Vikram Lall : An uncompromising aesthete

                                           (Vikram Lall seen here with his wife Anne Marchal and daughter Tara)

     

To some souls, beauty is a trusted intoxicant. They would happily give up their lives for it. Vikram was one such, an eternally journeying rasik in the untranslatable sense of the term. He made his life and livelihood as an architect, the Buddha Smriti Park in his hometown Patna probably being his finest work. He had a significant role also in the design of the Akshardham temple in Delhi. He spoke of how much he learned in the process from traditional vastukars, of how different it was to work on this project where chaos reigned in the meetings, but there was always order in practice, as opposed to his work on the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad,  whose orderly meetings had little to do with the chaos at the building site! Modernity and tradition play strange tricks on each other in this land.

An unquenched thirst of the imagination was the mark of Vikram’s personality. In all situations, it was always the aesthetic dimension which leapt out at him first.

We shared a Patna childhood in the 1970s. From the time we were boys, Vikram had a very swift and steady hand at drawing. He could stand before a river or at a street-corner, take in the whole view, and sketch what lay before him very quickly. He had a honed, sensitive eye for detail, without ever losing the larger perspective. From some of his drawings you can feel the breeze on the leaves of trees guarding old monuments. Lifelong, his search was for aesthetic authenticity.

An unquenched thirst of the imagination was the mark of Vikram’s personality. In all situations, it was always the aesthetic dimension which leapt out at him first. He had to know everything about the context before imagining and designing a building. His enormous admiration for, as well as diverging views from the architect of Chandigarh, Le Corbusier, might have been rooted in this all too forgotten Indian respect for context. As a result, he became much more than an architect. Whenever he could find time from his professional work, he poured over books of art, history, poetry, philosophy, and religion to enrich his understanding of what he did in architecture. We would have endless conversations about the world’s vanishing heritage, about metropolitan expansion, and the enormity of challenges that aggressive modernity posed to culture and civilisation everywhere. Given my own abiding concerns, ecological renewal was a constant theme in our conversations.

Never one in haste to achieve cheap fame in a tawdry world, Vikram spent over two patient, often lonesome decades doing extensive field studies of Buddhist monuments, travelling for long periods to over twenty countries with his team of photographers. He can be said to have pioneered the study of Buddhism from an architectural perspective. Nobody anywhere had attempted this before him, something which the Dalai Lama himself noted. He wished to understand the consistency of philosophy underlying the diverse practices of Buddhism in different Asian cultures through an architectural lens. He intended to write a series of six visually illustrated volumes based on the enormous amount of material which he had gathered. But, as the Greeks have held, life is short, art is long. Only the first volume could appear before his untimely demise. He was working on the second volume - on the Indic region - when he suddenly left us. It is up to young architects to take up the challenge, by drawing inspiration from his work.

A mark of Vikram’s character was his very down to earth humility. He could be the President of the Oxbridge Society of India, but used his honorary position to support little known folk or classical musicians from around the country.

Magnificently produced, The Golden Lands (JF/ Abbeville, NY, 2014) is a story told beautifully in vivid images, drawings, and words. It is anything but a coffee-table entertainer, even if it resembles one. Traversing more than two millennia, it offers a clear, comprehensive account of the Buddhist architecture of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia. The book is full of insights such as the homology the author illustrates between the cardinal Buddhist notions of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha on the one hand, and their architectural expressions in the Stupa, Caitya-Griha, and Vihara respectively, on the other.

Music was Vikram’s other lifelong companion. He was a most perceptive and knowledgeable critic of Hindustani classical music. He had enormous patience for it. I recall a day when all he played for me the entire afternoon was Agra Gharana’s Ustad Faiyyaz Khan’s recordings - till my slow head understood what a bol taan was! He had no less patient a ear for the shrutis. We would both readily agree that music has always been a ‘higher’ language of humanity, whose expressive heights words could never hope to scale when it was sung or played well. Close to many classical musicians, Vikram hosted a series of Doordarshan Baithaks a few years ago. Whenever he was alone, he had a guitar nearby to restore himself at night from an exhausting day’s labours, singing (sentimentally!) some forgotten composition of genius from Madan Mohan or Naushad. His knowledge of the history of Bombay film music was encyclopaedic. Vikram was a popular lecturer, not just on architecture, but also on music.

