Melaka is a city apart. You know it the instant you approach the city by road: no towering skyscrapers and condominiums to cower you. It’s a city laidback, almost dreamily, sprawling horizontally, content with its traditional architecture and at home with modern infrastructure. Unlike the gloom and decadence of a typical old city in the subcontinent, Melaka exudes freshness and contentment.
Published in Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan, in its Friday Magazine, 13 December 1996.
The first thing that strikes you when you land in Jakarta is its airport. The glass-covered pavilions and ramp ways are flanked on both sides by lush foliage and tall trees. You feel as if you are walking through a garden. A perfect blend of traditional Javanese structure and modern technology, the simple, graceful building of Sukarno-Hatta International Airport, opened in 1985–the recipient of the Aga Khan Architecture Award–is a window to the rich and unique cultural identity of Indonesian archipelago.
As the taxi drove down the busy intersection of the dual carriageway, lined with buildings, the driver asked us ”Which department?” Bewildered, we told him to first take us to the Institute. “This is the campus”, he said. So, we had already entered the Institut Technology Sepuluh Nopember, Surabaya. With no boundary walls, its many departments, administration blocks and the staff town intermingled with the city. Like a live organ of the throbbing metropolis. Unlike our academic institutes–walled, hedged, fenced, enclaved. Guarded by rangers. Isolated from the city and its dwellers. As if existing outside its space and time.
In Bali–the lush green, mountainous little island of the Indonesian archipelago–every other person you talk to has an artist in the family–a painter, sculptor, wood carver, dancer. As you drive away from Denpasar–the bustling capital city of Bali, the winding, smooth, metallic road is dotted with villages, each specializing in a different craft. In Batubulan live stone carvers, chipping away at big blocks of soft grey stone, carving out huge statues and enormous temple gates. Celuk is a thriving centre of silversmiths, creating intricate filigrees, fine jewellery and miniatures. In Sukawati people make wind chimes from bamboo and weave baskets from coconut-palm leaves. The villagers of Mas excel in wood carving–human and animal figures, face masks. The people in Puaya create leather shadow puppets for wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play).