Saturday, February 07, 2015

A Heartfelt Concern for Old Mosques

The US-based architect and conservationist Patricia Tusa Fels is doing research for a book on the mosques along the Malabar coast of Kerala, as well as those in Java and Sumatra in Indonesia and the coast of Malaysia. Her earlier book was on the mosques of Cochin

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram of Patricia Tusa Fells; the book cover and the Mishkal Mosque

Two weeks ago, the American architect and conservationist Patricia Tusa Fels went to see the Mishkal Mosque at Kuttichira in Kozhikode district. While there, she met two 11-year-old girls who offered to take her around. They showed her the mosque as well as the beautiful old houses nearby. “They knew a lot of stories about the mosques and the families,” says Patricia. “There is an oral tradition that exists and the stories have been passed from generation to generation by the women.” As she heard the stories Patricia took notes diligently.

The Mishkal Mosque was built, in the 14th century, by an affluent Arab merchant, Nakhooda Mishkal, and is named after him. Some of the other mosques she visited included the Juma Masjid and Muchchandipalli.

Patricia has an ambitious plan. She wants to write a book about the old timber-roofed mosques along Kerala's Malabar coast, as well as those on the coasts of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia and Malaysia.

And she has noticed some similarities. “The craftsmen in all these places were the local people,” she says. “The mosques were built with stone, but in Kerala, they used laterite. The design was similar to the local temples and palaces, except that, inside, there is one large hall, along with a verandah. Different religions need different types of spaces in their places of worship.”

She says these old mosques were made in an eco-friendly manner. “There is a natural breeze and light,” she says. “Energy-wise, they are wonderful structures. So I believe they should be maintained and sustained.”

Incidentally, Patricia has already written a book. It is called 'Mosques of Cochin', and has been brought out by Mapin Publishing. And, on February 4, she took part in a book reading organised by the Cochin Corporation.

Patricia's interest in mosques happened when she accompanied her husband Donald, who had come to Kerala on a Fulbright scholarship, a few years ago, from Seattle. As she wandered around, in places like Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, she noticed these old mosques. A chance meeting with Mohammed Iqbal, a former Cochin Corporation councillor, got Patricia interested in these buildings.

Iqbal told me that many of them were likely be torn down,” she says. So, Patricia decided to do research and write a book. And she got some timely help. Both she as well as the Kochi-based Centre for Heritage, Environment and Development received a grant from the Ford Foundation. Says Director Rajan Chedembath: “We decided to support Patricia's project because it is a pioneering work. When we describe the heritage of Kochi, mosques are seldom mentioned.”

Patricia is also worried about the lack of attention paid to these mosques. “Locals say half of the old mosques in Kochi have already been razed,” she says. “In the new mosques, there is a tendency to mimic the styles of Persia, Arabia, and North India. Unfortunately, the addition of domes, minarets, columns and flat roofs to the old mosques lack proportion and integrity. There is little relationship to the local climate. Low-ceiling spaces turn into broilers during power cuts.”
The use of concrete is also jarring. The mosque at Cranganore, one of the oldest in India, is encased in concrete, with a tiny portion of the old, tiled roof peeking out. Changes have also been made to the Juma Masjid, Chembitta Palli and the Calvathy mosque. “It is modern kitsch,” says Patricia.
So, hopefully, her books will raise awareness among the people. “Patricia’s work has highlighted the need to preserve mosques,” says Rajan. Adds Patricia, “Through the books, I want to show the beauty of the mosques, and the need to celebrate their history. Hopefully, in future, old mosques will not be demolished.”
Meanwhile, during her current visit, Patricia was happy to see that old buildings, like the Aspinwall House at Fort Kochi and the spice godowns on Bazar Road in Mattancherry have been cleaned up, thanks to the Kozhi Muziris Biennale. “It was interesting to go inside these buildings, which were not accessible earlier,” says Patricia. 

And these buildings are playing an important role. “It makes the art more approachable, because of the spaces in which the installations have been placed,” she says. “Art is not just for the elite. It is for everybody. Thanks to these buildings, the people can have a relationship with the art works.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)   

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