In June, an M F Husain mural, dated 1963, which adorned the walls of a conference hall inside the World Health Organisation (WHO) headquarters in Delhi, was “rescued” by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). This was done days before the demolition of the iconic office began on June 20, being carried out by the National Buildings Construction Corporation Ltd (NBCC).
The WHO headquarters was built by Padma Bhushan recipient architect Habib Rahman, who was a senior architect with the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) at the time. The three-year project was completed in 1962 and inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru. A year later, the modernist Husain painted the mural on the walls of the conference room.
“The artwork by Husain belongs to WHO and it was rescued by the specialised agency before demolition work began. The rescue has been carried out systematically and safely by INTACH,” an official at NBCC said.
The mural by the Padma Vibhushan artist, in his typical bold brushstrokes, depicts Lord Hanuman holding a mountain and progresses to show the evolution of the country. It is undersigned at two places, in Hindi and English, with the 1963 dateline.
The NBCC official added that “the mural will be placed inside the new office”. The new office, expected to be finished in two years, has a budget of Rs 228 crore, said an NBCC official. He added, “Around 80 per cent of the demolition is complete and the rest will be done in the next two-three days. The building was very old and fell under the seismic zone 4. The WHO was apprehensive about this and it was decided that the NBCC will demolish it and a new one will be built in its place.”
The WHO headquarters comprised two blocks — one was a six-storey structure while the other was a low-rise building with a conference hall and an auditorium. The NBCC official said the new building “will have 17 floors.”
For decades, the blue and white WHO headquarters were a city landmark, known best for the “Rahman touch” with clean horizontal and vertical lines. Rahman’s son Ram, a photographer and curator, said, “I received a call from the WHO last year about the impending demolition of the building as it wasn’t earthquake-compliant. I laughed because it was one of the strongest building in the 1960s.”
Ram recalled his father jokingly calling it the “who building instead of the WHO building every time he crossed it. He was very proud of it”. He told The Indian Express, “I was very young when the building was completed and remember my father telling me that a WHO representative, a Mr Unger, was deployed especially for this project. Since it was a building being done for the UN, it was very important. He said, ‘I ensure quality by daily visits’.”
Rahman graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was greatly influenced by German architect Walter Gropius. He is credited with building the National Zoological Park, Rabindra Bhawan, Indraprastha Bhawan, the 21-storey Vikas Minar, and the mazaar of Maulana Azad, among other structures. In 1974, Rahman was made the first secretary of Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC). He passed away in December 1995.