Learning through Play

Learning is a wonderful experience and the beauty of it is that it has no boundaries! It is a creative process, one can learn by thousand ways! It happens at home, in the school, in the neighbourhood, playgrounds, around in the city and through travel too! Learning through play is another way of life!

I learnt this when I shifted to vernacular medium school from an English medium school in my 2nd standard. I learnt from the young teacher who was teaching me mathematics while playing with marbles and match sticks with me! I chose this way for my education, practice and life!

In 1940s We lived in Malad West in Ismail Baug, situated very close to the Malad railway station. My father, Mohammedbhai Nanoobhai Chauhan was working in the Government Service and was having his office in walking distance from our home. We lived in a chawl. It was a rented accommodation. It was the most popular and affordable housing of its time. We had two rows of chawls, one facing the other. It had a lot of open space in between with some trees. This was the space the children used to play. It was uneven, with some stones and had a gentle slope. A paved street and walkway passed through it. I had an elder brother two and half years elder to me named Iqbal. The earliest memory of was playing with him in the home, in the long corridor and sometimes in the open space. One day, he fell down from the window sill while playing with us, neighbour’s children and me, and broke his ribs. Medical facilities in the suburb were poor. He was taken to doctor and was under treatment. He died after a couple of weeks. That was a big tragedy. I lost a loving and caring, Bhai, as I used to address him. He left a huge void in my heart but he had planted a seed in my heart, to love and care, family and neighbours, to nurture and build life-long relationships.

Then in 1950 we shifted to Mahim on the Caddle Road near the Dargah, a masouleam dedicated to a famous saint. The three storeyed block was located on the arterial road with busy traffic with hardly any space around the building. By then my younger brother, Anvar was born and I had a companion to play. We had a large living room, we used to call it Diwankhana, and it was a great place to play. We had the space to ourselves most of the time. We had rented the entire third floor, it was spacious. We enjoyed playing in the home, in the hall, in the balcony overlooking the main street, on the terrace with a view of Mahim Bay. We used to have many family friends in the neighbourhood, mohalla around the masoleum. It had lot of open space and we were close to Ainapore family from Karnataka and Rangari family from Rajasthan. Our family hails from Saurashtra region of Gujarat. We played in the wide street between the bungalows. This mohalla was adjoining the Mahim Bay. We used to walk through Rangari family’s bungalow to go to the beach! On the week-ends, we would visit the Mahim beach with my father and mother and play on the sand, while they sat on the wall watching us! I was enrolled in the St. Joseph Primary School next to St. Micheal High School. It had a small garden with some swings and see-saws.

There was a small beach facing garden at the other end of Caddle road, which had lots of trees and a tot-lot. There were many shops on the Caddle road and a market, which I would visit with my Grand-mother. Some time, we would walk up to the Mahim fort and enjoy the view of Mahim Bay. Living in Mahim gave me the earliest of experience of the Mohalla, a neighbourhood, and its importance in shaping our understanding of society.

My father had his rationing office in Bandra West. It was located on the Hill road. Bandra was green with lots of trees, mostly palm treets. It was known as the queen of the suburbs. My father’s office was located in a big compound. There was a florist and a big nursery of plants within it. I was fascinated by the flowers and plants. There was a well in front of the office and it had a tortoise, which amused me. I loved to watch the tortoise swim in the well. The office also had a back-yard, which was used to grow vegetables, under a government sponsored scheme for grow your vegetables. On the Hill Road there were many schools and churches. It led to the famous Mt. Mary’s Cathedral. Bandra had beautiful landscape and a rocky coastline. We would visit the Band Stand and the promenade around it on the week-days.  We would sit on the rocks and watch the beautiful sunsets!

But a tragedy struck our family again. My father had noticed big cracks on the staircase wall. The wooden staircase was wide and was supported on the load-bearing walls. The building was not so well maintained. He visited the local fire-brigade station and informed the fire officer, who promised to visit us on Sunday to inspect the premises. On Sunday morning, my grand-mother asked my mother to prepare the break-fast early as the firemen were to visit us. While we were having our break-fast, the toilet block collapsed. My mother was saved because she was preparing our breakfast! The firemen came with fire tenders and quickly put up the ladder. I was the first one to be brought down the ladder. I was too scared. I ran away to safety of our friend the Rangari family’s home.  We shifted to our friend’s home for a few days and then my father decided to shift back to Malad. By then in 1955, he decided to give up the Government Service and started his law practice.

