said and added, “there is a Marathi verse,

Chhakuli Chhan Gade
Drishta Lage Majkhaya
Hila Pahin Tuz Sathi
Malak Motaricha ICS Shikalela
Navra Sundarsa
Chhakuli Chhan Gade

which means – My lovely little one/ My one that is set upon by an evil eye/ For you I will find an owner of a motorcar/ An ICS educated/A husband so pretty/ Oh my lovely little one.

Shirish was no ICS. Hema and he lived in a chawl in C P Tank and Hema’s mother never walked up the steps of the chawl to their home. “She was too proud,” Hema said, “but soon Shirish became the son and man she had missed and they had a beautiful relationship.” Shirish decided to build a house for Hema’s mother in Pune. He did not want to see her stand at the bus stop waiting for a bus. In Pune, there were rickshaws. They put together all their savings and built her a house. “Shirish had a large heart. He was always loaning money or things to his friends.” A sardonic expression lingered on Hema’s face, she smiled, “Shirish mein camera le jaun. Le jao. Shirish mein music system le jaun. Le jao. I used to tease him. Shirish koi bolega biwi le jaun to le jao bologe?” she said.

Later, Hema met Pravina Mehta who played a very important role in her life; she became her role model. Pravina Mehta had returned from the Bauhaus School and there was a certain discipline to her architecture everything was simple, structured and starkly conceived. She introduced Hema to all that was Indian. That was what was unique about Pravina: she was untouched by America; she was very Indian. She showed Hema how to dress and how to eat different kinds of Indian food. She told her about Indian textiles, and jewellery. Hema said, reminiscing of those days, “Pravina would always be dressed in cotton sarees with unusual blouses that didn’t match. She made a juda on the side of her head. I consumed all this avariciously because it was such a new experience. I knew about everything that was Western: Picasso, Matisse, but not much about Indian Art and craft. I was her understudy in every manner. She used to take me to the Academy where she taught. I was her understudy even in teaching.”

Hema screwed her eyes, nodded vigorously and said, “You know, I just cannot understand how Pravina’s name is never referred to regarding New Bombay. She was the one who prepared a meticulous handrafted plan and presented it. She was so excited, she worked on it as though possessed. She would tell me, “So what, if it is not accepted. I can send it to America and get a PhD on it. “Many of her ideas were accepted. CIDCO was constituted and Charles Correa and Shirish Patel were appointed as Planners for New Bombay.” Hema paused, as though she was getting over a nagging thought and added, “Pravina had a lot of eccentric energy and zeal. She could be mad about things. I was totally obsessed by her and lost my own identity. I depended on her completely and was totally mesmerised. Shirish saw all this and felt that I should leave Pravina’s office. I did.” Hema moved from Pravinas’ office and set up an office in her own house.

The cradle was there too, Tanu was just born. Hema put her hand to her forehead and shaking it side to side, her eyes closed, as though she couldn’t believe herself, “The kind of corny jobs I have done then,” she said, “A factory in Dombivili, an area which was inaccessible in those days and the industrial rules were so trying. And to get the fees from the clients was another trying matter. They would say, ‘tum ne kya kiya, char line to banaya. Achitect kya badi cheez hai. I had very crummy clients; that was a very difficult period for me. But one also makes a couple of friends, who give you some project or the other. There was a competition then, in which 50 architects participated for the Head of Department for Madhya Pradesh, in which I also participated with my brother-in-law. We knew who was to get the prize because that particular architect had already worked for them and as we expected, he did. But that was a beginning, chanchal pravesh as one can call it because it lead to many other jobs in Madhya Pradesh.”

Mahesh Buch was the Administrator in Bhopal; his father was a trainee under Hema’s father when he was a collector in Hosiarpur. Hema got a couple of jobs through him. Then she met S K Sharma through Buch, who sent her to Ujjain to do the Kalidas Academy. These were not jobs that came easily or were realised easily. “Khub age piche, age piche hua hai,” Hema said, “5 percent kya dena hai. Government won’t give more than three and a half. What can you do in three and a half? What can you give out of it to the electrical consultant, structural consultant? ” Fortunately because of her husband the house was running. She had the support of her husband, mother, mother-in-law and so her main goal was to keep an architectural practice going. Her daughter was born in 71. “From 71 to 84, I really worked hard. There was a certain amount of success, but monetarily it was no big deal,” Hema said.

Hema Sankalia - A Woman Who Climbed A Hill And Came Down A Mountain 5

“I took so many architects to Bhopal,” she added, “I took Satish Madhiwala, Anant Raje, Sen Kapadia, even Charles to Bhopal because I had contacts there. They wanted people and I could recommend them. Then Sen, Satish and Subodh Dhairyawan, who had returned from America and I, formed a design unit. It collapsed. Two of them left, but Subodh stayed on.” “We got a large housing project from HUDCO,” Hema said. “I must say Subodh’s inputs in the project were tremendous. But then, it has been ten years since and our fees have still not been paid. The contractor and the suppliers have been paid but not the architects. One wants to go into litigation. Kaise inko court me le jaye? They have engineers and architects assessing and appraising our work, as though we don’t matter. There is no sanctity.”

“Anyway, what is low-cost housing? Only self-help housing can really be low-cost. How much can an architect water down the specifications? One window instead of two, not provide shutters, only one bolt on one door, no sunshades. What about the rain and the sun? Take the body, usko aap kitna nanga karoge? They squeeze the architect for the cost of a unit house. Where is Project Management? There are time overruns, bad management of material and personnel. The cost just escalates.

