The specificity of Aranya’s urban planning laid in the intricate Master Plan designed by BV Doshi. The sector was divided in six areas structured by a hierarchical and irregular network of roads combining main roads, alleyways and small squares, connected to the central grounds and a market. Commercial spaces were included in the residential areas. Doshi’s sole architectural intervention was the design of 81 model houses regrouped in the first five lanes later known as ‘Lal Bangla’. These prototypes blended modernist elements with local materials and regional architectural traits such as the otta, an outdoor platform allowing for multiple uses and interactions between public and private space. I visited Aranya in March 2018, by coincidence only a few weeks after BV Doshi had received the Pritzker Prize for his architectural career. While most news articles mentioned Aranya as a brilliant example of the social dimension of his philosophy of design, the project was generally reduced to its architectural legacy. There was a startling discrepancy between the scope of Aranya, home to 80.000 people, and the optics of recognition that limited its representation to the experimental housing of Lal Bangla. In fact, only a few of these prototype houses had been left intact, since their owners had modernized most to the point of them no longer being recognizable.

Much more than the architect’s project, the heterogeneity of houses and buildings of Aranya struck first. Three decades had been long enough to see the original project evolve into a full-fledged neighbourhood featuring a wide gamut of dwelling types, dominated by one and two storey buildings, but also comprising public servant colonies and larger houses.

Contrary to traditional social housing projects usually afflicted by slow degradation after the delivery of the project, the stability offered to residents by house ownership and the adaptability of the project had kept Aranya in motion. While some of the original residents no longer were in Aranya, it was clear that the neighbourhood had maintained a social mix although its distinct parts regrouped households with similar income.

Beyond social and economic considerations, I noticed how the design of public space facilitated life in Aranya and helped the circulation of people. With careful attention to climatic conditions, the small squares in the shade of the adjacent buildings made for common spaces, play grounds and meeting places. In the evenings, the central grounds, near the commercial areas, filled with people.

A singular atmosphere prevailed in Aranya, as space seemed well-suited to life in a high-density neighborhood, allowing for interactions between the private and the public, the inside and the outside.

I could also witness some of the pressure and tensions exerted upon all Indian urban spaces, encapsulated in the erection of walls and fences around the middle and upper-class houses, while on the outside real-estate developers seemed keen to profit from Aranya’s quality of life. The construction of a skyscrapper branded as ‘Central India’s tallest landmark’ a few yards from Lal Bangla underlined Aranya’s difference.

Aranya was not meant as an isolated utopia beyond the city borders, but a pragmatic, low-cost and efficient response to housing shortage. From its inception it had never been preserved from speculation, but the contemporary greed of the real-estate market may present it with its biggest challenge yet. Swallowed by Indore’s rapid growth, it is now surrounded by affluent areas, bordered by busy roads, malls and hotels. Although BV Doshi’s Plan was scrupulously respected to this day, Aranya’s future is unsure, confronted with the scope and pace of urban development in the neoliberal age.

This body of work is an attempt at documenting the results of a thirty year old social and urban experiment, well and truly alive in all its complexity, but also the challenges faced by a unique neighbourhood. It also is the fruit of immersion in Aranya, and a contemplation of the forms and figures encountered in a capsule of urban India.

One-room buildings with such inclined roofs are scattered across Aranya and were designed as shops. Most are no longer used as.

Left and right : these two prototype houses have remained in their original condition, probably because their occupants are civil servants without property rights over them.

Aranya’s central ground was undeveloped due to lack of funding. It is used for functions and celebrations. Here a troupe of comedians have set up a stage where they perform Ramlila during the day.

The areas allotted to Middle and Higher Income Groups feature more expensive building materials such as glass, and the sight of gates and fences separating the entrances from the street is common.

Segments of 10 housing units were created, regrouped around small yards generally used for parking vehicles or drying laundry.

The small Narmada Colony for public servants presents a stark separation between the inside and the outside.

Security guards stand only before the affluent houses of Aranya’s Southeast.

About the artist

Arthur Crestani (born in 1991) is a French documentary photographer and an artist, living and working in the Paris region. He graduated in urbanism from Sciences Po Paris and in photography from ENS Louis Lumière (Paris). His relationship with India started with numerous stays in Delhi, especially between 2010 and 2014, partly thanks to a year-long academic exchange to JNU in 2010-11. His personal work investigates urban spaces and architecture in a social, political and aesthetic perspective. The human relationship to space is central to this work, in which he questions urban representations and imaginaries. Driven by the pleasure of the photographic act, his projects, while grounded in place and the real, often comprise a playful dimension. His works have been exhibited in France and abroad, most notably in Festival Circulation(s) (Paris) and Ishara Art Foundation (Dubai). A recipient of the CNAP grant for documentary photography in France in 2021, he has focused on making work in the Paris region since 2018.

This project is made possible with the generous support of Institut Francaise in India

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