This time, we took a tonga, a horse-driven carriage from Malad railway station and moved through a lot of open space dotted with trees and rice fields to reach the foot hills of Malad East. A new scheme was planned by a well known Nadiadwala family who had large properties in the suburbs. It was in its early stage of development. We rented a small bungalow near a pond in the Pushpa Park colony, as it was called. It had a very interesting plan. It had a row of rental tenements with a small bungalow for the land-lord. There were small plots for a row of bungalows. I made many friends. We used open spaces around our homes to play. We also had a large open space near Mr. A. K. Nadiadwala’s bungalow, where we could play cricket. We were very close to Khan family. The Khan family had many children and Shamim, Aziz and Karim Khan had formed a cricket team. Shamim was the captain of the team and he was an all--rounder. He was my role model. I was inspired by him to become an all rounder myself. I aspired to become captain of our team one day! In the meanwhile, each house group had a cricket team. So we played in the open paddy field near our new home. These fields were dotted with pug marks of the animals so it was a different kind of cricket where the ball would deflect so tangentially, fielding on these fields was quite an experience with frequent injuries.

We shifted to another bungalow in the vicinity, which had a large open space in the back. My father had constituted an organization called Pushpa Park Vikas Mandal. He presented his idea to Mr. A.K. Nadiadwala and he agreed to become the President of the association. The idea was to promote welfare of the residents through cultural, social and sports activities. They organized events to celebrate Ganesh utsav, and Navratri utsav, the Ganesh and Navratri festivals, observe the national Independence Day and Republic Day, and organize annual sport competition. It encouraged the community to participate in planning, organizing and conducting the events. The grounds were cleared and levelled, mandaps were erected, lighting was arranged and there was so much of enthusiasm. Mr. A.K. Nadiadwala was also a famous film producer. He had managed to get some of them associated with the film making to have their bungalows in the Pushpa Park colony. So we had famous film stars coming to these festivals! The annual calendar was full of such events and it made living in Pushpa Park an enjoyable experience. New India was imagined as a democratic and socialist republic. We were all inspired by the national leaders and the community leaders spread this spirit of national awakening and humane concerns amongst the residents. A new urban community was evolving!

In the monsoons, the paddy fields were used by the local farmers to grow rice. It was quite a learning experience to see agrarian way of life in the city! These farmers had their own cottages made up of brick walls and thatch roofs. They had poultry around their houses and had cattle sheds to keep their cows, bullocks and buffalows. These paddy fields would be bunded to retain monsoon water and then they would grow in a small patch. After a few weeks they would replant these saplings in the larger area well spaced and in rows. In the meanwhile, the nullahs and a small river would be full of water. The cuttings of the quarries in the foot-hills would turn into small lakes. It was the time for us to go fishing and hiking in the hills. Small kids would make paper boats and enjoy catching them in the running waters of the channels. We all loved to get drenched in the rains! Some time it would be raining so heavily that the areas would get flooded. Then we had to remain indoors for a couple of days!

I was lucky to live in the foot-hills of Malad. It was wonderful growing up in such beautiful natural surroundings. With the hills in the East and the Arabian Sea in the West, a National Park in the North and the Mumbai Island city in the South. It was as good as living in Goa! I would wake up early for my morning walk with my dear father. We would walk up the hill on a small foot-way leading up to a small bungalow of the head of the Physical Training Institute located on the hill. I remember the meandering path up the hill with wild grass, weeds, shrubs and then the massive trees on the hill top surrounding the street leading to the cottage.

Years later in 1958 when I was in the Malad Central High School, we would come to this hill once in a year for the annual district sports festival. It was great fun to see the festive atmosphere with many schools of the suburbs participating in the sports competition. They had cut out a proper athletic field with 800 m tracks. There were soccer and hockey play grounds within. There were traditional games like kho-kho and hututu too! It had large halls for the indoor games and a big canteen. We used to look up to this annual sports festival. We never won any medals. Most of these were won by St. Annes High School, situated on Marve Road, Malad West in soccer and hockey, N.L. School and Hansraj Morarjee Schools in athletics and some Marathi medium schools from Goregaon for traditional sports. I realized that we were poorly prepared as we did not have sports ground adjoining our high school.