Are architects to be blamed for this? Kamu Iyer rightly told me – “Hema, Mass-Housing has failed in India. It should be built for people in a manner in which they want to live, not in the way we want them to live. We should gather people together, find out their requirements and then build for them. But today, it is a seller’s market, where does the buyer have a say.” Hema sighed and concluded, “In ’94, we finished the HUDCO housing and then the Patel Roadways’ housing that also dragged on and on. One thing I realise now, is that one needs tremendous luck in life. Facility, contacts and talent, you may have all these but if luck doesn’t favour you, you are finished.” “Take my husband, for example; he was so creative but luck was never with him. He set up the Contemporary Arts and Crafts with Piloo Mody’s wife, Vina. Shirish was all the time designing things lamps, ashtrays, trays and Vina – liked buying and selling. Moreover, in those days, there was no shop where you could get a variety of things for an interior. This was in ’62. I was not much involved, since my first son Yadu was just 11 days old. Later Shirish met a Dane, who had come to Bombay from Tumkur. Shirish was fascinated by knock-down furniture and this Dane helped him set up a factory with an assembly line system and all the technological trappings. Pravina and I designed his factory and Shirish Patel did the structure: it had flat slabs, no beams and mushroom columns: everything about it was modern. It cost a lot. When the production of the combo systems started, furniture parts would come out on conveyer belts and each part would be finished, polished, melamined and packed as separate components. One dining chair was marketed at a price of 150 rupees an unheard of price even in those days. The marketing research was based on the fact that many multi-storeyed buildings were coming up and many people wanted to furnish their flats or offices. Even if one building, ten storeys high, four flats per floor, that is 40 flats, would house ten people who bought this knock-down system, (it was incremental, you didn’t have to buy the whole works) it would sell profitably. We had to stock components, piece by pieces our inventory was high. We had a big exhibition at the CAC for which brochures were printed. Shirish thought, he would get large orders from schools and offices, but nothing like that happened. Luck was not with Shirish and the factory literally devoured all the money. The partnership broke up and he sold out. He went to Muscat. In ’84, he had a heart attack. He died.”

So, life began for Hema once more. She had friends who helped. Structural engineers would recommend her as an architect. But sometimes, in a whole year, she would have earned just about 30000, until the HUDCO job came in. “Teaching,” Hema said, “I never taught for all these years simply because I believed unless one had designed and actually built, it was not right to teach. Theory is one thing, it is required but I was happier teaching after having learnt how to build. I was on a better wicket when our HUDCO project won a prize; so students look up to you. Otherwise, students would feel – kya ake bate karte, kuch to kiya nahin. Lekin ab kuch to karke bataya hai. I also realised the need for publicity. We had to go out to publish. The institute goes on asking people to give material to publish in their magazine – do do do, kuch to do. Dene wale dete hain, kuch log nahin dete. I have never seen any of Charles Correa’s projects ever published in the institutes magazine. He doesn’t feel the quality of the magazine is worth it and also he has many other wonderful outlets so why should he?”

Hema stopped talking, lit a bidi, thought reflectively. She had digressed. I had let her talk, since life is so full of cranies and holes where past encounters are stuffed. These encounters are what eventually shape the personality which having acquired its individuality changes with our vacillating lives.

She started talking, “After Piloo Mody died in ’82 and Shirish in ’84, Vina and I came together. We travelled together picking up crafts from different parts of the country. Again I was always her understudy. Vina knew exactly what she wanted; she was pragmatic and what was more important, fit. She was never ill. Over the years, I have developed my own ways and can now confidently contribute suggestions.”

Hema Sankalia - A Woman Who Climbed A Hill And Came Down A Mountain 7

Then sadly, she added, “My architectural innings are over. Jobs are not easy to come by. Subodh and I were without a job for one and a half years. I am tired now. I have closed down the office. I am 60. It is a good time to retire. One should retire when one is strong, still healthy and when one has achieved some- thing to be proud of. My children are all settled. I have handed over the running of CAC to my eldest son Yadu. Tanu is back from Ahmedabad, he stood first in the final year of architecture. He is working for Doshi. Unlike a doctor or lawyer, an architect can’t hand over clients to the children. They have to find their own. My daughter, Priya, is in California working on anthropology. They have all sprouted wings. At first, they needed shelter and support. I provided it for many years, now with a little push they are off on their own, pursuing futures scoured on their hands. I am going to the mountains. I have land in the Kumao hills. I want to leave Bombay and live there. I want peace and a different kind of shelter.”

‘A man who climbed a hill and came down a mountain’ is the title of a new film shown at the Cannes festival.

I found it apposite to Hema’s life: as a little girl she stood before a small hill wondering whether that was all she had to climb. But life proved otherwise. It meandered with sharp twists, sudden turns until she had reached what appeared to be the top of a mountain. Coming down was hazardous. But she has arrived full of experience, and fulfillment and with something to carry forward and something to leave behind.


The piece was originally published in the Indian Architect and Builder, June 1995 Issue.

Credits: Jasubhai Publications, Tanu Sankalia (Son of Hema Sankalia), Shamit Manchanda (Manchanda Associates, New Delhi)

Featured Image: Sankalia Family

Photographs by: Prakash Rao

4 Responses

  1. After reading this article I felt like I met Hema ma’am again. I was among the last cohort of students whom she taught in Pune. Her sense of style, the intricate pieces of furniture in her home, the way she would gaze afar with a bidi in hand, her voice ….. It was all very moulding for a young architect and woman like me and we tried to absorb as much as we could. I consider myself very lucky to have had her as a teacher and a mentor. Miss you Hema Ma’am !

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