Strangers Who Crossed Paths to Make Architecture Inclusive

During the lockdown, nine strangers from around Tamil Nadu with a background in architecture and civil engineering got together to make the industry more approachable to the native population. “It all stemmed from our shared belief that progress is when we think global and act local,” opens Kaushik Shrinivas, the founder of MAAVILAI—previously Agazhi (we’ll get to that story in a bit).

Kaushik studied architecture in Chennai and pursued a career at COSTFORD (Centre of Science and Technology For Rural Development) in Trivandrum at Kerala. It came as no surprise that his passion for sustainable architecture and innate desire to be socially responsible only intensified out of the experience.

When the pandemic struck in 2020 and he was forced to return to his hometown in Chennai, the fire in him did not die. It burnt with more vigour. He took his laptop out of his bag and opened a fresh word document. The sound of rapid clicking enveloped the silence of his room as the blank white sheet slowly transformed to house his deepest thoughts and ideas towards making architecture and sustainable building more accessible.

“In a couple of days, I had a brief ready with the goals and objectives of the new company,” Kaushik recollects, “My next step was to send it around to as many people as I could who shared my interest in the cause,”

The journey involved reaching out to about eighty mutual friends, college professors and even profiles from social media!” he pauses with a laugh, “In fact, that’s how I met Arivukkarasi Manivannan (our very own Tamil Translator at GoTN). “I studied in Tamil Nadu’s most well-known architecture school. I used to go to the library often for my assignments. Sadly, there were barely any Tamil books there.” The disappointment led her to start a Tamil literary club and a poetry page which eventually led her to cross paths with the young entrepreneur.

Around the end of August, a virtual meeting was hosted with around twenty participants from which eight made it to the core team of the company. The young team consisted of the technically proficient civil engineer Aravind Manoharan, the civil engineer-cum-traditional architecture explorer Bharath Raju, the architect-turned-graphic designer Charuhassan P, the sustainable architecture enthusiast Mohamed Riswan Khan, and the architect-turned-poets Nisha Sathiyaseelan and Arivukkarasi Manivannan.

With Kaushik being an alumnus of COSTFORD, translating Laurie Baker’s books on sustainable architecture naturally became the first task for the team. “Laurie Baker’s books deal with core architectural topics like structural design and planning while also diving into the periphery of architecture like waste management and developing tourism,” explains Kaushik. The most compelling reason, however, was the fact that none of Laurie Baker’s books had copyrights which would simplify their publishing process. “His books were meant to be translated for wider reach,” gleams the young entrepreneur.

“It was peak lockdown and I didn’t know a single team member till the meeting,” reveals Kaushik with a sheepish smile. Organizing meetings with strangers to create an outcome is a Herculean task, (shout out to all of you who made it work through Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Google Meet). Nevertheless, the dream team, united by their desire to be socially responsible by making information available in their vernacular language—segregated their work and organized their timelines and by the beginning of 2021 six out of thirteen books were ready. “That was the first time the team met in person!” reveals Kaushik laughing.

The work on the books started with making an Agaradhi (a Tamil dictionary) listing popular English architectural words. “I remember how we spent months flipping through so many different resources to create a spreadsheet with architectural terms against their Tamil counterparts along with their source,” adds Arivukkarasi recollecting the process. Once that was done Arivukkarasi and Nisha started translating Laurie Baker’s non-technical books, Aravind and Bharath worked on the technical books, Charu worked on the graphic design and compilation while Kaushik organized the entire workflow and identity of the brand and its products.

Kaushik decided that he would set the foundation (pun intended) for their publication company’s future and decided that they would self-publish the books. They identified a printing press, started outreach through social media, and sent out versions of drafts to about six people from different backgrounds and walks of life for feedback. “We kept it as diverse as possible—from my mother to a mason to test its inclusivity,” he says. The final draft went through Mr. S.Manivannan, Arivukkarasi’s father, a retired engineer who had written a couple of Tamil books out of his life-long passion for the language.

The product was more or less ready and next in line was the registration of the startup. That was where the challenges began. “All of our outreach had been under the brand Agazhi,” Kaushik sighs, “During registration, we realized that the name had already been taken so we had to come up with a new brand identity altogether.” The team sat down and began to brainstorm. Several options were put on the table before they were finalized on ‘MAAVILAI’. “While Agazhi was an old Tamil word that meant repository, MAAVILAI seemed more approachable,” adds Arivukkarasi with a mysterious smile. The Instagram handle was renamed to @maavilai with a post nudging its followers to interpret the meaning behind the new name. My guess is that it signifies the celebratory mango leaf that adorns the entrance of buildings—perhaps to symbolize the start of something new and prosperous?

While blog writing, conducting workshops, starting a YouTube Channel, and eventually curating a magazine are on the line for the near future, one of MAAVILAI’s main goals is to employ people from diverse backgrounds to make the brand truly inclusive. “It is a privilege to work on an initiative out of passion, but not everyone can afford to follow their dreams. That is why the business plan and the costing of our books is one of the main areas we are working on,” says the founder, “We are looking to expand our team by including more people from marginalized communities as well to support them and gain a wider perspective.”

Meanwhile, MAAVILAI’s initiative has gained recognition from around the country. The team has received inquiries from Gujarat and Hyderabad about translating books into their respective vernacular languages. The demand has led the startup to contemplate starting a new line of service to help organize and support other teams from around India to translate information about architecture and construction technology into different languages.

MAAVILAI will be selling a set of nine books with 850 pages of content early this year at a price of Rs.1200 to institutions and individuals. To maintain inclusivity, the books will also be sold at a subsidized rate for students, construction workers, and rural communities. “With a shared belief and an intention to do good, anything is possible,” say Kaushik and Arivukkarasi in unison as we conclude.

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