Somewhere between visual absolutes and anti-heroic frames sits the Photoink exhibition, “IIT Delhi: A Modernist Case Study designed by Chowdhury and Gulzar Singh”. The show pulls out the chairs for two photographers — Madan Mahatta and Randhir Singh — as they dialogue across time about an institution that was symbolic of engineering innovation and enterprise in independent India. Set in the context of India’s narrative of building temples of modernity, Mahatta’s photos acknowledge the making of a new nation. The stark backdrop against which his frames are composed tell of the monumentality each building on the 320-acre affords — be it the auditorium or the Dogra Hall, with its hyperbolic paraboloid roof or the main administration building. The black-and-white photographs present the stage on which modernity will play out. That’s where Singh’s photographs in colour come in, where he demystifies the grandiosity and makes it more real. If nation building was about the iconic, living with modernism has been about habitation, the lived-in, the soiled and the sweat and the chai stops of everyday. Singh presents his frames as an understanding of that experience, where students stop to chat, and spaces in the building become spots to pause and ponder. The exhibition finds place for both, Mahatta’s abstract geometry and Singh’s contextual photos.
The Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-D) project was a competition winner for architect JK Chowdhury (JKC) and structural engineer Gulzar Singh, who came together in the early ’60s to set up their eponymous firm. The project, that won the duo many others after this, took nearly eight years to build. RN Dogra, then director of IIT-D, worked closely with Chowdhury and Singh to develop many artistic elements to the buildings, including the sculptural staircases that he insisted should be without support. So one sees different types exemplified in the photographs of both, Mahatta and Singh — the helical, the spiral ramp, the cantilevered, the L-shaped. That IIT-D was a collaborative project between the Indian and British governments is amply suggested in an archival photograph that shows Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, laying the foundation stone for the institute on January 28, 1959.
“The challenge was not to hold the past and present as binaries. Randhir (Singh) had to find his own relationship to the buildings, and not look at Mahatta’s frames as a reference. Our aim was to enter the architecture of these modern buildings through photography,” says Devika Daulet-Singh, Director, Photoink. “In Mahatta’s photos, there are no trees or plantation. These buildings have just been made. The black-and-white frames add to the stark representation. Singh presents a different way of seeing the building, he brings an architect’s eye.”
Singh, who is also trained as an architect, has been documenting water towers and government housing in Delhi for over five years. “My aim was not to see Mahatta’s work in comparison or opposition. I revisit the project nearly six decades after he documented it. Many of the buildings that Mahatta has shown can’t be seen today because they are hidden behind trees or inaccessible. Also, the campus has evolved as generations of students have lived there. When I photograph a building, I’m thinking of what the drawing by the architect might have been. So some of my photographs actually look like elevations,” says Singh. And that holds true when you see his tight frames of the main building, the close-up of the vertical sun breakers, in the details of the jaali-capsuled stairs or the mushroom columns in the soil mechanics lab.
That much of Chowdhury’s archives have been lost is something both Devika and Singh are concerned about. “There’s very little documentation of JKC’s work. He bought out architect Walter George’s practice, and nothing of that survives. How do we then write the history of architecture, and what role do photographs play in helping future generations in understanding history and context,” says Devika. Singh concurs, “There is a lack of discourse in the history of modernist architecture in India. To keep them alive, we need to constantly re-evaluate and revisit these buildings through writing and photography.”
The exhibition at Photoink, Vasant Kunj, Delhi, is till February 20
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