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Spotlight: Aftab Jalia

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Aftab JaliaAftab (far left) on site visit with government officials.
Click to enlarge photograph
Aftab Jalia (ISP 2006-08) has an SMArchS degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is working for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in New Delhi.

I would like to begin this biographical piece by describing my response to an invitation from the local Aga Khan Education Board for Pune to provide orientation to young students on Architecture as a career. Delighted to accept their offer, I arranged for the session to be held at IUCAA, a research facility at the University of Pune designed by my mentor and renowned architect, Charles Correa. I chose the venue in order to introduce students to good architectural design but in retrospect I find the connection was deeper than it appeared to me then.

The first major milestone in my academic career came with my selection for a six-month undergraduate internship with Charles Correa’s office in Bombay in May 2005. Six months with him taught me a great deal not just about better architectural design but also about the importance of excellence in work, integrity of character and professional responsibility. My training was rigorous, filled with unprecedented challenges, and prepared me for three subsequent events that would further shape my learning: acceptance to the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; qualifying for the prestigious Aga Khan Foundation scholarship; and obtaining the position of Research Assistant with ArchNet, a web-based community of Islamic architecture scholars and professionals.

MIT introduced me to a whole new world. It not only gave me new eyes to see but also taught me to believe in more than what could be seen. The thing about MIT really is that one is surrounded by extremely passionate and incisive minds. One can never cease to learn at such an institution and a year after graduation, I still find myself craving for more.

The Aga Khan Program at MIT works as a joint program with Harvard University, allowing students to study at both institutions and to benefit from the incredible offering. The Program Director, Professor Nasser Rabbat, constantly prompted me to question and reason with an open mind, and gave me complete freedom to explore new modes to express my ideas. Encouraged by MIT to avail myself of interdisciplinary collaborations, I often found myself working with snooty design students from Harvard’s feted Graduate School of Design and geeky ones from MIT’s renowned Media Lab.  MIT has given me a certain thirst for learning that I find difficult to douse. AKF’s generous grant enabled me to comfortably concentrate on my studies and experiment freely in financial comfort.

For my thesis at MIT, I collaborated with a young filmmaker and co-directed a short film on a little-known Indian architect, Nari Gandhi. A neglected genius of post-independence Indian architecture, Gandhi’s work capitalized on the traditional crafts of India, using laborious construction methods. The buildings produced through his methods are unlike any other creations of the era. Known to work ‘on-site’ with workmen ignoring influential clients, Gandhi broke the rules of the regular architect who worked at his drawing board in an air-conditioned office. Nari Gandhi passed away in 1993 leaving behind a poignant legacy in ignorant bliss. His work has inspired me to inculcate his humane values in my own practice. In subsequent years, as my involvement in architectural design intensifies, I wish to live my work and have it reflect my understanding of life.

And now, delighted to be back in my homeland, I am proudly committed to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s (AKTC) developmental efforts in New Delhi, which include conserving the 450-year old Humayun’s tomb complex buildings; renewing heritage in Nizamuddin basti, which even predates Humayun’s tomb; and developing an urban park at Sunder Nursery, north of this historic site – which is my main task at the office. I am working on preparing a program to design new buildings at Sunder Nursery. An ambitious project, my team and I believe it will contribute to New Delhi’s cityscape and enrich the Nizamuddin community. The opportunity to work on such a project and to know that my work will make a positive impact on the lives of fellow citizens is very satisfying. At AKTC I am also learning to understand the realities of working with government agencies and realizing the importance of civil participation required in such efforts.  I hope to continue working with communities in the years to come.

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