September 24, 2022

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Documenting India’s Distinctive Birdhouses – The New York Times

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Some years ago, while exploring Bhuj, a small city in Gujarat, India’s westernmost state, I stumbled upon a beautiful and initially enigmatic structure: a column that supported an enclosure adorned with hundreds of holes. It seemed to me to be a geometric abstraction of a giant tree — until a pigeon peeped out from one of the openings.

Soon there were hundreds of birds flying in and out of the grand birdhouse. Locals informed me that the structure was called a “chabutra.”

Over the course of my initial four-month stay, and afterward, during follow-up visits throughout Kutch, the district that includes Bhuj, I began documenting the beautifully crafted birdhouses — taking photographs, collecting local narratives and recording people’s memories associated with the structures.

As of today, my photographs span from 2015 to the present day.

The old bird towers I encountered were made of wood and stone. Newer specimens are mostly made of concrete and are much more colorful and vibrant. Each design is different.

In much of India, housing and feeding birds is a common practice. But in different cities, the collective affinity for birds expresses itself in different ways. Some communities participate in pigeon-rearing, known as kabootar-baazi, which involves taming the birds, caring for their health, training them to fly in a particular direction based on verbal commands and preparing them for flying competitions. Others focus on conservation efforts. Still others construct chabutras.

In the Kutch district of Gujarat, elegant birdhouses can be found in most of the villages and hamlets. Paid for by residents, the structures are often designed and built by masons who, though not trained as designers, nevertheless are able to express the ethos of their communities.

The houses aren’t simply places for the birds to stay. They also act as communal spaces. Elder men and women sit under their shade. Children play nearby. Festivals are sometimes held around them.

I prefer to classify the birdhouses as bird housing, since, as is true with humans, the birds make use of several kinds of residential buildings. Some of the structures are like sarais, or motels, a place for the animals to make brief stops before traveling onward. Others are multistory apartment buildings with as many as 40 floors.

If we analyze the chabutras from an architectural perspective, we might describe some as Indo-Saracenic, Brutalist, postmodern, contemporary.

A chabutra can also be associated with the religious and cultural identities of its community. Many people build the structures as memorials to deceased friends and family members and believe that supplying them with food is like feeding the souls of the departed. Some Hindus believe that offering food at the structure is akin to feeding god.

It’s no surprise, then, that large donations of birdseed are often made at important social events: funerals, weddings, births. In some towns, contributing grain to communal chabutras can even serve as a kind of punishment, or mandated community service.

While working to discover and document the chabutras in Kutch, I’ve visited several dozen villages across the district and spoken with countless people who help stock and maintain the structures. And while the historical wooden birdhouses in some places — Ahmedabad, for example, Gujarat’s most populous city — have been well documented, similar attention hasn’t been paid to those in Kutch.

My aim with this project, which I’ve worked on for the last seven years, has been to help compensate for the lack of attention paid to Kutch’s chabutras — particularly in the wake of a devastating earthquake in 2001 that destroyed many of the celebrated stone specimens.

While the earthquake turned many historic chabutras to rubble, it also paved the way for the new structures we see today.

Nipun Prabhakar

2022-06-27 09:00:25

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