You may have seen the gorgeous oval building in the ‘Golden City’ in the hot Indian desert, and admired the design and the craftsmanship of the men who carved it from the local yellow sandstone. But the people who funded it, and the architect who designed it, want you to focus on something else – all the girls who will get a chance for a different future because of that school, and all the women craftspeople who also will get such a chance through a women’s cooperative that will be the next phase.
Citta built the school in Jaisalmer in the desert state of Rajasthan because they say, in all of India, that is the area with the lowest female literacy rate – 36%. While governments have been working on different schemes to get more girls into school, Citta decided to focus on persuading communities by offering them economic incentives. Soon, 400 girls, ranging from kindergarten to class 10, will be studying at the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School.
Michael Daube, the New York artist who founded CITTA, says the school is the first of three buildings which will make up the Gyaan Centre. The others will be a women’s cooperative and an exhibition/performance hall and textile museum. “I realised that through an economic avenue, I can entice these communities to send their girls to school,” Daube said. “I decided to build a girls’ school and a women’s economic development centre focused on preserving the dying handicraft traditions of the region of the Thar and the Sindh.” The goals are inter-linked. As Vogue India puts it, while Rajasthan is known for its “vibrant colours of leheriya and bandhini textiles, handmade juttis and the beautiful intricate enamelling of kundan jewellery,” its low literacy means local craftspeople aren’t able “to make their unique cultural savoir-faire relevant in contemporary corporate India”.
Craftspeople will teach weaving and printing to the mothers, sisters and aunts of pupils who want to earn a livelihood and there will be a marketplace where crafts will be displayed for tourists who in non-pandemic times, came to see the sun set on the nearby sand dunes.
Architect Diane Kellogg met Daube by chance, at a time when she was looking for opportunities beyond the luxury projects she had been working on in New York. She was impressed by how he got to know the communities he worked with, rather than “just superimposing a one-size-fits-all Western idea of positive change.” Citta’s model for working with communities, HEED (Health, Education, and Economic Development), focuses on addressing a community’s specific needs “to produce an environment of equanimity and stability….that provides opportunities and a sense of initiative and pride in its inhabitants”.
She, too, got to know the community better over a five year period as she worked on the design. The area is known for its intricately crafted sandstone buildings, and Kellogg tapped into that local expertise for the school, which was built primarily from hand-carved sandstone. “I didn’t feel it was appropriate to bring in other kinds of materials, because I wanted the girls to feel comfortable, to feel like it was familiar,” she says. “I also very much wanted to work with local craftsmen in a way that was contemporary, so that people there could see that this kind of incredibly fine stone work could be translated into modern forms.”
To find work, many of those craftsmen have to migrate to Mumbai, so this project gave them work that allowed them to stay at home. “We can carve anything out of it,’ they said (of the local sandstone). And they did,” Kellogg said, adding that the skilled local artisans made everything from individual bricks to sculptural water-cooler openings in the yellow stone. “When we couldn’t find the right sized sinks for the washrooms, they carved them out of solid stone.”
Much local knowledge went into the design. The courtyard form of the building is common in the region, providing protection from the extreme desert climate. The center of the school does double duty as a playground and a cistern where water is collected based on the region’s ancient water harvesting techniques, and gray water is recycled for reuse in the school’s toilets. But there are modern touches, like the solar panels that are installed as a canopy over the school’s roof; their metal framework doubles as the structure of a jungle gym. It is the first time solar panels have been installed in Jaisalmer.
The design, while original and contemporary, echoes the curved walls of Rajasthan’s famous forts, blended with a feminine symbolism. “I saw the oval as a symbol for womanhood across many cultures,” Kellogg says. “Once I began sketching, it also resonated with me as the formulation of infinity.” Fittingly, many women were involved in the project, she notes, including her two architectural assistants, Basia Kuziemski in New York and Arya Nair in Delhi.
The beautiful building is completely different from most local schools, which tend to be concrete boxes. Many of the girls who will study here come from poor one-room homes, and many of them walk around in wide-eyed disbelief that they will be studying here, says program manager Chahat Jain. “I feel free here,” one little girl told him. Some of them are daughters of the craftsmen who built the school.
“Parents also feel a sense of security from knowing that mothers or aunts will be in the same complex learning from artisans while the girls’ study,” he says.
“The comments that have come in are heart-warming,” Kellogg says. “The girls find the space to be free and comfortable. I wanted to do something that contained, nurtured, and healed (if required). I think girls are more vulnerable – and so I wanted to make a safe place, and they have now been dancing and skipping around. They also love their uniforms.”
The school has extensive local interest and support. The land, near Kanoi village, was donated by hotel owner Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, who has also joined the CITTA Indian board, along with two members of the Jaisalmer royal family. The girls’ uniforms were designed by wedding designer Sabyasachi Mukheree, using an ancient woodblock printing technique known as ajrakh, and made by local weavers and tailors. The uniforms blend Muslim and Hindu styles, and don’t look at all like British-style uniforms. The building is made of local Jaisalmer sandstone hand-carved by local craftsmen, many of whose daughters will attend the school. The textile museum shows off pieces from nearby villages.
The first part of the Gyaan Centre, due to open in March, was postponed by the pandemic. “I think the world is finally understanding the issues faced by women and a challenging time like Covid gives people time to ponder on what may or may not be a priority in life,” says Daube.
“‘Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community.’ I read it somewhere in India”, says Kellogg.
Diana Kellogg and ovals in the sand. The Hindu, Jan. 8, 2021
‘I feel free here’: how a miracle girls’ school was built in India’s ‘golden city’. The Guardian, Oct. 30, 2020
Architecture that nurtures, heals, protects: the Gyaan Center in Jaisalmer. Stir World, Jan. 23, 2021
An AD100 award-winning, sustainable school in Jaisalmer that aims to empower women. Architectural Digest, Dec. 17, 2020
See the beautiful school these dads built for their daughters. Fast Company, May 17, 2021