There’s a fascinating tale told of how a Japanese-style house came to be built in India.
Asia’s first Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore visited Japan five times between 1916 and 1929. On one such visit, he was hosted by a Japanese silk merchant and art connoisseur Hara Tamitaro who invited the noted poet to stay in his home. Tagore agreed and stayed on the lavish estate for a few days.
Hara at the time was working on a project that involved dismantling historical houses and reassembling them in his garden. In Japan, many houses are made of wood panels with interlocking joints that can withstand earthquake – a frequent occurrence – and even if damaged can be reconstructed or shifted to another place and assembled once again easily.
During his stay there, Tagore, who had the opportunity to witness the dismantling and assembling of a traditional Japanese house, was so enamoured by the process and the structure, that he mentioned in a letter that he ardently desired such a house be "imported" and set up in India.
However, since importing a house to India was an expensive proposition, the plan was shelved. But a Japanese carpenter, Kasahara Kintaro, clearly a fan of the Nobel laureate, offered to build a small treehouse in Sriniketan, which is adjacent to the renowned Santiniketan and houses the second campus of Visva-Bharati University that Tagore founded, and the treehouse came up quickly.
It is said that the poet used to climb up and sit inside his beloved treehouse on most days, writing poetry and enjoying the tranquility. Sadly that treehouse did not survive the vagaries of nature.
Dream come true
A century later, Nilanjan Bandopadhyay, a poet and calligrapher, has fulfilled Tagore’s wish of having a Japanese house in Santiniketan.
When Nilanjan started learning the letters of the Japanese alphabet in the open-air school in Santiniketan, he did not imagine that his love for Japan would become as intense as that of Tagore himself.
"I guess my love for the Land of the Rising Sun began when I visited the country in 1999," says Nilanjan.
Enrolling at Reitaku University under eminent Indologist and Tagore scholar the late Kazuo Azuma’s supervision, Nilanjan soon developed a passion for all things Japanese. In fact, during the two decades since he enrolled at the university, Nilanjan has visited Japan 26 times!
"It was Professor Azuma and his wife Keiko, who inspired me to dream about a Japanese home that would be filled with the love and compassion that I had experienced in their home," he says. Little wonder then that after constructing his home, Kokoro, in 2018, the first thing Nilanjan did was erect a memorial to Kazuo Azuma in his garden – a gesture of homage to his mentor.
Kokoro, an architectural marvel
"Kokoro, which means ‘heart’ in Japanese, is not only a Japanese architectural marvel it also embraces the wabi-sabi lifestyle which is so much at the core of Japanese philosophy of living a peaceful life by accepting the imperfections," he says.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" in nature.
Kokoro is the only Japanese house of its kind in India and has hosted at least 70 Japanese guests – from artists, musicians, tea masters, to gardeners, architects and designers.
"Kokoro is a cross-cultural creative experiment. It also shows that as an Indian I have learned to accept the good things about other cultures. I really love the kindness and warmth of the Japanese people, their beautiful way of living and their simplicity," says Nilanjan, who is the Special Officer at Rabindra-Bhavana, the Institute of Tagore Studies and Research at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan.
Located in a serene corner of Purvapalli, in a plot of land that was allocated to Nilanjan by famous painter Jogen Chowdhury, the two-storey house has an area of 1,100 square feet. The garden, that was created first, has a black bamboo grove and plenty of Narcissus flower plants from Japan which bloom in winter. The garden is dotted with small water bodies, pebbled pathways and a dry stream with a bridge designed by Japanese master gardener Tsukamoto Fumio.
Inspired by Okakura Kakuzo’s interpretation of Japanese aesthetics with tea-culture in his book The Book of Tea, Nilanjan began developing the plan of a house based on his own perception of Japanese architecture. For this project he had the support of his friend and Santiniketan-based architect Milon Dutta.
The project took on a life of its own when Nilanjan connected with architect Sato Kengo, a young, talented Japanese architect, on Facebook who was so taken in by the idea that he was happy to not charge anything to get the design done.
"Sato was so passionate about the project that he made 50 drafts of the plan, assembled a six-member team that included carpenter Aoshima Kazuhiro and mending artist Sayuri Hasimoto. All of them worked for free."
Sato even got Nilanjan some Japanese paulownia doors from his grandfather’s step-chest that find pride of place under the stairs in the house, now combined into a new step chest designed for Kokoro.
"The best part was when the team was staying in Kokoro, they really made it their home. The aroma of Japanese food wafted from the house and they would sweep the floor with tea leaves because it is believed in Japan that it helps to clean the floor better. With them around, sometimes I felt that I was in Japan and it was a heady feeling," recalls Nilanjan.
The basic construction of the house finished in six months and it was built on a budget of Rs 2.5 million (Dh126,000) that includes the furniture, the kitchen and the bedroom necessities.
"I wanted my house to be imbued with the spirit of Japan. It should be simple, beautiful, modest, inexpensive, incomplete and should always be engulfed by a certain sense of emptiness, something that encompasses a wabi-sabi life," said Nilanjan.
The facade of the house is painted grey; inside the house the plaster is left exposed at places and the Japanese wood used to build the furniture has been left unvarnished. Intricate Japanese joinery method has been used in the wooden architecture of the house and in the furniture too.
"When the cement on the floor was wet, a cat had walked on it and left its paw marks. I left it like that because this is the imperfection I wanted in my house," said Nilanjan.
The key element of the house is "flow". Light flows in from windows which are in different sizes and at different levels casting ethereal shadows, an effect that Nilanjan wanted in his home. Space is not intercepted by too many walls.
