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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Nothing in the Central Vista Redevelopment Project responds to its time and space

The construction for the Central Vista Avenue has been declared as an 'essential service' by the government. It brings two questions to the fore, amid the public health emergency: What is essential? And for whom is it a service

Written by Shiny Varghese |
Updated: May 18, 2021 9:56:17 am
Construction activities of Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project in progress.

Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic presented Rhythm O in Naples, Italy, in 1974. Her six-hour work has gone down in art history as one of the most controversial pieces. All she did was stand still.

With 72 objects before her, for pain or pleasure, she allowed the audience to use any of them as props to interact with her — it could be a glass of wine, perfume, grapes, nails, scissors, knife, a pistol with one bullet. Initially, people fed her cake, kissed her, placed a rose in her hand. But as time passed, their actions grew violent. They pricked her with thorns, cut through her clothes, and someone even attempted to use the gun.

After six hours, when the gallerist came to close the show, Abramovic moved and walked towards her audience. “They ran away,” she says. Until then, they didn’t acknowledge her as a person. She had never felt so violated, but she had learnt one important truth about life: If you put power into the hands of others without any questions asked, they will draw your blood.

India is suffering. News reports document its dire Covid crisis: Lack of oxygen in hospitals and trained staff, shortage of vaccines and beds to lay the sick, no graves to lay the dead or wood to cremate them. Yet in the midst of this devastation, we see the Central Vista Redevelopment Project racing to meet its 2022 deadline.

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At an estimated cost of Rs 608 crore, the Central Vista Avenue — spread across North and South Block to India Gate, including Rajpath, the surrounding lawns and trees, Vijay Chowk and India Gate place — will be spruced up and sprightly before India turns 75 in August next year. There will be 40,000 sqm more green cover, walkways over lawns, low-level bridges over canals, toilets, drinking water kiosks and space for vendors, even folding seating.

The construction for the Central Vista Avenue has been declared as an “essential service” by the government, an argument that is currently being contested in court. It brings two questions to the fore, amid the public health emergency: What is essential? And for whom is it a service? With green clearance from the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Environment Ministry, the Prime Minister’s new residence is also scheduled to be complete by December next year. Besides the 10 buildings within the residence complex, there will be a dedicated tunnel for the Prime Minister to move from his residence to his office and the new parliament building.

The redevelopment plan, like the desk of an obsessive-compulsive person, perfectly lays out the manicured lawns and the hollow cubes of buildings surrounding the linear central stretch. Nothing will be out of place. It will increase government offices, official residences and defence buildings on this 3 km expanse. However, with buildings that will sit a few metres short of India Gate, be prepared to lose sight of the sky.

This clinical, sterile vision of “beauty” is exactly what the British created, when they straightened out winding streets in old cities, uprooted the orchards of the Taj Mahal, streamlined the forecourt and gave us well-behaved lawns that never change with seasons.

John Parkinson, Associate Professor of Public Policy, University of Warwick, in an essay on spatial policy and democracy, argues that “the degree to which certain narratives and experiences are anchored in physical form has a significant impact on the degree to which different people feel included in the city, and thus the degree to which they feel they have a stake in the democratic performances and decision-making.” The Central Vista project will undoubtedly become a performative space, where the state will have its selfie moments. But will it be, can it be, anything more?

In Indian texts, ideas of beauty fundamentally celebrate the alankara, the guna, the rasa. But above all that, what makes a thing of beauty is the vibhava, how the object or person responds to time and space. Just as beauty in poetry has little to do with grammar, there are multiple layers that our ancient scripts acknowledge as beautiful. Nothing in the current project responds to these emotions.

Nothing in the project sees or hears the moment it is set in.

So, move aside Emperor Nero and Marie Antoinette, the people of India will have our own “Make in India” moment. When Indians ask for oxygen beds, lawns are being laid out.

Until now, the people have stood still. It may be time now to start walking.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 18, 2021 under the title ‘An Unlovely Vista’.

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