The Social Significance of Mr Nazeer Khan’s Architecture (Part One)

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
E-mail: spahico@yahoo.com
 

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Mr Nazeer Khan in a furniture factory in Indonesia supervising the manufacturing of the furniture he designed for his buildings. The factory is one of two in Indonesia which cater primarily to his architectural and interior design needs.

 

Introduction

In this paper, the social significance of Mr Nazeer Khan’s architecture will be discussed. The discussion will revolve around the relationship between Mr Nazeer Khan’s architecture and Kerala[1] Muslims’ economic transformation, as well as Kerala state’s interfaith harmony. The study is not about delivering judgments concerning Mr Nazeer Khan and his architectural exploits from a sheer perspective of architecture as a synthesis of art, science and technology, for such could significantly narrow at once our purpose and focus, and could divert our attention from some vital thrusts of the subject at hand. Rather, the study is about Mr Nazeer Khan’s architecture and Kerala’s religious and socio-economic molds, and how they correlate with each other, the latter clearly dictating and shaping the former. It is only against this expansive and complex backdrop that Mr Nazeer Khan’s architecture could be properly observed and appreciated. A restricted and one-sided approach – regardless of what it might be — would in all likelihood lead to some incomplete, patchy and even unfair opinions and inferences.

 

The paper is divided into four sections: (1) Why this study? (2) Who is Mr Nazeer Khan? (3) Kerala Muslims’ economic transformation; (4) Mr Nazeer Khan’s architecture and Kerala’s interfaith harmony; (5) Mr Nazeer Khan’s architecture: diversity in unity.

The content of this study is based, mainly, on the author’s lengthy interviews with Mr Nazeer Khan and many of his clients, as well as on the author’s field visits to a majority of Mr Nazeer Khan’s completed and ongoing projects. The interviews and field visits took place in 2013 and 2014.

 

 

Why this Study?

I have to admit that while researching and writing about Mr Nazeer Khan and his architecture, I often, especially during the early stages, wondered why exactly I was doing it. I wondered because my understanding of architecture vastly differs from Mr Nazeer Khan’s, and from what he in actual world most of the time delivers. Still, however, something potent was pulling me towards the prospect of researching and writing this study. At first, I was not sure what it was, but later, as I interacted more and more with Mr Nazeer Khan, his sundry buildings, diverse clients and fascinating Kerala multi-religious groups and their vibrant and energetic lifestyles, I came to realize that it was my growing belief that a big chunk of Mr Nazeer Khan’s architecture, as a matter of fact and despite what others may think, mirrored and symbolized much of that dynamic, versatile and fast-transforming Kerala life. I realized that such an architectural philosophy and style are to be viewed through the prism of the total way of life in which they were envisaged and wherein they were translated into a physical space. They were not to be viewed only through the lens of architecture as pure art, science and technology. Here, just as everywhere else, the world of architecture is to be expanded into the higher and more sophisticated realms of existence. Existence, on the other hand, is not to be distorted or narrowed down, so as to go well with the corporeal ingredients and dimensions of architecture only. The orb of architecture, it follows, is to become known as an ultimate spiritualized and “supernatural” orb, whereas the life phenomenon is not to be mechanized or rendered merely physical, inconsequential and perfunctory just on account of some of us falling short of penetrating into its complex meanings and secrets.

In other words, Mr Nazeer Khan’s architecture, far from being perfect or exemplary, is about a total life and a lifestyle which he ardently champions and lives. Neither he nor his architecture can be disconnected from the lives of Kerala people and their rising aspirations and dreams. If so, his architecture would become easily misconstrued, appearing to many people rather confusing, incomprehensible and even hollow and purposeless. Hence, by lots of people, professionals and ordinary folks alike, Mr Nazeer Khan and his architecture are misunderstood. Arguably, more than anyone else in Kerala, he divides architectural opinion.

Mr Nazeer Khan lives his architecture which, in turn, lives and exemplifies the lives of its numerous clients and users. They run through each other’s veins. To Mr Nazeer Khan, his architecture is a living organism with which he identifies himself and his own existence. So attached emotionally is he to his architecture that, surely, it is not an exaggeration to say that the structural and functional states of his buildings deeply influence his complete being and personality. By and large, they affect his psychological and emotional condition. He is happiest when his buildings are “happy”; he is saddest when his buildings are “sad”. Having been for quite some time now aware of all these factors, it was easy for me to comprehend and come to terms with the merits of embarking on this type of study.

