Updated: October 14, 2021 5:31:39 pm
By Praveen Siddharth
Over the years, the name of Edwin Lutyens has become so strongly associated with the Rashtrapati Bhavan that we tend to ignore the contribution of many others who have shaped this building. The tendency to deify Lutyens has reached such absurd levels that the area around the Rashtrapati Bhavan, with its heritage homes, is called Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ). Interestingly, Lutyens did not design even a single bungalow in the LBZ except for the houses within the President’s Estate.
Although King George V laid the foundation stone on December 15, 1911, in what is now Kingsway Camp, the actual site for the construction of New Delhi and the Rashtrapati Bhavan was not decided then. A town-planning committee was formed under the chairmanship of Captain George Swinton, with engineer John Brodie and Lutyens as members, and one of its first tasks was to review all available options and recommend a suitable site. In March 1913, the committee submitted its report abandoning the northern site where the foundation stone had been laid and favoured a site south of the existing city of Delhi. However, they disagreed over the site for the Rashtrapati Bhavan. While Brodie favoured Raisina Hill, Lutyens and Swinton preferred Malcha. Finally, Lord Charles Hardinge backed Brodie’s choice.
Hardinge, who was Viceroy from 1910 to 1916, was a key figure in the planning and execution of the project to build the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Lutyens was keen on being the chief architect, but Hardinge was hesitant because they differed on the architectural style. Hardinge was clear that the new government house had to be a synthesis of western and Indian elements. Lutyens, on the other hand, was keen on an Edwardian neoclassical building. In an attempt to make Lutyens appreciate traditional Indian architecture, Hardinge had him visit Mandu, Indore, Lucknow and Kanpur, but was of no avail. Lutyens in a letter to his wife in March 1912, confessed, “I do not believe there is any real Indian architecture or any great tradition. There are just spurts by various mushroom dynasties with as much intellect as there is in any other art nouveau.”
Hardinge had discovered, meanwhile, that Herbert Baker, an architect who had designed government buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, shared his views on synthesising Indian and western architectural elements. Realising that Baker could be the counter he needed, Hardinge approved the selection of Lutyens on the condition that he would collaborate with Baker. He also insisted on a third architect, Swinton Jacob, as an advisor. Jacob had been chief engineer in Jaipur and was a known admirer of the Indo-Saracenic style. He had designed buildings such as the Albert Hall Museum in Jaipur, Laxmi Niwas Palace in Bikaner and Daly College Indore, each with predominant Indian features. However, Jacob had a fall out with Lutyens and soon resigned, but his contribution is important. He recommended that the Rashtrapati Bhavan should be constructed on a raised plinth of over 10 ft instead of building it on ground level. This led to the majestic height of the building, towering like the Greek Parthenon over the new city of Delhi.
Hardinge played a crucial role in ensuring that this would not be just an imperial project. In one of his letters to Lutyens, he wrote, “It must be remembered that it is not a British administration building the new city, as was the case when Calcutta was built, but a British Indian administration that is charged with the task.” Today, the only British statue that still exists in the Rashtrapati Bhavan is the bust of Lutyens. One wonders whether Hardinge should have been given this place of recognition instead.
The major role during construction was that of Teja Singh Malik, who became the first Indian chief engineer of the Public Works Department and co-founded the Delhi Golf Club. Lutyens paid only short visits to the construction site, preferring to spend the hotter months in London. Interestingly, Lutyens had initially envisaged the government house in white marble much like the Taj Mahal. He was overruled by the geological department who recommended the red sandstone we see today.
The nitty-gritty of the construction was handled entirely by Indians. The main contractor was Seth Haroun Al-Rashid from Sindh. The contract for the fore court was given to Sardar Sobha Singh. Singh had already made a name for himself in construction of the Kalka-Shimla railway line and was one of the four chosen contractors for building the new city at Delhi. Kushwant Singh, son of Singh and son-in-law of Malik, recounts an incident during the making of the new city. When the decision to build at Raisina Hill was taken, Singh was given a secret task to shift the foundation stone laid by King George V from Kingsway camp. He did this in the dead of the night, transporting the stone on a bullock cart. In return, he was paid Rs 16 for a job well done. Singh would invest his profits from the construction contracts in buying land around the government house. Very soon his holdings had grown to such an extent that he came to be known as adhi dilli ka malik. Both Malik and Singh received knighthoods, though scarcely anyone remembers their contributions today.
For the construction of the government house, a special railway line was built. This line, called the Delhi Imperial Railway, didn’t carry passengers but stones quarried from Dholpur. Khushwant Singh mentions in his book Not a Nice Man to Know (Penguin, 2019) that the stone and marble were supplied by Dharam Singh, who became one of the wealthiest men in Delhi. His palatial home on Jantar Mantar road now houses the All India Congress Committee office.
The famed Mughal gardens were also not Lutyens’ choice. He had initially planned a more sedate English garden. The Mughal gardens were landscaped and planted by WR Mustoe, director of horticulture and Walter Sykes George, an English architect, who later chose to make India his home and designed St Stephen’s College and the Regal theatre in Delhi (coincidentally, Regal was built by Singh).
But more than anyone else, the Rashtrapati Bhavan owes its existence to the thousands of unknown workers who toiled for almost two decades, living in makeshift tents in the barren Raisina landscape amidst the heat and dust and cold and rain. The stone craftsmen, who created the delicate features of the dome, the chajjas, chattris and jaalis, were recruited from Delhi and Lahore. The stonemasons or tarashs were the direct descendants of the Mughal era masons and came from both Agra and Delhi. Apart from the skilled workmen, there were about 30,000 unskilled labourers who came from Rajasthan.
Lutyens had hoped that his work would gain him architectural immortality. The historian Thomas R Metcalf in his book, An Imperial Vision (OUP, 2002), recounts how Baker in his early days of association flattered Lutyens that he might become a great architect of the empire. “In 2000 years, there must be an imperial Lutyens tradition in Indian architecture, as there now clings a memory of Alexander.” However, reality had something entirely different in store. The Rashtrapati Bhavan did not signal the start of a Lutyens tradition but rather the end of an imperial one.
Praveen Siddharth is private secretary to the President of India
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