Surrounded by the five major trees of India — Ashoka, kadam, peepal, banyan and Arjun — and at the intersection of Rajpath and Janpath, sits the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). Meant to have completed Edwin Lutyen’s plan for a cultural plaza across the National Archives, IGNCA was visualised as a quality public space in the mid-’80s. Then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had seen the effects of cultural diplomacy through the Festivals of India, a showcase of talent that travelled across continents, and the IGNCA was a means to enhance that sense of soft power.
Since it was to be located in the central vista, the question was whether it should conform to Lutyens’ style or find its own identity. An international competition was organised to ensure that the best minds of the world could imagine a space that would have art galleries, theatres, libraries, residences and offices. An international jury, including British architect James Sterling and Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, along with India’s AP Kanvinde and BV Doshi, chose American architect Ralph Lerner’s design, out of 190 entries from 37 countries. He stayed true to Lutyens’ building style, pushing for Indian idioms within the Western frame.
Delhi-based architect Jasbir Sawhney came on board as associate architect. “The design-brief dossier was discussed and done by experts of the time, including Kanvinde, Doshi, JR Bhalla, Ranjit Sabhiki and Charles Correa. It was about the values of the time, where they believed the process was more important than the product,” says Sawhney.
Lerner’s monumental neo-classical design had included generous courtyards. What he finally built, though, was a single building, which housed the art library.
“Lerner interpreted the architecture of the central vista and employed those idioms in his architecture. It was a postmodern moment in contemporary architecture.
“There were supposed to be three theatres, of which one was planned as a Kerala koothambalam, the temple theatre, all in wood and covered with translucent marble roof. Experts from the US and the UK were consulted for acoustics, lighting and theatre design,” says Sawhney, “But today when I see the IGNCA, I feel it was a lost opportunity. We went through the best-conducted government competition, with a world-class jury and there was even an exhibition of all the design entries put up, so people could come and debate and discuss the designs. It could have become a central space where India’s finest art and craft merged and melded. Sadly, it didn’t happen.”
Even as conversations around redevelopment of the Central Vista are on, it’s often in a quixotic manner. There seems to be no proper brief or idea in the public domain for a project of such magnitude. The IGNCA, therefore, stands testimony to a democratic process of public design, where those in raj (government) and the jan (people) both had a voice.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Design by Democracy’