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The Indian Bungalow: Contextualizing the Bungalow in the country of its origin

The following text is republished from an article in our Spring 2014 e-newsletter, written by our then-intern, Surabhi Kanga, who was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Surabhi wrote this research article as part of her internship, and we thank her for this valuable historical information on the origin of the "bungalow"!


The origin story of the bungalow is an odd, two-sided narrative. Historians confirm that the word ‘bungalow’ came from the word ‘bangla,’ meaning ‘of or from Bengal,’ as in the western province of the Indian subcontinent. The original ‘bungalows’ were huts, with mud walls and thatched roofs, built by and for peasants in rural areas. These structures remained largely unchanged until the arrival of the British Raj on Indian shores.

For the British, the idea of a single, outward-facing dwelling that was separated and private seemed much more like their idea of residence than the courtyard-centric houses that were the norm in towns and villages. Most Indian housing was very communal; neighbors and families shared huge courtyards and walked in and out of each others’ rooms and lives. They adopted the idea of the bungalow as a structure that they could reinvent to suit themselves.

Illustration from 1876 of a colonial bungalow in India.

Bungalows were usually large, built on sprawling compounds, initially with a kuccha (impermanent) canvas or thatched roof that was reinforced in brick or mortar in later models. The layout was fairly standardized, with a large central room, leading off to several others that could be used as bedrooms, studies or dens. In most designs, a verandah (opened gallery or porch) surrounded the building on three or all four sides. The colonial bungalow came with an entourage of workers, each with a specific task. The nature of development was such that it would have been impossible to service such a building without help. There was the khitmatgar (head cook and cleaner), the punkawallah (literally, fan-puller, responsible for keeping the fan moving with a rope), the ayah (nanny), the dhobi (laundry man) and many more, all to be managed by the British memsahib (madam). The servants were often accompanied by their wives, children and in some cases, even their parents and parents-in-law resulting in a compound teeming with people. “I did a count one day,” recounted one Major-General [1], “I think it came to sixty-seven.”

For the elite and professional Indian, the bungalow life was the symbol of everything that was not possible for them during the Raj: a prosperous, leisurely lifestyle, with lush personal gardens for farming small fruits and vegetables, a verandah for afternoon tea and evening cigars, and a parade of servants to boot. Writer Malavika Karlekar quotes the daughter of a civil servant from present-day Bangladesh, describing it as a “life dependent on the labor of others” [2]. Once the British left in 1947, this life was adopted and carried on by the bureaucrats and politicians, unfortunately condemning the bungalow to signify elitism and class divide once again.

However, the associations of the bungalow life with leisure had started to make their way back to England in the late 1860s. And thus began the second dimension of the bungalow life, which is quite often overlooked by the land from which it came.

The bungalow, as a symbol of leisure, was translated into the first ever ‘summer cottages’ near London. The first of these appeared in the Kent development of Westgate-on-Sea in 1869-70 [3]. The urban middle and upper-middle class were emerging in Britain, and the idea of alternate living, of a slower pace and more secluded lifestyle seemed to be making its rounds. The ideas of simple, open spaces, with wide courtyards and gardens were gaining momentum, especially in the form of the Arts and Crafts movement that made its way from Britain to North America. The idea took a back seat during the First World War, but the discontent with the status quo increased by the end of the war, as did the attraction of ‘alternate living’. As farming and industrialization increased, technology made it very easy for the communication of the bungalow to most parts of the world. Wealth was increasing, and so were leisure hours; an urban international culture emerged, with a yearning for a simpler life and closeness to nature, all of which could trace its roots to the image of the simple and small community lifestyle of the Indian bungalow. For the world, it would seem that the bungalow was an idea whose time had come.

It is possible, perhaps, to argue that the bungalow living that made its way around the world was in fact, a remnant of the colonial bungalow. After all, leisure during the Raj was afforded only to the colonial officers or the wealthy. But it must be considered that the idea of a bungalow as sort of family home, with a compound large enough for the children to play in, or enough room to house even fruit and vegetable gardens, was very much Indian. Many aspects of the architecture itself were suited to Indian sensibilities, and often left the British residents feeling an ‘absence from Old England’ [4]. While reading memoirs of men and women from the time, one can glean that although quite a few of them adapted or were charmed by the communal lifestyle, many of them seemed to find it disquieting to be living in such an environment. Rudyard Kipling, whose writings are some of the most famous products of the time, paints extensively vivid portraits of the servants as akin to ghosts; always a nagging presence, never to be fully a part of one’s life, hanging around one’s shoulder or behind the curtain. His writings contain clear confirmations of his discomfort with bungalow life and his distaste for the customs that came to be associated with it. “My grievance, so far as I can explain in writing, is that there are too many tenants in the eight, lime-washed rooms for which I pay,” he writes [5]. Unlike what the rest of the world began to believe by the end of the century, it seems that for Kipling and his compatriots, the colonial bungalow life was “not a pretty thing when [looked] into too much" [6].

It is clear that while the British colonials attempted to appropriate the Indian bungalow and the sort of rural community lifestyle, they were for most part largely unsuccessful. Even the ones who adapted well seemed to be speaking of their experiences as interesting aberrations in their lives; most were skeptical of allowing their kids to be brought up in the bungalow environment, preferring instead to send them to England and to private schools. For the colonials, the bungalow life was an unavoidable circumstance; the simple construction, community-reliant life and their stay in India was to them as kuccha (impermanent) as the roof they lived under.

Over the past sixty decades and more of Indian freedom, the bungalow has seen various layers of identity coat its walls. After the colonial layer came the post-colonial bungalow, which was occupied by the maharajas and nobles that started to lose relevance after democracy was established. Soon the bungalow began to transform according to the reigning architectural style of a city: in Mumbai (then Bombay) it was Art Deco, and in Bengaluru (then Bangalore) it was Gothic style. In the rest of the world, even the British Isles, bungalow living was a significant and important choice, as was the simple and open living it suggested. It was a choice to have a more open home, to be closer to nature and the ground from which grew the food. While the relationship of Indians with the bungalow is still rather fraught with colonial overtones, maybe it is time to recognize them as one of the greatest architectural contributions of India to the world, to give them credit in a global context. Maybe, it is time for a fresh coat of paint.

Sources [1] Odling, Major-General, cited from the online archive of a Louisiana State University exhibition in 1996 titled “British Voices in South Asia”. [2] Karlekar, Malavika, 2011, A Life in Bungalows- Close Encounters of the Colonial Kind, The Telegraph, Calcutta. [3] King, Anthony D., 1982, An Indian Contribution to the West, History Today. [4] Glover, William J., 2004,“A Feeling of Absence from Old England:” The Colonial Bungalow, Home Cultures, Vol. 1 Issue 1, p. 61-82. [5] Kipling, Rudyard, cited in Glover, 2004, p.77. [6] Conrad, Joseph, 1899, Heart of Darkness; “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or who have slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

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