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Mr Nazeer Khan in Indonesia.

 

 

Who is Mr Nazeer Khan?

Mr Nazeer Khan is an Indian architect. He lives and works in the city of Calicut in Kerala, a state in the south-west region of India. He was born on May 30, 1959.  Initially, his ancestors lived in the city of Kodungallur, a municipality in the Thrissur district of Kerala. It was his grandfather who migrated with his family from Kodungallur to Calicut.

            Mr Nazeer Khan and his family had humble beginnings, enjoying more than their fair share of hard times. His father was a modest timber merchant. When he was born, Mr Nazeer Khan was perfectly healthy. However, when he reached the age of four years, his left hand became virtually paralyzed due to polio or infantile paralysis. Such a left hand condition lasted six years. But after six years, at the age of ten, Mr Nazeer Khan’s hand became miraculously cured and he started to live a normal childhood life.

            During the period of left hand paralysis — which signifies a critical formative stage in every person’s upbringing — Mr Nazeer Khan lived under constant stress and fears. Just like every child, he had his big dreams and aspirations, but felt that he will eventually have to divest himself of most of them due to his precarious condition. However, when the illness was cured, his big dreams and ambitions returned, more compellingly and in more abundance. Mr Nazeer Khan believes that his abounding artistic talent, which is brought to life and communicated mainly through the conduits of his hands from the depositories of his mind as well as heart, is a precious gift from God. With it, God, perhaps, wanted to reward him for the six years of hardship which he and his family patiently endured.

            Having successfully completed his pre-degree or higher secondary education at the age of 19 years, Mr Nazeer Khan obtained a diploma in civil engineering. It took him two years to do so. It was here that he started displaying most effectively the abundance and depth of his architectural talent, polishing it and advancing it to higher levels. As a result, he was nicknamed “Mr. Accurate” by his peers owing to his not often witnessed precision, flair and ingenuity.

            Following his completion of civil engineering diploma, Mr Nazeer Khan, aged 21, joined the Indian civil service. For the next period of ten years as a civil servant, Mr Nazeer Khan decided to practice civil engineering on a part-time basis as well. He did so for the first three years under the tutelage of Mr. Balakrishnan Nair, one of the leading civil engineers in Calicut. Next, for the remaining seven years, he worked with several other civil engineers in Calicut, also as a part-timer. It was this phase that proved most crucial. It was then that Mr Nazeer Khan — as well as his superiors and clients — came fully to the terms of his extraordinary talent and abilities, prompting Mr Nazeer Khan to think about and plan for himself a much bigger and more challenging future. In addition, such was a time when clear distinction between civil engineering and architecture, and between the term engineer and architect, was increasingly made in the Indian society. The two heretofore, generally, were referring to the same occupation, and were often used interchangeably. Mr Nazeer Khan worked on the tasks which essentially were related to pure architecture, such as producing 3D drawings, building plans, designs, etc. Encouraged by his remarkable outputs and the positive feedbacks of his employers and clients, he, consequently, started to feel that he was born for architecture and that they existed for each other. And having accomplished a 10-year part-time job, as well as apprenticeship, in civil engineering and architecture under the guidance of some of the most prominent civil engineers and architects in Calicut, Mr Nazeer Khan called it a day with his civil service career. Although without required formal architecture education, he was ready to devote his full life to the profession. What is more, he was ready and willing to go solo as soon as possible. He was confident that his amazing talent, burning enthusiasm, lofty aspirations and accumulated experiences will be able to offset his lack of formal education. It was certainly risky, but Mr Nazeer Khan was convinced that he had what it takes to succeed sooner or later in independent practice of architecture.

As a small digression, Mr Nazeer Khan fondly recalls how during his part-time stints he always carried a booklet on whose pages he tried to express and deposit his blooming architectural ideas and convictions. Most of his drawings were spur-of-the-moment, precipitate and unrefined. Nonetheless, he was more than happy to share them and his architectural thoughts that those drawings were supposed to characterize with as many individuals as possible from across the wide social spectrum of Kerala. In so doing, he, admittedly, was a bit too zealous and relentless. Some people took him seriously, others paid no heed to the matter and every now and then even poked fun at him, and yet others regarded it as yet another display of Mr Nazeer Khan’s augmented passion for the art and architecture disciplines. They even criticized him and his behavioral patterns somewhat for apparently going overboard, stopping almost at nothing to exhibit and prove his forte, and to achieve his set goals. In most cases, however, prolonged conversations and even debates normally ensued, involving individuals with different mindsets and from different socio-economic and religious backgrounds about what was available in the booklet and in Mr Nazeer Khan’s mind as well as heart. However, little did the people realize that Mr Nazeer Khan as early as then when he was just a young architecture enthusiast and fantasist, was a very shrewd man. He, in point of fact, was conducting a test of public opinion concerning architecture in general, and concerning his own architectural notions and proclivities in particular. He was testing people’s perceptions as well as preferences with regard to the realms of art and architecture. He was searching for a universal taste, so to speak, among his people, which he later when given a chance could attend to and try to satiate.