It was this interesting space division in the house that fetched it the first prize in the annual exhibition of Space and Design Review in Tokyo in 2019.
The house incorporates every element of traditional Japanese living with some interesting innovations. The ima or the living space is a long, rectangular room at Kokoro. It has low wooden sofas, a legless chair with a red wooden box designed by Sato and two low tables. There is a genkan at the entrance where shoes and umbrellas are kept before entering the house.
Tea is the fulcrum of Japanese culture. Irori, in a traditional Japanese house, is a sunken hearth widely used in the winter to keep the room warm, burning wood or charcoal, and also to boil tea water or grill fish, meat and vegetables. The irori in Japan is considered a sacred place, where the hi-no-kami or the fire god resides.
In the living room on the ground floor at Kokoro, is an irori table with a sunken hearth where tea is made and food is cooked. A metal jizaikagi, an adjustable kettle hanger designed by Sato, steadily suspends a tetsubin, a cast iron kettle on the irori. While not in use, the kettle can be pushed up and away from view.
While irori is for everyday tea drinking, the tea room or kakoi is for tea ceremonies. A crawl door created inside the book shelves of the study on the first floor leads to the tea room that is lined with tatami mats.
Japanese tradition says that there can be no repetition in colour and form in the tea room and Nilanjan has followed it religiously. Ajioka Sosei, tea-master of the Urasenke School of Tea and a 17th-generation decedent of famous tea-master Sen no Rikyū, arranged tea utensils and accessories at the kakoi and performed the first tea ceremony there.
"I am not a stickler for rules in my house, but when it comes to the irori or the kakoi, I am very particular about maintaining the sanctity. Sometimes, guests have tried to use the hearth at the irori as an ashtray not realizing its significance or have wanted to use the tea room to discuss politics. This is something I have never allowed. Also, I will never serve tea in a conventional cup. It will be always a yunomi, a Japanese tea cup which never comes with a handle."
The house is generously sprinkled with artifacts, paintings, calligraphy and Ikebana. Japan can boast of spectacular pottery and it is usually named after the region from where it is sourced and Nilanjan has a veritable collection.
"I have ensured that nothing looks over the top. It is not a garish display of Japanese culture. All the things that are in my house have been painstakingly collected by me or gifted by friends in Japan. So each item has a story and a lovely memory attached to it," says Nilanjan.
Kokoro is meant to be a fluid space where aesthetics is always the priority. Nilanjan frequently changes the placement of furniture, paintings on the wall, cushions and mats according to season. Vases are changed, as are the flowers in them.
"I have also added a veranda-like structure resembling a Japanese engawa at the entrance and modified the kitchen a bit," he said.
All about decluttering
The pandemic year has helped Nilanjan understand better how exactly he wants Kokoro to look and feel.
"I have discarded clutter. Earlier, I had this tendency to display a lot of things together, but now, I only bring out the things that are relevant according to the current décor and season. If any visitor wants to see anything specific, I bring it out and show them."
When Indian guests visit Kokoro, they get a glimpse of how a modern Japanese house would look like. From the tokonoma, an alcove in the house that houses exclusive art objects, the furoba, the bathroom where wooden bath buckets have been installed from Japan, to the kotatsu, a table with a foot warmer that serves as a reading desk at the study, authenticity has been maintained. There’s a small bedroom on the first floor with bamboo blinds and wooden flooring and the guest room has unpolished flooring and futons stacked in the large closet.
The kitchen, called the daidokoro, has a brass sink and clay pots for cooking. There is space in the middle of the house from where a flight of stairs goes up to what Nilanjan calls the void. It gives the house a sense of continuity.
On a normal day you could find Nilanjan engrossed in calligraphy at Kokoro or writing poems or he could be tossing up a hearty meal with Miso soup, Japanese fried rice and Teriyaki chicken for his guests. Indian filmmakers, writers, painters and artists love to frequent Kokoro.
"It’s a pleasure to host guests. Well-travelled people visiting Kokoro have said that their takeaway from the house is peace and positive energy. The house is not about comfort and luxury. You do have to sit with folded legs for hours on the floor, but it gives you a glimpse into the wabi-sabi life and people realise and appreciate that," says Nilanjan.
Sometimes, guests also turn up unannounced. Once Nilanjan had left the keys of the house with his carpenters working in the garden only to come back and find out that two ladies, travelling from Kolkata, had coerced them to hand over the keys to them.
"The ladies opened the door and welcomed me like I was the guest. They told me they had already explored the house since I was not at home. Then they apologised for dropping in without informing me and left. I didn’t know if I should laugh or I should be aghast," says Nilanjan.
Since so many passionate people were involved in the making of Kokoro the journey was smooth, except for the time when construction was about to start and Nilanjan had almost thought that he would have to give up his dream.
"I am a cancer survivor for the last 21 years. When we were about to start work on the house, I came to know the cancer had suddenly spread all over my body. I had to go to Mumbai many times for treatment and then I started having doubts if I could pull it off. But in the end I did."
Kokoro has proven to be a haven of peace that has changed Nilanjan to a great extent. "I am better at anger management now, my mood swings are less and I can meditate and do yoga. I have learned to part with materialistic possessions easily and I am enjoying this sense of detachment. Wabi-sabi has taught me that your attachment should not be the cause of your suffering."
He feels at the moment the only thing missing is a Cherry Blossom tree. He intends to get one soon.
"If it doesn’t flower in this climate, I will try a bonsai," he says. He is also looking forward to the release of his book Kokoro: Imaging Japan in Santiniketan.