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August 31, 1999


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Steel City to Get a Nalanda Classroom

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Sonia Chopra in Pittsburgh

Deepak Wadhwani with his wife and child Pittsburgh is certainly far from the United Nations. But those who stop by the 42-storey Cathedral of Learning, also known as the world's tallest schoolhouse, get to go round the world in 90 minutes -- or longer, if they want to linger, absorbing the examples of styles from across the world: Classical, Byzantine, Romanesque, Tudor and several others that recreate the cultural periods prior to 1787, the founding date of the University of Pittsburgh which conceived and constructed the nationality rooms at the Cathedral of Learning, with the help of ethnic communities in and around Pittsburgh.

On January 9 in the new millennium, a bit of Nalanda will welcome visitors to Pittsburgh. The Indian room, constructed for $ 400,000, is reportedly the most expensive of the nationality rooms.

Deepak Wadhwani, a 42-year-old architect based in Pittsburgh, is responsible for recreating a typical instructional courtyard from Nalanda University -- revered as a symbol of learning in India's golden age -- in a single room for the students and visitors of the University of Pittsburgh.

He has been working on the design for a decade, having painstakingly copied the smallest detail, so that "a connection will be made in the minds of the people who step into the room instantly with the past". And yet the room should "be comfortable in a classroom setting", he said.

E Maxine Bruhns, director of the nationality rooms and the intercultural exchange programmes, said the ancient Indian room will be an addition to the exquisite collection of 24 similar classrooms at the university.

Bruhns, who has a deep affinity for India, assisted the city's Indian community with fundraising.

"I love India. The depth of the faith that one feels in the streets, in the rivers, everywhere, it is all encompassing. It is a manifestation of deep faith and awareness of tradition that makes the culture endlessly interesting," said Bruhns, who first visited India 44 years ago and then went back again and again, until as recently as April this year, to view the artefacts to decorate the room.

She had made a trip to the Nalanda excavations with Wadhwani four years ago.

Bruhns also secured the Dalai Lama's blessings for the project. During his visit to Pittsburgh, arranged by Bruhns, the Dalai Lama blessed the computerised rendering of the Indian room in November last year.

In awe, Bruhns described her triumph at receiving the blessing. "I was lucky enough to have a brief audience. I put a marigold garland around his neck and shook his hand," she said, adding that in the midst of the heavy security and the time constraint, the Dalai Lama took her aside and said, "This represents an important period of Buddhism and learning. You must do it right."

Bruhns solemnly promised and in a lighter vein asked him if he would consent to a photograph with her. He agreed. She also believes that the Dalai Lama's blessing helped the project finally take shape.

The ethnic community creating a room has the sometimes formidable task of raising the money needed to build the room. The Indian community raised $ 400,000 in the last decade. But all the bids had come in at $ 500,000.

But on the same day that the Dalai Lama met Bruhns, a second set of bids came in. One was just under $ 400,000. "Exactly the amount we could afford. I fervently believe it was because of the blessing," Bruhns said.

The room, which will be finished in January, is the culmination of the united efforts of many people, Bruhns said.

Blueprint for the Nalanda Room "It is interesting how it evolved. It was in the late eighties and there was a slide presentation of the Israel room. Suddenly, Deepak walked up to me and said, 'Let us go have lunch. I have an idea about an India room'," Bruhns said.

"We had a fundraiser and at first it didn't take off. But after I drew the design and some dynamic people got involved, it began to slowly get off the ground," said Wadhwani, an alumnus for whom this became a labour of love. He has also forgone his fees.

Wadhwani explained that the rules laid out by the university are very rigid. The room must not have any political undertones. It must be authentic to the architecture of the time. The materials used must be of museum quality and yet durable and functional.

Committee members headed by Chandrika Rajagopal, a co-chairwoman who is currently in India, approved the concept of the room modelled after the seventh-century Buddhist university. Nalanda, which flourished between the third and seventh centuries, was chosen because the centre of learning epitomises two Indian traditions -- education and architecture.

"Monastic scholars came from all over Asia to study medicine, astronomy, art, grammar and philosophy there," said Bruhns, who searched the museums of India and picked up artefacts that will be recreated by artisans in India and used to decorate the room.

In the computer-generated design, one end of the room will be sculptures of the Buddha and Nalanda's most famous artwork, Stupa No 3. The room will display six carved columns, interspersed with alcoves that will display objects such as stone, copper and iron sculptures from the Nalanda period. There will be two rows of chairs facing each other with the professor's chair at the head of the rows. The capacity will be limited to 30 students.

The room will contain the campus plan of the excavated remains of Nalanda, which will be recreated in mosaic tile inlay in the floor. It will also display six columns made of fibre glass and reinforced with granite and interspersed with alcoves that can offset the richness of the stone, copper and iron sculptures against the backdrop of the brick walls.

"This is the most difficult, the most detailed, the most intricate and definitely the most challenging project I have ever worked on," said Wadhwani, who has a private firm called Renaissance 3 Architects. "I have never had the luxury of doing so much research and studying detailed history for a project that is only 900 square feet and yet has a budget of a small building."

"In a sense, this is the work I will be most proud of because it means a great deal to me," said Wadhwani, who graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.

"People came [to Nalanda] from all over the world to learn. We felt that this way we could let the people know that India has a long educational history," said Indra Pandit, who helped the committee in its work.

The community of 4,000 people conducted fund-raisers and received individual and corporate donations and gifts. "If you can do a room, you can preserve a culture," Bruhns said.

The nationality rooms began in 1926 and are tributes to the heritages of the city's ethnic groups, especially those who built the city -- the Irish, Germans, Russians and Greeks. Throughout Bruhns's 34-year-tenure, she has been part of creating the African, Israeli, Ukrainian, Austrian and Armenian rooms. By 1956 there were 18 rooms. Today there are 24 with the Indian and Japanese rooms on their way to completion.

They all contain original and re-created furnishings and artwork that provides a glimpse of European, Scandinavian, Middle Eastern, African and Asian cultures.

"The United States is a country where all the cultures are represented. It will be useful for people to know about our culture and where we came from," Pandit said.

For others in the community, the room is a triumph because it represents the unity of a community, which will live on eternally.

"The nationality room did a lot of good in bringing us together. It didn't have anything to do with politics or religion, just the awareness of our culture, which all of us are proud of," said Saroj Bahl, who is the other co-chairwoman of the committee of 12 members.

"We may get divided on many issues, but India is our country and we have a great history. We agreed on that and the money kept pouring in. We are elated that millions will get a chance to learn about our culture," Bahl added.

For more information, write to Tours, 157 Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260; (412) 624-6000

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