As a matter of fact, Mr Nazeer Khan’s transition from part-time to solo practice of architecture was a gradual one. He firstly fostered an architectural partnership with Mr. Muhammad P.K., his classmate and close friend when he studied for his diploma in civil engineering. The partnership lasted six years. They then parted on the best of terms. They each planned to grow more autonomously, freely charting their own respective career paths. Mr. Muhammad P.K. went on to become a contractor, while Mr Nazeer Khan finally embarked on practicing architecture as a full-time profession and running it as a one-man enterprise. Mr. Muhammad P.K.’s first work as a contractor was part of a project that belonged to Mr Nazeer Khan.

After that, Mr Nazeer Khan rapidly grew as an architect, establishing himself as one of the most influential, talked-about and sought-after architects in Kerala. At the moment,[2] his office has 15 supporting staff members. He also has ten site supervisors and four consultants: one for plumbing, one for electrical and two for structural engineering. The two structural engineering consultants are university professors from the National Institute of Engineering Technology (NIET) in Calicut.

He at any given time deals with at least 50 contractors, organizations and individuals that are contracted with him for the construction of his buildings. Some work only for him. Mr Nazeer Khan estimates that there is a workforce of at least 2,500 people — be they his assistants, site supervisors, consultants, contractors, building materials and furniture manufacturers and suppliers in India and abroad, etc. —  behind the construction of his current architectural projects with tens of millions of US dollars in circulation and changing hands. In as far as Indonesia, for example, there are two furniture companies that operate principally for him. The impact of Mr Nazeer Khan’s establishment primarily on Kerala’s economy, and on some others like in Indonesia and UAE, is very strong and palpable.

So far, Mr Nazeer Khan has designed more than 1,000 houses, most of which are huge and palatial. He also designed 25 mosques, 2 Muslim shrines, 2 Hindu temples, 25 shopping centers, 10 churches, 10 monasteries for Christian priests, 10 schools, 1 house for elderly people, 1 school for bishops, 5 community halls, 2 orphanages, 1 spiritual guidance center for Hindus, 3 hospitals, 8 hotels and 6 convents for nuns. Moreover, he designed the interiors of 10 exclusive restaurants and about 100 gold, jewelry, furniture, textile, floral, etc., showrooms.

This means that Mr Nazeer Khan handles a couple of hundreds of projects at any given time. Yet, he remembers even the smallest details pertaining to each and every aspect of his projects. He can easily pinpoint any mistake committed by anybody in the process of construction, although he is not physically always present. It is truly astonishing how he ensures that nobody underperforms or commits and runs away with any constructional deficiencies or deviations from his original ideas and designs.

Besides, Mr Nazeer Khan is an astute businessman as well. Among other things, he owns an estate of 300 acres of coffee and orange plantations with more than 100 local workers. Its worth is difficult to estimate, but it perhaps is in the range of a few millions of US dollars. Anyhow, Mr Nazeer Khan rarely talks about it, among other things due to his persona which oozes humility and unassuming nature. The estate’s location is in the Thirunelli area, in Wayanard district in the north-east of Kerala. Not far from it, Thirunelli Temple, one of the most ancient Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is sited. Admittedly, the estate’s economic potential is far from being fully exploited because to Mr Nazeer Khan, that pursuit always played second fiddle to his architectural work and passion. The estate is about three hour drive from the city of Calicut and Mr Nazeer Khan’s house and place of work. He manages to visit it only once in three or four months. The estate has a manager who manages it on Mr Nazeer Khan’s behalf. Thus, Mr Nazeer Khan admits that he will always have more of everything, except time. He says he will never have enough of it to do what he wants, needs and what other people would like him to do for them.

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Mr Nazeer Khan as a small boy.

