Long before he forayed into the world of architecture, Balkrishna Doshi developed a passion for painting. He pursued it during his school days in Pune and attended additional classes under Venkatesh Patil. He was part of a group interested in plein air painting, especially done in watercolour. For college, he first considered enrolling in the Fine Arts Department of the J.J. School of Arts, Bombay. But he eventually changed his decision and joined the architecture course instead in 1947, under the advice of his art teacher.
Doshi was a constant sketcher throughout his career. He saw drawing as the most potent tool to conceptualize ideas. He always carried diaries and spiral-bound pads in his shirt pockets where he would write notes and sketch frequently (left to him, he may have even designed his shirt pockets to match the measurements of his sketch books). In all likelihood, he imbibed this practice from his guru, Le Corbusier, while working with him in the 1950s. From the master, he learnt that ideas come and go, and it is important to register them before they disappear. Besides the French Corbusier, Doshi also worked closely with the American architect, Louis Kahn. Both these legendary figures were immensely gifted draftsmen and saw architecture as an extension of their broader interest in art. Corbusier, in fact, spent his morning hours, making art at his personal studio, before going to the architecture studio in the afternoon, where Doshi worked as an apprentice. Both he and Kahn would have a life-changing influence on Doshi.
Doshi always saw himself as an artist first, and enjoyed the company of other artists. During his Paris days in the early 1950s, he got to know expatriates like S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar and Paritosh Sen, along with M.F. Husain who kept coming to the city to meet up with friends. Doshi also interacted with Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam and Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida, who were with him on the Graham Fellowship. American designer/ illustrator, Leo Leoni, was another close friend and introduced him to artists such as Alexander Calder, who would later visit Ahmedabad to work with the Sarabhais.
When Doshi worked on the Tagore Memorial Hall and Premabhai Hall in Ahmedabad (in 1967 and 1976, respectively), he added large curtains: like Corbusier’s large doors at the Assembly Building in Chandigarh, these were conceived as an intrinsic part of the design. Well into his career, Doshi re-emphasized in one of his interviews the impact Corbusier had had on him and his desire to copy the master and draw like him.
Another abiding inspiration for Doshi came from Indian miniature painting traditions. His paintings of his Ahmedabad studio, Sangath, were perhaps the first works to reflect this influence. While writing on Doshi, architect Ajith Rao eloquently describes how these works were created during the time Doshi spent at Sangath. Doshi also mentioned how the Egyptian Art Center and the paintings done on silk by Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy, may have provided the initial ideas for the studio and his paintings of it. But Doshi conceived these works more as a map, like the kind seen in Nathdwara city paintings. Doshi had already made an analysis of Shodhan Villa by Corbusier in Ahmedabad on the basis of a Rajasthani miniature painting. He prepared himself to look at Indian visual traditions in relation to the built forms from there on.
When he settled in Ahmedabad and established the Centre for Environment, Planning and Technology (today, CEPT University) in 1962, he invited many more artists into his circle. He had Jeram Patel, Piraji Sagara and Krushna Chhatpar join the faculty. Both Patel and Chhatpar later moved to Baroda to teach at the Arts Department of the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU). Given that Baroda was close by, Doshi remained in touch with them and with others at MSU, like N.S. Bendre, K.G. Subramanyan and Shankho Chaudhuri. Bhupen Khakhar, Gulammohammed Sheikh, P. Mansaram and Amit Ambalal were also friends of his, as was M.F. Husain, who designed a gallery on the CEPT campus on Doshi’s request.
Doshi’s own major plunge into the art scene occurred only after he reduced the number of building projects he took on. He now wanted more time for introspection and a lucid expression of his visual thoughts. It seemed like he had suddenly been blessed with time to enjoy something which he couldn't take up seriously earlier. Covid also played an important role in speeding up this shift. Some of Doshi’s early drawings of this period consisted of tree forms and branches. Doshi was beginning to find a new way of drawing with calligraphic pens on handmade paper. The language of drawing he had developed during his European days mostly comprised of thin lines that suggested volume through delineation. When he returned to art more seriously in his later years, he made greater use of thick bold lines with dark markers or pen ink to create shapes that were more graphical and sculptural. His life-long admiration for primitive and folk art and his innate interest in the human subconscious came to be reflected in many of these works. Some of these drawings also have the primeval charm of those seen in the Amdavad ni Gufa Doshi designed with Husain in 1990, a structure of subterranean quality, appearing as if it has been dug out from the earth.
Were these drawings in any way an expansion of Doshi’s architectural forays? I think so. One might find in them the tussle to remain grounded on the one hand while attempting to be free at the same time, much like calligraphy which works on a healthy balance of control and spontaneity. Doshi’s drawings were often done without preparation, while he sat on a chair or bed. The confidence and clarity of these lines are remarkable. And much like Paul Klee’s famous statement, it felt like he let the line go for a walk, and take its own course. Most of these drawings pulsate within a grid of structures that also refer to architecture, suggesting windows, pitched roofs, towers etc.
When he started lazer-cutting these drawings, they became even more architectural and relief-like. They cast entwined shadows and appeared to float, giving these works a new and complex edge. In a way, they became solidified drawings. Most of Doshi’s later drawings are to a certain extent built on early explorations he did while working on the Vidyadhar Nagar (Jaipur) urban plan. He revisited these images through the many proofs of screen prints that were lying with him since the first time he had conceived the plans. What started as collages later made way for digital manipulations and eventually images painted in acrylic on canvas. Doshi first worked on a tab and afterwards used the help of an assistant. What one sees in these works is the collation of fleeting images. They move from rigorous architectural drawings to something very imaginative and abstract. It isn’tdifficulttorecognizethatDoshi even saw architecture as something that emerged from fleeting memories of places he had seen. Each building is layers of super-imposed images coming together with a new atmospheric intensity. Even when some of Doshi’s images slip into a completely abstract realm, one can still trace a structural grid underneath and an on-going dialogue with geometry and organic form.
After a busy professional life of planning and building, Doshi in his last few years moved into the world of sheer poetry of imagination. Like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, he kept on restructuring the human habitat in myriad ways, with many of his drawing resembling medieval cities. Some of these may have harked back to all that he saw and remembered from his travels to places like Italy. It is also interesting to note that there not many full-fledged figurative works Doshi drew. For him, human presence was typically layered with architectural structures.
Was Doshi a late bloomer as an artist, like Rabindranath Tagore? Perhaps not. Undoubtedly, drawing was always a close companion for him. There was also the example of Corbusier to look up to. The intensity with which he worked and the number of works he produced in the last few years of his life is remarkable. I think he was himself rather amused to see the appreciation these works received from the art fraternity. At the end of the day, it felt as if he had come full circle, to a passion which had first drawn him to the arts.