I was very found of cricket. I was inspired by reading about sports in the Times of India. I would follow the progress of Ranji Trophy cricket matches in India, County cricket matches in the United Kingdom and the test matches between India, Pakistan, England, Australia & West Indies. I would play cricket every day and converse with friends on cricket. We shifted to Malad West when my father found it very difficult to manage his daily schedule. He would go to his office in Malad West and then take a train to Churchgate or Marine Drive railway station for attending the High Court and Civil Courts. He would return to the office in the evening and come home late in the night on his bicycle and have his dinner. It was too stressful. He decided to shift our home to his office. So we had his office in the front and our home in the back. He built a loft where we children and grand-mother would sleep. We had a large open yard in the back, in between our home-office and the New Era cinema. The property belonged to Nadiadwala family. We made a badminton court and I played with my brother Anvar and a few friends.

Mr. Habib Nadiadwala, son of Mr. A.K. Nadiadwala would also come all the way from Malad East to play with us! For cricket, I soon found out that there was a team in the neighbourhood. It was called Bright Sparks Cricket Team. It was founded by Mr. Manoj Vithlani who had a house near N.L. High School and had some open space next to his house. We also had a small lane next to Mr. Jayanti Doshi’s residence, which we used for practice. It was too narrow, but it was there. Our gully cricket evolved! Mr. Himanshu Upadhyay who stayed near by also joined the team. He would later on join the Bandra School of Art, Department of Architecture in Bandra West. We became life-long friends! We played cricket matches on Sunday with other teams from the neighbourhood and the suburbs. We used to play cricket matches in small open spaces along the railways. That was dangerous and we had to be very careful!

I found out that there was a well-organized cricket team called Rocket Sports Club, which was based in Adarsh Dairy Farm off Marve Road in Malad West. I joined the team as an all-rounder. They had a much larger ground though not quite large enough for a competitive game. It had a red top, which was good for spin bowling but not to my liking as I was called a fast bowler, in fact I was a medium pacer. This gave me opportunity to play in the city competitions organised by Bombay Cricket Association. It was great fun to travel on Sunday morning with our team to Churchgate and then walk down to the great maidans- play ground.. the famous Azad Maidan, Cross Maidan and the Oval. Here for the first time I had pitches to my liking where I could bowl really well and enjoy my batting whole-heartedly!

These grounds were surrounded by world famous architectural heritage buildings. The Victoria Terminus, The Bombay Municipal Corporation Building, the High Court, the Metro and Eros Cinemas!

The fort area was the central business district of the city and also had the state assembly and secretariat buildings apart from some famous office buildings like Tata House, Esso building and Bank buildings. While playing cricket I discovered the city centre!

The high point was always the test matches! It was a great experience to watch the test matches live on the famous Braborne Stadium. I saw India playing against the formidable West Indies with Wes Hall, Roy Gilchrist and Griffith, a trio of fast bowlers and Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai great batsmen. I also saw Indian strike bowler Ramakant Desai for putting pressure on the visiting Pakistani batsmen. I saw Hanif Mohammed and Saeed Mohammed scoring their centuries. The stadium, the pavilion and the studio house gave me the inspiration to design modern sports facilities. When we did not manage to get the tickets, we had to satisfy ourselves by watching the test matches from the terrace of adjoining art-deco buildings! They also charged us!! But it was also great fun to watch Ranji Trophy matches. Mumbai team was the national champion! Once I saw Saurashtra crumble for 47 runs in a matter of a couple of hours! Ajit Wadekar, Mumbai captain who went on to create history by leading Indian team to a great victory at the Lords in England.

In the final year we had to do a design thesis in addition to a major architectural design studio.  For design studio we were assigned a site to design a natural history museum in London. It was a design subject for the Royal Institute of British Architects examination but was introduced to us by our mentor, Prof. Yatindra Chandawarkar. The site was quite challenging, it had two formal gardens connected by a promenade. The challenge was to introduce a major landmark building, a square in plan, in between two gardens which did not have any visual relationship accept the physical link through the promenade. While most of the students chose to site their project parallel to the promenade, I chose to twist the building at an angle to create interesting public spaces around the proposed museum. It would also provide a series of interesting views of the building from different angles. It was highly appreciated by my mentor.

