The glory and the dream

A new book attempts to piece together the broader cultural and geographical context of Chandigarh.

Written by Pallavi Pundir | Published:March 13, 2016 1:00 am
Corbusier designed Open Hand near Secretariat in Chandigarh. Corbusier designed Open Hand near Secretariat in Chandigarh.

What is Chandigarh? A modernist experiment in an ancient land? A city that rose from the ashes of the Partition? The city, dedicated to the temple of Hindu goddess Chandi, which was built from scratch, dislocating 24 villages and 9,000 residents? Le Corbusier’s antique fable, or, to an eccentric eye, a master-planned city straight out of science fiction? For 30-year-old curator Shanay Jhaveri, who shuttles between Mumbai and the UK, the city first seeped into his consciousness with John Berger and Alain Tanner’s Une Ville a Chandigarh (1965). It was also a part of his first book Outsider Films on India:1950-1990, an undertaking that took as its subject a handful of films made by European filmmakers in or on India. Shot a year after Corbusier’s death (1965), the film portrayed a “utopian poster city of the 20th century”— a partially under-construction city which, in some places, is still at the planning stage. Jhaveri’s first interaction with the city came slowly but steadily through such films.

“I am going to quote Pandit Nehru as to why Chandigarh has lingered in my mind,” he says. “He said: ‘Many people argue about it, some dislike it, some like it. It is totally immaterial whether you like or not… you may squirm at the impact but it makes you think…I do not like every building in Chandigarh. I like some very much… But what I like above all this, is the creative approach. Therefore, Chandigarh is of enormous importance, regardless of whether something in it succeeds or something in it does not…’” he continues.

Jhaveri, a graduate in art semiotics from Brown University, US , has recently been appointed as the assistant curator, South Asian art, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The city recurred in his second book, Western Artists and India: Creative Inspirations in Art and Design, appearing in the work of French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. The next few years were spent cataloguing more and more works by artists and filmmakers that referenced Chandigarh. “It was then that I thought I would do a book that collected all these responses, with the challenge that I am taking on a city, a place, a site, which was well-known and amply historicised, and see if I could find an alternative way to think about it,” he says.

The result is Chandigarh is in India (The Shoestring Publisher), an anthology of verses, visuals and essays around the city of Chandigarh through the works of Indian and Western artists. Through a narrative that is both informative and lyrical, the book glides through reimagined stories, briefly subverting the dominating images of Le Corbusier’s structures and evoking “authentic” visuals that deconstruct the city’s aesthetics, problems and contradictions. There are 250 colour and back-and-white images, comprising three scholarly essays and 10 sections that feature works by artists such as Cyprien Gaillard, Gavin Hipkins, Madan Mahatta, Pradeep Dalal, Seher Shah, Thukral and Tagra, and Manuel Bougot.
Jhaveri’s lead essay, ‘Stalking Chandigarh and its Reflections’, is a comprehensive overview of the different approaches Indian and Western artists have taken when referencing Chandigarh in their artwork. Interestingly, he also relooks at this history through previously unpublished material such as photographs taken by veteran artist Gulam Mohammed Sheikh when he visited Chandigarh with late artist Bhupen Khakhar. In another instance, late artist Nasreen Mohamedi writes a letter to a friend, in which she ruminates on Chandigarh’s architecture and the organisation of space: “There must be space far beyond the logical — able to grasp the order within the disorder,” she writes.

Jhaveri doesn’t forget an entire generation of Indian architects too, who reacted to the aesthetics of Corbusier, and deftly responds with artist Pradeep Dalal’s ‘Notes on Bhopal, MP’. Dalal looks at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, designed by Charles Correa. The initiative was initially led by the artist J Swaminathan. “I am conscious that the predominant image of Chandigarh is of Le Corbusier’s buildings. But, the title of the book itself is quite assertive, announcing that Chandigarh is in India, and part of a broader cultural history and geography,” he says.

Maximum city: Nasreen Mohamedi writes a letter to a friend on the city of Chandigarh.

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