An earthquake breaks apart a city. Office buildings, homes, stores—and the lives of the people who work, live, and shop—collapse. Landmarks, familiar for decades and in some cases centuries, disappear into the rubble. In the aftermath of this horrifying earthquake in western Gujarat in January 2001, Azhar Tyabji ’93 saw an opportunity to help. Putting his education in art history, history, and urban planning to work, Tyabji got involved in the town’s reconstruction efforts, and experienced, as he explains, “firsthand how deeply politicized the process could be” when what is at stake is not simply buildings but a community’s vision of itself. Tyabji wrote the award-winning book Bhuj: Art, Architecture, History to explore the challenges that arise when trying to heal wounds that are not only physical but cultural and emotional as well. He wanted his efforts to “foster public debate about the unstated tension between local Hindus and Muslims and [in this way] to use cultural preservation as a strategy towards overcoming attitudes that were really only grounded in ignorance and apathy.” He now gives regular talks in the region’s schools, helping children from diverse religious and economic backgrounds learn to see historic cultural landscapes from different, sometimes opposed, points of view.
The work Tyabji has undertaken in Gujarat demonstrates the kind of cross-disciplinary thinker that he is, one who has consistently strived to “put theoretical knowledge into practice” in his wide-ranging career in urban planning and urban design in Indian cities and around the world. He has been a member of architectural planning teams for a variety of projects such as developing a strategic heritage conservation plan for the Walled City of Jaipur; designing a new campus in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, for the National Institute of Design; and refurbishing a stretch of Marine Drive in Mumbai that combines heritage conservation and urban design.
Tyabji credits his undergraduate education in the humanities at IC as a key element in his ability to integrate questions of design with on-the-ground political and economic realities. “Each of the disciplines [I explored] taught me to look at ‘evidence’ from very different angles and to exercise a constant logic in shaping my decisions. I’ve come to realize that my professors were trying to sensitize me to how vulnerable we all are to making absolute judgments about things that might be difficult to pin down in any one school of interpretation.” This attitude of “humility,” says Tyabji, helps “keep our overconfidence in check and leaves us constantly open to putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.” In essence, the humanities taught Tyabji that “being empathetic is a necessary skill in order to work at the grassroots, as I do.”
Tyabji recently completed an M.Phil. degree in social anthropology at Cambridge University and hopes next to “break the impasse that exists between the management, design, and humanities disciplines” by becoming the first anthropologist in India with an appointment in an Indian school of business and management (the details are still being negotiated). “I’ve often wondered why we think of the liberal arts as being somehow distinct from, say, business management, when even management studies should require that we profess precisely the same liberal values that define the arts; the same insistence on logical thinking can be put towards sorting out civic/civil problems”—just as Tyabji has done for the last 16 years.