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Bringing nature home, inexpensively

May 10, 2008 15:13 IST

"There is so little that we know about the world of nature around us. That's sad because it is only through knowledge that we can understand, and hence love and protect." This is the central tenet of Mike Pandey's life, the belief that underlies his acclaimed films and documentaries on wildlife and conservation.

It's an ethos that's stamped all over the Pandey family home in Delhi's Chirag Enclave area. Concern for the environment, for maintaining harmony between the built area and surrounding nature, and respect for all life forms is evident everywhere.

The main living space is one big flowing area that sweeps into the dining space and an open kitchen in one corner. It's got comfortable, lived-in sofas, divans and stools scattered around in two separate sitting areas and one, slightly-raised platform built into the wall and covered with bright throws and pillows which makes for a lovely nook.

This is set apart by one of four old pillars that the Pandeys have salvaged from a house being demolished in Gujarat. Huge, glass-plated windows shorn of curtains and grills give the space an open aspect, with only light bamboo chiks to keep out the bright glare of the afternoon sun.

The room opens out into a small patio in front with two large neem trees, among other potted plants and creepers, which provide shade and also some privacy to this room that looks out on the street. "Look," Pandey says, pointing to a branch of one tree, "that's quite a rare bird in these parts -- a red-crested barbet. It's made its nest inside the branch. There are about 10-15 squirrels which live here too."

The defining feature of the architecture is the open courtyard at the centre -- which means all the rooms, even those well inside, get natural light. The Pandeys have transformed this central space into a fish pond with several large koi fish swimming around.

Interestingly, the floor of the fish tank has two glass-covered circular vents which functions as a casement letting sunlight into the split-level basement below, which houses the offices of Riverbank Studios, Pandey's film production company, and Earth Matters Foundation, through which he works to spread awareness about conservation.

So you can look up at the ceiling of the office and see the fish clustering around, quite like an aquarium. "They eat up the mosquito eggs too and prevent them from breeding," informs Pandey, while the family's two pet Daschunds weave around his legs.

This basement office is an interesting area too, with its wooden flooring and partitions made entirely of panels recycled from pinewood packing crates in which early Maruti cars were transported. "I bought them for around Rs 800 a truck load, which even in 1993 was dirt cheap," says Pandey, pointing to the marks left by nails which have been lovingly polished to a bright gloss.

Similar imaginative recycling can also be seen in the exterior cladding which is made entirely of marble and granite chips fixed with lime slag. Look closely, the two legs that support the bevelled glass of the centre table are actually camera boxes -- "They're all that I have left of my first camera, an Arriflex 16 SR, which was stolen. I had bought it in 1973 for $58,000, most of it borrowed. Even the glass comes from one of the panels of an aquarium," says Pandey.

"None of the things are particularly valuable in terms of money, it's the associations which make them valuable," says Ranjana, Pandey's wife who runs Jan Madhyam, an NGO that works with the education of mentally-challenged children.

Ranjana grew up in the lanes of old Delhi, and the house is decorated with brass vessels -- lotas -- huge buckets used to cook rice and to mix coloured water during Holi, buckets -- which she now uses to put her biggish collection of potted house plants in.

Also, there's her collection of sarotas (betel-nut cutters) and other interesting household implements like a brass cookie cutter and a three-pronged travelling make-up kit, laid out on a table that she's built up over the years.

Then there's all the stuff that Pandey has accumulated in the course of his travels in India and abroad kept in showcases and bowls -- a 180 million-year-old log of wood (it's been carbon dated) that was being crushed to build a road near Bikaner and which is displayed on the ledge of the fish-pond, another four-and-a-half billion year old piece of jasper from Madhya Pradesh, some fine green pebbles picked up from the banks of the Ganga near Rishikesh ("a visitor thought it was peas and actually tried to chew it"), a few fossils, some dried woven paddy which is strung before houses in Orissa, an assortment of dried hives placed decoratively inside some of the cups and bowls that were the early results of the Pandeys' youngest daughter, Devika's first lessons in pottery.

Indeed, Devika's touch is evident all over the place. Her bright and colourful paintings are in frames all over the house, coexisting pleasantly with the thangkas, the family photographs and the few paintings on the walls. In her bedroom, these drawings have been framed all over the cupboard, making for bright splashes of colour. This is one house, clearly, where every member is allowed his space for self expression. 

Gargi Gupta in New Delhi