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Drawing up the capital: Nehru’s impact on modern Indian architecture

On Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary year, photographer Ram Rahman weaves an architectural narrative around Delhi, a city rooted in tradition but one that looked to the future.

Nehru at the inauguration of Gandhi ghat in Barrackpore. (Source: Habib Rahman) Nehru at the inauguration of Gandhi ghat in Barrackpore.

Chandigarh became a powerful symbol of the new India and its aspiration for a forward-looking modern architecture and planning in the aftermath of Independence. Jawaharlal Nehru famously wrote in 1959: “Now I have welcomed one great experiment in India, which you know very well, Chandigarh. Many people argue about it, some like it, some dislike it. It is totally immaterial, whether you like it or not; it is the biggest job of its kind in India. That is why I welcome it. It is the biggest because it hits you on the head, because it makes you think”.

Nehru believed that architecture was important in building a cultural vision of a new, democratic and egalitarian society and a new citizen, and that the radical modern movement in Europe with its socialist roots was a model of inspiration. He encouraged young Indian architects to move to Delhi, many of whom joined government institutions which were being set up then. Delhi also had a lot of open land between its medieval ruins on which to build. Chandigarh was conceived, planned and designed by European and British architects led by the visionary Le Corbusier, but Delhi’s buildings after Independence were all designed by young Indian designers.

The mazar of Maulana Azad in north Delhi. (Source: Madan Mahatta) The mazar of Maulana Azad in north Delhi. (Source: Madan Mahatta)

Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde, Durga Bajpai, Charles Correa were all American trained and unusually, Delhi became the site where both European and American modernisms took root and created a unique mix of style and approach to materials. Architects trained under Corbusier also moved to Delhi in the early 1960s bringing that influence and use of bold concrete (for instance, JK Chowdhury in the IIT). Under that early impulse, Delhi became the site of some very important experiments in modern architecture over three generations in public buildings, factories and housing, home to one of the most important collections of this tradition in the world. Unfortunately, this has not been regarded as heritage and worthy of recognition and also preservation and conservation.

Nehru’s direct impact on India’s modern architecture is little known. My father Habib Rahman had a personal experience of working with Nehru between 1949 and 1964. Nehru had greatly admired Habib’s memorial to Gandhi in Barrackpore which he inaugurated in 1949 and had organised his move to the CPWD in Delhi. The design was inspired by multiple religious styles but built in poured concrete. In Delhi, Habib designed the mazar (tomb) of Maulana Azad in 1958-59 — a modern structure but with stylistic roots in tradition.

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Escorts factory by Joseph Stein. (Source: Madan Mahatta) Escorts factory by Joseph Stein. (Source: Madan Mahatta)

Nehru’s direct design intervention came in the Rabindra Bhavan buildings (1961) which housed the three Akademies — Lalit Kala, Sangeet Natak and Sahitya, conceived by Azad before his death. Nehru pushed Habib to develop a design vocabulary which was rooted in Indian traditions, but pointed to a new future. Nehru even rejected Habib’s first design which looked like an office building. So, Rabindra Bhavan used Delhi stone, cast concrete jaalis and a vocabulary of stylised arches referencing Tughlaq traditions.

The design culture of Delhi was extremely cosmopolitan and full of the self-confidence of the new nation. Important designers visited and worked in India and took inspiration from the spirit of the country forging a new society — Isamu Noguchi, Charles and Ray Eames, Buckminster Fuller and many others. In 1957, Patwant Singh started Design Magazine with a stellar international editorial board-including Marcel Breuer, Noguchi, Walter Gropius, Charles Fabri, Richard Neutra and others. It became a very important platform to publish, critique and debate issues of architecture and design, including the textile work of Riten Mazumdar, the furniture of Jeanneret, Mini Boga and Ravi Sikri. The covers were graphically stunning, many by the great Dilip Chowdhury.

Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations. (Source: Madan Mahatta) Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations. (Source: Madan Mahatta)

The general public is unaware of the Escorts factories designed by Joseph Stein (1960s). Stein developed complex lightweight parabolic structures for the roof which let in both air and light and were also aesthetically exciting. Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations in the Trade Fair complex (1972) was a tour de force of the use of concrete to build a complex space- frame engineered (as are many other buildings here) by the great engineer Mahendra Raj. Currently, this building is under threat of demolition by the government — a tragic loss of modern heritage.


Housing was an important area of design experimentation in Delhi, both private and public — government housing, DDA housing. The Yamuna apartments in Alakananda were a typical experiment in group housing using ideas of traditional cluster cities but interpreted in a modernist idiom. For example, Kuldip Singh’s NDMC building was a tribute to the Jantar Mantar observatory that stood on the opposite side of the road. Here, he used the exposed concrete championed in Chandigarh to create bold, graphic forms in a dramatic sculptural statement. The Syrian Church by The Design Group (Ranjit Sabhiki, Ajoy Chowdhury) was a simple, graphic and elegant statement of spiritual purity. Elsewhere, JK Chowdhury’s IIT building designs perfectly matched the ideal and ambition of creating new institutions for scientific research and training. He combined the exposed concrete idiom of Chandigarh with innovative stone cladding in creating vibrant, communal spaces.

Kuldip Singh’s NDMC building. (Source: Madan Mahatta) Kuldip Singh’s NDMC building. (Source: Madan Mahatta)

Also inspired by Chandigarh were Shivnath Prasad’s visually dramatic and sculptural buildings in concrete. Achyut Kanvinde, with his American training, combined plastered concrete with brick and steel; it is seen in his own home, which was a classic of complex levels and open spaces. The photographer Madan Mahatta, who took many of these photographs, was a talented architectural photographer and important member of this fraternity. His photo of John Bissell (the founder of Fabindia) modelling with Shona Ray and Bharti Sharma on the furniture of Mini Boga with tapestries by Riten Mazumdar is an iconic image of some of the figures who created the Delhi design style of handloom and craft inspired by figures like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya.

Charles Correa’s British Council building facade with a huge mural by Howard Hodgkin defied the stodgy facades on KG Marg as a statement integrating art and architecture on a big scale. While we have celebrated the medieval, Mughal Delhi and also, the imperial British Delhi as our heritage, the capital’s citizens have little awareness of the modernist heritage of the city and its international importance. These buildings epitomised the great ambition of the newly-independent India (Nehruvian India) in its capital city and were powerful examples of an egalitarian and democratic vision, an ideal to look back to in our current, hyper-consumerist times.


This feature is an excerpt from the lecture by Ram Rahman on ‘Nehru and the Indian Modern’ presented recently by SAHMAT and the India International Centre. Visit:

First published on: 15-11-2015 at 12:00:58 am
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