A mark of Vikram’s character was his very down to earth humility. He could be the President of the Oxbridge Society of India, but used his honorary position to support little known folk or classical musicians from around the country. He would very often organise baithaks for them at his Delhi home, to which anyone interested was welcome. His warm, cheerful disposition struck everyone who met him.

The stresses and strains of global metropolitan life, especially under Covid conditions, became too much for Vikram in the end. Like millions of others, he felt boxed in from all sides, hating the predicament that has been generated in India and around the world.

Photography was Vikram’s interest too. His vast archive spilled over with breathtaking images from around India and the world. He would love to take his beloved daughter Tara on birding trips and they would come back with a trove of delightful pictures. I always knew Vikram to be a doting, caring father and husband. Father and daughter would often cook together when his wife Anne, a high-ranking EU diplomat, was posted abroad. He would speak with fondness of Tara’s precocious intellectual prowess in mythology and beamed with pride when she won her school’s pingpong tournament! He always expressed admiration for Anne’s great competence as a diplomat, particularly of her knowledge of the politics of the Sub-Continent, about which his own understanding was relatively amateurish.

Not seldom were our conversations about our always fresh memories of Patna and Bihar. With childhood friends from Bihar, it is always possible to share bhojpuri humour! We would recall pranks we played on teachers at St. Michael’s, or on each other in the school’s swimming pool.

We spoke of our parents (who too have been friends for long), about whom he was always concerned and for whom he could extend himself to any lengths when he was needed as, most recently, when he spent a month in India to be with his ailing father. We often discussed how impossibly difficult global modernity has made it to attend to our responsibilities to our nearest kith and kin, of the growing, enormous cost that technology exacts from us for every convenience that is sold to us. Vikram spoke most affectionately at my mother’s 80th birthday celebrations some years back. His affable nature endeared him to everyone.

Our long afternoon and evening conversations, which served to replenish our souls, is something that I will miss dearly. To be able to live in a time - and at a pace - different from one’s own surroundings, anyone needs love and friendship. There is a sense of the eternal that surrounds my memory of all we shared, for we travelled into the distant future, no less than into the ancient past together. And in between, there was in-dwelling too.

Our last conversation was less than a month ago, when Vikram was here in Delhi to attending to his ailing father and came home for a meal. After a Bihari dinner of methi parathas and panch-phoren ka rasa, we found ourselves, strangely, contemplating death, especially one’s own, and about how much more mysterious than death is life itself. He spoke for long about detachment. Little was I to know, though perhaps he knew… 

Vikram’s life and work is proof that under all the cowardly barbarism and horror of our times, beauty perennially abides. You just have to stay away from the internet as much as possible and slowly grow into the art of letting it discover you.

The stresses and strains of global metropolitan life, especially under Covid conditions, became too much for Vikram in the end. Like millions of others, he felt boxed in from all sides, hating the predicament that has been generated in India and around the world.

As one would expect from someone of his temperament, Vikram had a taste for good food. He would often get teased about it. Sadly, he was also undone by it. Having already survived one severe heart attack in his forties, his strained body succumbed to this one.

Perhaps true to poetry, Vikram breathed his last on Ghalib’s birth anniversary. Over the years we had spent hours together talking about urdu poetry. Subah hoti hai, sham hoti hai, yun hi zindagi tamaam hoti hai. Every now and then these lines of Mir’s, so poignantly true of the lives of millions today, cruelly broken by the world, were on his lips.

Vikram’s life and work is proof that under all the cowardly barbarism and horror of our times, beauty perennially abides. You just have to stay away from the internet as much as possible and slowly grow into the art of letting it discover you.

You lived well, dear friend, and leave your child-like, disarming smile in many sad hearts. In the lap of the Goddess now, you must be in bliss!

(Dr.Aseem Shrivastava is the author, with Ashish Kothari, of ”Churning the Earth:The Making of Global India”. He teaches Ecosophy at Ashoka University)

(The picture of Vikram Lall with a Buddhist monk in Bagan, Myanmar has been taken by Marc Schlossman)

(The page extracts are from the book The Golden Lands- Architecture of the Buddhist World)