When imperial Delhi was being designed in 1913, a voice that went unheard was that of EB Havell, art historian and former principal of the Government College of Art and Craft in Calcutta. In their book, India: Modern Architectures in History (Reaktion Books; 2015), Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava write that Havell had argued: “The question to be discussed is, not in what style, but by what method the new city should be built…the method of the modern architect, with pencil-trained mind and hands or the method that has given us Westminster Abbey, Saint Sophia, the Taj?” It was a crucial question — one that would creep up time and again in the building of what would, in a matter of a few decades, be a newly-independent country with dreams and aspirations of its own.
But back to 1913, when the official Delhi Town Planning Committee had embarked on the master plan of the capital city. With Edwin Lutyens, and, subsequently, Herbert Baker at the helm — both known for their imaginative reinterpretation of local architectural trends — it was decided that the “Garden City” style of planning would be adopted for what would be the power centre of the city — the Central Vista. Located not too far from what was Shahjahanabad, Lutyens introduced a geometry very different from the Walled City, with central axes and a distribution of open spaces, trees and planned lawns alongside. The two central roads — King’s Way and the Queen’s Way — were also mindful of Delhi’s Mughal history in the visual connect Lutyens gave to the historic Jama Masjid.
After Independence, this grand ceremonial area in the heart of the city, subsequently the venue of Republic Day celebrations, would come to be the connect between India’s imperial past and its chequered road to becoming a secular, socialist republic. The Viceroy House became the Rashtrapati Bhavan; the Viceregal seal and the British royal coat of arms made way for things that were intrinsically Indian — the state seal of the Sarnath Lion Capital and the Ashokan dharma chakra or the Wheel of Law at the centre of the national flag. Within this pluralistic framework, India began its journey towards modernity.
More than a century later, the Central Vista Redevelopment project by the central government proposes alterations that will change the face of the national capital. It will come at an estimated cost of Rs 25,000 crore, heightened pollution, loss of public memory and a denudation of the idea of Delhi. While a nationwide competition dwindled to barely six architecture firms submitting their design entries, it is still not known what will become of the institutions the capital has grown with — public museums and buildings, including the National Museum, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and the National Archives, that act as keepers of India’s rich social, cultural and artistic heritage. Each of these, among other government buildings, is in line for demolition. Except for petitions from a few citizen groups, there has been no opposition to the lack of transparency in the project.
In 1947, at the stroke of midnight, came freedom, but with it, also, an inheritance of problems. If Partition had split our differences wide open, there was food scarcity to deal with it and a nation to be built from the grassroots up. New ideas and definitions of identity were needed to give impetus to the built form. It needed courage and conviction but also great foresight. In Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, BR Ambedkar and others, India found leaders who could put their differences aside and come together for the cause of the nation. Arching over them was the larger-than-life personality of one man: Mahatma Gandhi.
Soon after India became a republic in January 1950, one of the world’s largest philanthropic organisations, Ford Foundation, found in the new democracy, a place to strengthen their ideas of peace. Its dedication to autonomous institution-building led to the commission of the seminal report of 1958 on “Design”, that brought designers Charles and Ray Eames to India, and inspired the genesis of many state-run institutions of higher education such as the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. By then, Nehru had already set into motion his idea of nurturing individual centres of higher education and research. The first Indian Institute of Technology was built in Kharagpur in 1950 with plans for several more. The University Grants Commission had already been formed in 1945 to oversee the work of three central universities in Aligarh, Banaras and Delhi.
The state was predictably the chief patron of housing and institutions. German architect and planner Otto Koenigsberger, commissioned by the government of India, was called to master plan Jamshedpur, one of India’s first industrial planned cities, and, subsequently, Bhubaneswar, and some parts of Punjab, Kutch and Calcutta. He brought in the idea of neighbourhood units into housing. By the ’70s, the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) was started to increase production of homes for lower income groups. On its part, the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and Delhi Development Authority (DDA), in the mid ’60s, were building homes for refugees and government officials. “After Independence, India adopted a modern outlook. Institutions were built in a language of rationalism, leaving behind the tugs of traditional architecture. Concrete was the chosen material and the high priests of Indian modernity, who had all returned from their design training abroad — Charles Correa, Raj Rewal, BV Doshi, Shivnath Prasad and others — brought in stylistic changes,” says architect-urban planner KT Ravindran.