After visiting Chandigarh, my mind was fired with the idea of designing Capital Complex for Maharashtra. We had to give two theses proposals. Charles Correa, Pravina Mehta and Shirish Patel had proposed the idea of a twin city across the Thane creek in 1965. They had proposed to shift the Capital Complex from Mumbai to Navi Mumbai to provide an economic thrust for its development. They had identified a site in Belapur in proposed twin city. The first one was to design the Capital Complex in Navi Mumbai and the second was to design an International Expo on the Panju island in Vasai creek. My thesis guide Prof. Raja Poredi gave approval for the first idea saying that the international expo would require a lot of technical data and research. So in 1969, I started working on the design for Capital Complex. I visited the site, I was shocked to find a big linear industrial complex on the way from Thane to Belapur. The Chemical industries caused a lot of air pollution and I was shocked. I decided not to site the proposed Capital Complex in Belapur. Instead I started searching for alternate site. I visited the areas surrounding Mumbai. Finally, I chose Mira-Bhayander Area along the Vasai creek as the most preferred site. As part of justification for the project, which was based on optimal utilization of existing infrastructure and available land, I decided to locate the proposed capital complex near Mira-Bhayander area north of Mumbai. This would enable the existing railway lines to be used both ways optimally. I also proposed a system of elevated and grade separated transportation systems, east-west links and a network of green ways and blue ways! All my experience of living in Mumbai was used in this project to make it feasible and sustainable! I had thought of linking all the beaches, water channels, lakes and the hills of national park in one continuous network of greens through which would pass a network of green ways. Similarly, all the coastal villages and important city nodes along the water would be connected by blue ways of water transportation making the city on water an enjoyable experience. It became more of a planning thesis rather than architectural design thesis!

When we set up our office in Malad West, Vikas Kosh, Comprehensive Development Consultancy Services, in 1976 we were full of energy and hope. We were lucky to be awarded a project to plan and design a large township in Baghdad by Maker Development Services Pvt. Ltd. A leading group of builders of Mumbai with many modern landmark buildings to their credit. We succeeded in the international design and build contract worth Rs. 125 crores. We were required to prepare a Master Plan for a new urban community of 15,000 people. It had 2000 apartments, 6 primary schools, 4 high schools, a district centre, two local centes, a community centre, youth centre, shopping centre, market, health centre, police station, mosque and a network of open spaces, play fields. We used our experiences of growing up in Mumbai and in India to create the concept of a new urban community. It was a walkable community connected with a network of pedestrian paths linking all the facilities. Each housing cluster had a small garden and tot-lot, which can be seen from each apartment balcony. A place for children to play and residents to relax and elders to spend time! The schools were provided with adjoining play grounds and the community had a recreation centre with a swimming pool, soccer field and volley-ball courts. These were properly laid out and connected with each other and housing clusers to provide a healthy environment to grow. It was a dream come true to see the students and youth enjoy their sports on these grounds in the greens!

We participated in national design competitions. Two of these were for the Asian Games in New Delhi. We designed an indoor stadium and an indoor swimming pool. These were some of the most radical designs in the competition in which only 9 architectural teams participated! We used cable suspended roofing system for our designs! We were ahead of our time! We did not win but we were very proud! I was inspired by Kenzo Tange, the world-famous Japanese architect who had designed the famous Olympic stadiums in Tokyo. We wanted to compete with the best teams of architects in the country!

In 199, We got the project to design a new city near Surat. We called it Nav Surat. We designed the new city for a population of 250,000. We developed a network of green areas with necessary educational, health care and social facilities in harmony with nature. We got an opportunity to work with Charle Correa on planning of a new node Ulwe with a target population of 350,000. It was quite a challenging task to plan on a difficult terrain with a narrow strip of coastal land, with gentle slopes, surrounded by low hills and mangroves on marshy mud-flats. We developed an organic plan with a network of green spaces, conserving the hill slopes and mangroves. The residential communities were provided with maidans and gardens. Charles Correa too loved cricket! The plans were modified later by CIDCO to make way for a new international airport. But that’s another story! Games politicians play!!!

Ar. Akhtar Chauhan, F.I.i.A.,

Architect, Planner & Educator,

Mumbai, India