Jai Jagat Theatre


Anand Sonecha

Jai Jagat Theatre’s construction was envisioned as part of the centennial celebration of Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, India.

Af Elliott Webb

The 1,500 children who live and study at the Sabarmati Ashram today are taught with the same philosophy established by Gandhiji in 1917, when he set up a community near the river Sabarmati, between a prison and a crematorium. The Jai Jagat Theatre is an armature of the educational philosophy that was practiced here. It functions predominantly as a theatre space, but its ability to address other human movements, pilgrimages and emotions make it more than just a playground for students to practice their performance skills.

The site, plotted in nature between two places of polarised expression — a prison and a crematorium — became the home of a loving educational philosophy. At a similar point in time, in 1937 a Montessori school was established on the outskirts of this new theatre and converted into studios for the educational potential of art. Indigenous trees surround the rest of the site, housing native birds and creating a peaceful enclosure for this newly built insertion.

The circular plan of this building allows its journey to be read concentrically, starting from the outside. From the exterior, the theatre reads as a simple, human-scaled white wall. The pilgrimage up to this point is along a simple brick pathway, similar to other connections of the area. Slipping into the built and natural landscape, Anand Sonecha wrote that it was ‘designed below the existing trees and connecting other buildings of the ashram, library, and school.’ So that ‘along the pathway, the different niches invite people to sit and observe nature. Bigger spaces with seating areas welcome small gatherings or a pause for eating together. This path slowly transforms into a larger area, a plaza, that anticipates the amphitheater and that becomes a foyer, a space for events or for informal rehearsals. The entry to the theatre is done through a gap between two moments of the wall and a ramp leads us down to the center of the space. With a movement of a spiral, this wall unfolds and surrounds the stage and the audience, placed at a level below ground.’

Traces of the exterior environment are visible within the theater itself. The undulating wall opens up to create specific vistas to outside structures, including the school and a high-water tank — other objects of significance to the community. This singular wall is dynamic and undulating, with unique moments and varied openings.

Anand Sonecha wrote that ‘it is designed to be fun, interactive and to be at a scale that facilitates the movement of children. It successfully enhances and participates in the children’s plays… But it is also modest and silent, and therefore can be used as a place to meet, to talk or to just be alone.’ It is both an object of exploration with multiple uses and a tool to be used in the housing and scenario of the theatre; creating different points of entry and exit to the shows within.

To maintain the visual serenity of the natural datum, and to not compete with the historically significant buildings in its surroundings, the amphitheater was sunken half below ground. At 1.83 meters below the natural ground level, this dimension is mimicked in the height of the exterior wall, creating an even intervention between sky and ground and doubling the perceived internal height within the open-air structure. Because of its position at the lowest area of the site, monsoon water is collected in a 70,000-liter water tank below the stage and is reused to irrigate the many indigenous trees that were planted in the area around the theatre.

The versatility of this theatre is supported by the layered and stepped maneuvers of the circular plan. It is playful and rich with an architectural depth that is highlighted through the simplicity of its construction. A strong connection is drawn from the architectural product and the philosophy of the Sabarmati Ashram: a desire to create an all-around architecture, one that facilitates the child as well as the grown woman/man, facilitating the growth of mind and body. This theatre encourages playfulness with its multiple entries, outcrops, steps and open spaces, but the journey within and around the theatre also allows for pause; moments are carefully plucked from the context and framed for reflection.

The theatre can be seen as a micro campus within the greater campus of the surrounding buildings. The area is an aggregation of the Sabarmati Ashram and the Montessori School’s facilities over time; the theatre represents many of these moments in a singular and anchored structure. It is a stage for many already present interactions, for the objectives and philosophies of the school and its activities, and has allowed the students and community to prosper and live out these qualities. From the words of the architect, ‘it is a place for expression. It is a landmark for an education that is “an all-round drawing of the best in child and man, in body, mind, and spirit.”‘

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