In Righteous Republic: The Political Foundation of Modern India (Harvard University Press; 2012), writer Ananya Vajpeyi sees Nehru’s need to move away from colonial legacies as his “search for the self (the ‘swa’ of Swaraj)”. It led him to appoint French architect Le Corbusier as the chief planner for the new capital of Punjab in the late ’50s. Pritzker Prize-winner Doshi, 92, who was working at Corbusier’s atelier in Paris then, says, “At the time, the vision for new India was about being accommodating. We had so many migrants and people from villages coming in, they were everywhere, how could they be housed? It wasn’t only about generating employment, it was about moving ahead with everyone.” In Chandigarh, nature was closely linked to urban planning. Large green public spaces abounded in the city and houses were planned with small gardens.
While the idea of socialism guided urban planning, its founding principle was plurality. So, even as Corbusier introduced Brutalism (monoliths in poured concrete) to the country, an alternative approach came from American architect Joseph Allen Stein.
Both had an assimilation with nature as their core philosophy, even if they approached it differently. “There were different approaches to design and planning that were arriving on Indian shores,” says Ravindran.
One sees it early in architect Habib Rahman’s design of Gandhi Ghat in Bankipore, West Bengal (1949). It was the first memorial to Gandhi, after his assassination in January 1948. Rahman, then a young architect in his thirties, had just returned from the US, richly influenced by the Bauhas masters, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. He was in a quandary over the memorial building. How should he present an appropriate modern identity and yet stay traditional in essence? He took leads from Gandhi’s respect for all religions — on a rising shikhar of a Hindu temple, he put an Islamic dome and referred to the Christian cross through the cantilevered canopy above the reinforced concrete structure. It remains one of the most pluralistic symbols of modern India.
Around the same time, in Ahmedabad, architect AP Kanvinde, fresh from Harvard University, was commissioned by scientist Vikram Sarabhai to design the Ahmedabad Textile Industries Research Association campus, which would pave the way for modernist architecture in Gujarat. In Bombay, meanwhile, the Progressive Artists Group was in search of a place to showcase their work. Sir Cowasji Jehangir, an art patron, got MIT-returned architect Durga Shankar Bajpai to design the Jehangir Art Gallery in 1952. These private projects meant for public consumption reinforced the idea of vasudhaiva kutumbakam, of the self being part of a cosmic whole.
There were other transformations underfoot, too. A large agrarian population, memories of the 1943 famine in Bengal and food shortage made industrialisation a matter of urgency. Gandhi’s view of making villages self-sufficient was also an industry-scale operation, which came to fruition with the Green Revolution in 1958 under MS Swaminathan.
In 1961, Delhi’s first Master Plan was out. “The focus was on mobilising the efficiency of a city, and, so, the idea of homogeneity began to flourish. The master plan focused on creating zones — where industries would be, where institutions, recreation spaces and residences would be located. But it could never tell how the city would feel or look,” says Arunava Dasgupta, vice-president, Institute of Urban Designers India.
The Sixties was also a time of great political turmoil. The debacle of the 1962 Sino-Indian war was followed by Nehru’s declining health and demise in 1964. There were widespread farmers’ uprisings and anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu led to the rise of new political ideologies. In 1966, Indira Gandhi became the prime minister, whose socialist agenda was encapsulated by the slogan “Garibi hatao”.