 

 

Kerala Muslims’ Economic Transformation

From 1972 to 1983, there occurred a phenomenon which came to be known as the “Gulf Boom”, in consequence of which the Kerala Gulf diaspora was created. The Kerala Gulf diaspora refers to the people of Kerala living in the Middle Eastern Arab states of the Persian Gulf. In 2008, they numbered more than 2.5 million. Since the commencement of the Boom, the mass migration of a large number of people from Kerala was set in motion. “Largely consisting of the migration of Malayalis, the dominant indigenous ethnic group in Kerala, the movement of many migrant workers from Kerala to the Gulf Countries continues to the present day, although in smaller numbers after the 2008 international financial crisis began to affect the Gulf region. This initial wave of migration is usually referred to as the Kerala Gulf Boom. The Kerala migrants are usually laborers and low-skilled workers.”[3]

In 2008, the Keralite population in the Gulf, which numbered more than 2.5 million, sent home a sum of around 6.81 billion USD, which was more than 15.13% of the total remittance to India in 2008. In 2013, the remittance was almost ten billion USD.[4] Since a substantial population survives on remittances, Kerala’s economy is what the people used to term “Money Order Economy”. Earlier, they used to send it by Money Orders. In the present day, the remittances are made by inter-bank or intra-bank electronic transfers.[5]

The following examples, too, show to what extant remittances constitute a key source of income for Kerala’s economy. “In 2003 for instance, remittances were 1.74 times the revenue receipts of the state, 7 times the transfers to the state from the Central Government, 1.8 times the annual expenditure of the Kerala Government, and 15 to 18 times the size of foreign exchange earned from the export of cashew and marine products.”[6] Although the majority of Gulf migrants were from the working and the lower-middle classes, many still managed to climb the ladder of success and become very rich and successful. Consequently, gulf migrants gradually gained local fame and social status. A myth of a “Gulf man” was created and puffed up. The notion of “Gulf Dream” became a national craze. It was on everyone’s lips, almost everyone’s ultimate ambition.

As to the basic demographic characteristics of the Kerala Gulf diaspora and its remittances, according to Malika B. Mistry, “Muslims constituted 44.3% of the emigrants from Kerala in 2011, while Hindus formed 36.4%. Muslims have been leading all through the recent years. While there were 60 emigrants per 100 households among Muslims and 30 among the Christians, the Hindus have only 19 emigrants per 100 households.”[7] As a consequence, “on an average, a Muslim household received Rs. 135,111 (2, 257 USD) as remittances in a 12-month period. A Christian household, on the other hand, received not even half of what a Muslim household received (Rs. 59,175 or 988 USD). In case of the Hindus, the average remittance a household received is only about one-fourth of what a Muslim household received (Rs. 38,489 or 642 USD).”[8]

Malika B. Mistry continues with reference to the impact of the Gulf Boom on the lifestyle of Kerala emigrant Muslims, singling out the subject of housing in the state. “Households with an emigrant or return emigrant tend to possess better quality houses than those without an emigrant. The proportion of households possessing ‘luxurious’ or ‘very good’ houses shows a steady increase with the number of non-resident Keralites (NRKs) in the household, and is 24.2% for households without an NRK and 41.3% for households with one NRK, 50.3% for households with two NRKs and 65.2% for households with more than two NRKs.”[9]

As was expected, with the influx of wealth into the Kerala state, and with an increase in the number of wealthy households, demand for unique housing styles which will mirror and testify about the people’s successes and their newly acquired status, dramatically increased. This was predictable on account of houses being so essential to human nature and existence that they define our identities and life stories. They are the symbols of our being, our aspirations and our life triumphs. They are thus microcosms of human cultures and civilizations. They are likewise equivalent to institutions, establishments, signs, credentials and testimonies.

Accordingly, many Kerala architects stepped up the supply of what was ever more demanded, in turn setting off a stiff competition. One of them was Mr Nazeer Khan. However, for rising to the top, there was only one rout that amalgamated each of professional excellence, total dedication and clients’ satisfaction. Mr Nazeer Khan was able to accomplish all of them. He surely had what it takes to rapidly emerge as a foremost Kerala architect sought after as much for designing private houses as for institutional buildings, and as much by the Kerala Gulf diaspora as by those who lived and made fortune inside Kerala and beyond in India.

It is true that the relative majority of Mr Nazeer Khan’s clients comprises the members of the Gulf diaspora, however, a great many clients are still locals. The latter comes from different strata of the Kerala community. They are numerous businessmen from diverse business fields, educationists, medical doctors, engineers, politicians (one is a member of Kerala Legislative Assembly), religious leaders, university professors, lawyers, police officers and military personnel. Many others plan or just pine for engaging Mr Nazeer Khan as the architect of their future houses.

