The Legacies of Architect Pravina Mehta for Feminism and Indian Modernity

Mary N. Woods
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA

Cast off your veils and step outside your homes, Sarojini Naidu-a leader of the Indian independence struggle-urged her sisters, to free yourselves and India. Women were the builders, she asserted, of the new nation. Pravina Mehta (1923-1992 or 1925-1988) answered Naidu's call to action, coming into the streets to protest the British Raj and then studying architecture first in Bombay (now Mumbai) and then Chicago.  Although only a few of her buildings survive today, Mehta created a diverse practice. She designed   houses and factories as well as schools and institutions. Along with Charles Correa and Shirish Patel, she also envisioned a new Bombay, expanding this island city to the east on the mainland. Her life and work reveal the challenges as well as opportunities women and Indian architects faced over a remarkable period from the independence struggle to Nehru's modern state and finally to the waning years of a planned and centralized economy. Mehta recast the modernism she had experienced first-hand in the West for an independent and resurgent India.  The "handcrafted" modernism she created for a new nation projecting into the future while struggling to recover its past is examined here.  Mehta's legacy, I will argue, engages questions of social idealism and nationalism as well as tradition and modernity.  To explore its fate in today's globalized India, I refer to the Mumbai and Delhi practices respectively of Brinda Somaya and Sonali Rastogi,  two women from different generations. 

Women's emancipation in South Asia was, as Kumari Jayawardena astutely observed, "acted out against nationalist struggles, assisting a national identity and modernizing of society."  Pravina Mehta insisted, as do her sister architects today, that she was simply a modern architect. She bristled at being identified as a woman architect. Why does feminism have such limited purchase, both today and in the past, among women architects in India?  Did the feminist struggle defer to the nationalist cause or have Indian women, beginning with Pravina Mehta, crafted a different kind of feminism in their lives and practices?