Meanwhile, to show India’s industrial and architectural prowess 25 years after Independence, Pragati Maidan in New Delhi showcased buildings by leading architects of the time, all of which were through national design competitions. Among others were Rewal and structural engineer Mahendra Raj’s design for the Hall of Nations and the Hall of Industries, with their large-span, column-less exhibition space. “By this time, architecture had become a high form of art, which was capital intensive and the design elite was calling the shots. It wasn’t embedded in people’s views. That’s why when these structures were demolished in 2017, there was not even a whimper,” says Ravindran.
By the mid ’70s, the first major rupture in independent India’s political life came to pass. The JP Movement (Jayaprakash Narayan) swept through north India and the disenchantment of the public with politics would lead to a questioning of everything the state stood for. When Emergency was declared in 1975, it would be the first move towards authoritarian politics in independent India.
Coincidentally, around the same time, British-Indian architect Laurie Baker, known for cost-effective, energy-efficient structures, was building houses and institutions in Thiruvananthapuram. He believed in the Gandhian philosophy of less is more, a view also promoted by the new coalition, the Jan Sangh, that had defeated Indira Gandhi, and which was backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Yet, there was little push in terms of political will.
In 1986, two years after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the National Commission on Urbanisation was set up. With Correa heading it, new design plans and recommendations were made for over 300 towns and cities. The divide between urban and rural India had begun in earnest.
The next major wave of architectural development would come after liberalisation in 1991. With free flow of capital, foreign investments and the IT boom, the steel-and-glass box became the new aesthetic. “Certainly the spirit of the times had changed. New materials had come into the market, people began to travel more. There was an influx of migrants to urban cities. The demand for offices and housing went up,” says Mumbai-based Hafeez Contractor. With the entry of private real-estate developers, banks and loan sharks, homes morphed into lavish, impersonal units, often distanced from the community. It became, what architect-urban designer Rahul Mehrotra calls the “impatient capital”.
This would manifest itself in India’s political life, too. The 1990s saw the rise of caste-based politics and leaders such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati. From the Mandal Commission protests to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the role of the political classes had undergone a change. “The core of new India was changing. The state had moved away from social responsibilities,” says Hilal Ahmed, associate professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.
Sunil Khilnani, in The Idea Of India (1997, Penguin), notes: “The uncertainties that surrounded definitions of the Indian political community settled symbolically on the town of Ayodhya, a place with no resonances of colonial humiliation or trace of futuristic monuments, but a stage where a quite different historical drama could be re-enacted,” writes Khilnani. The dream of a Ram Mandir to mark the “cartographical spot” where Ram was believed to have been born, echoed the idea of a “Hindu Vatican”. It would make the Bharatiya Janata Party central to India’s political discourse. With a majority mandate in 2014, Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister and was re-elected for a second term this year.
According to Ahmed, if the National War Memorial inaugurated in the capital in February is a message that nationalism cannot be fully achieved without the idea of war, it was first set in motion by Gandhi in 1972 when she installed the Amar Jawan Jyoti inside the India Gate. The state had begun intervening in public memory.
Even as HCP Design, Planning and Management takes over the design consultancy of the Central Vista Redevelopment, there is no clear vision of what lies ahead. Its director Bimal Patel, says, “How does one take the best from post-Independence modern thinking and create an architecture that is also comfortable with its past? This is the question that I grapple with daily.”
Yet, the Central Vista continues to be pivotal to the idea of India’s community life — a place that brings the rajpath and the janpath together, a place which symbolises everything that democracy stands for. From protests that broke out following the December 16, 2012 gangrape to the ongoing citizen’s protests against the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship (Amendment) Act; from lovers seeking out moments of togetherness to families on companionable outings, it is a place for the people, of the people. “The Central Vista has been a continuous focus of the city and has acquired its own meaning over generations. If it is to be redesigned, then citizens should be aware not only of what is being proposed but more essentially, why. Monuments are symbolic not just of chronological time but of the many dimensions of a society’s culture. Are those who control such buildings interested in their historical or aesthetic value?” asks eminent historian Romila Thapar.
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