When spoken to, all the clients are unanimous in one thing: they wanted to build dream houses which were meant to denote a pinnacle of their successful life struggles and professional careers. They wanted houses which will at once typify their achievements and dreams, and promote as well as facilitate living them to the fullest and till the very end. They wanted something special, ingenious and serviceable. In Mr Nazeer Khan, an inspiring character for his peers as well as the future generations, they found a person whom they could trust and whom they could entrust with building their houses and so, their dreams. Hence, Mr Nazeer Khan is often described as a “Builder of dreams”.

Indeed, the judgments concerning many an aspect of Mr Nazeer Khan’s architecture are subjective, often charged with certain emotions, but what undoubtedly singles him out and makes him stand head and shoulders above the rest is the utter and unreserved satisfaction of all clients of his. They are happy with Mr Nazeer Khan as a person and professional, and with what he conceives and delivers to the people. As a result, his professional relationships with his clients practically always turn into close and everlasting friendships. This is in accordance with the principle that just as architecture is integral to life, architects likewise are integral to society. There is no detachment or rift between them. They derive their respective strengths from each other’s domains and jurisdictions. They are inter-reliant. Undeniably, architecture is both life and society, symbolizing, framing and facilitating them.

Accordingly, all Mr Nazeer Khan’s clients believe that their houses are good value-for-money and that all their expectations have been duly met, something that arguably is most important in the realm of architecture. Indeed, an architecture that results from a process, relationship and an environment where every actively involved party is content and pleased, deserves praise, notwithstanding what some people may say on the basis of certain criteria and standards about which the clients, the most important stakeholders in architecture, neither care nor deem consequential. It is noteworthy, furthermore, that as far as Mr Nazeer Khan is concerned, this unqualified satisfaction and trust of his clients, as a result of long and professionally executed architectural processes, intimate relationships and favorable atmospheres, applies not only to private houses, but also to institutional buildings where money is always an issue and where fulfilling some specific communal cultural or religious specifications can also be very challenging. Which is why Mr Nazeer Khan could be dubbed an architect for all seasons and for all budgets, able to deliver whatever is asked from him both at individual and institutional levels.

Lastly, since many of Mr Nazeer Khan’s clients had humble beginnings depending on nothing but their own sweat and toil while trying to succeed and leave a mark in the increasingly competitive business world, their beautiful and imposing houses radiate inspiring messages to those who want to follow in their footsteps that everything reasonable is possible if approached with persistence, hard work, patience and right attitude, and that every dream is attainable if dreamed, planned and managed aright. It is not only his clients and their life legacies, but also Mr Nazeer Khan himself and his own legacy, that can attest to this very truth. Hence, Mr Nazeer Khan’s architecture is a testimony and proof. It conducts a silent campaign, so to speak, for a life vision and purpose. It invites the people as much to enjoy its artistic and architectural splendors as to appreciate the life philosophy and values that underpin it. It invites the people to spiritually connect to it and its multi-tiered world. It invites them to unleash their potentials and try to see and enjoy the world in its truest colors.

 

 

Examples of Mr Nazeer Khan’s Work

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[1] Kerala is a state in the south-west region of India.

[2] This was written on 9.5.2014.

[3] Kerala Gulf Diaspora, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerala_Gulf_diaspora (accessed May 11, 2014).

[4] Ibid. See also: Malika B. Mistry, Kerala Muslims – Impacts of Gulf Remittances, http://islamicvoice.com/islamicvoice/kerala-muslims-impact-of-gulf-remittances (accessed May 11, 2014).

[5] Malika B. Mistry, Kerala Muslims – Impacts of Gulf Remittances, http://islamicvoice.com/islamicvoice/kerala-muslims-impact-of-gulf-remittances (accessed May 11, 2014).

[6] Kerala Gulf Diaspora, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerala_Gulf_diaspora (accessed May 11, 2014).

[7] Malika B. Mistry, Kerala Muslims – Impacts of Gulf Remittances, http://islamicvoice.com/islamicvoice/kerala-muslims-impact-of-gulf-remittances (accessed May 11, 2014).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. See also: K.K.George & Parvathy Sunaina, Dynamics of Change in Kerala’s Education System: The Socio-economic and Political Dimensions, (Kochi:  Centre for Socio-economic & Environmental Studies, 2005), p. 5-13.

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