The current discussion about the upgrading of facilities at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, pending a court-ordered stay on their demolition, has called for the replacement of the so-called “permanent” exhibition structures. Built in 1972 to the designs of architect Raj Rewal and engineer Mahendra Raj, these monumental clusters of pyramidal structures comprise the exhibition halls — such as the Hall of Nations and Hall of Industries — that have been the landmarks of the fairground for over 40 years.
Pragati Maidan, as any Delhiite knows, is the exhibition facility that has, for half a century, served as the premier stage for the promotion of national trade and culture, attracting innumerable visitors from across the country and around the world. As the name signifies, these facilities exist to showcase the “progress” (pragati) of the nation’s industries and, by extension, the nation itself. It seems reasonable, therefore, to expect that some of these facilities will require upgrading from time to time to accommodate changing exhibition needs and, not the least, to continue to express progress. The urgent question this raises is how do we want to move forward, and what, if any, of the past do we wish to carry forward with us?
It is worthwhile to recall here that “progress” is not just about “any” future, but about our future, and the journey by which to arrive at it. What do we know of the existing facilities, and how do we decide what to hold on to as we move forward? In this case, it depends on whether we see these exhibition structures as merely a technical shell for the activities they contain, or as buildings that are also cultural artefacts with intrinsic value.
In our considered view, we have no doubt that the permanent exhibition structures are iconic artefacts, integral to the built fabric and identity of modern Delhi that most certainly should be carried forward. Indeed, as we and others have argued previously, these structures have an even broader significance. In our book, India: Modern Architectures in History, we note, “The principal function of the exhibition complex, apart from sheltering the exhibited contents, was to represent the modernity and productivity of the nation in the most progressive light… [and] the bold cluster of voluminous exhibition halls … clearly emulated the architecture and technophilia of recent World Fairs at Osaka and Montreal with their structural system of octahedral lattice space frames. But the predictable symbolism and derivative style were … inadvertently given renewed meaning and vitality, as later commentators were to observe, by the [ingenuity] and sheer monumentality of the way in which these structures were ultimately built. Contrary to the logic of the structural system employed, which called for lightweight, factory-produced modular assemblies in steel or aluminium, the structures were necessarily constructed by the labour-intensive technique of cast in-situ concrete, which remained the considerably cheaper option in the still only semi-industrialised state of the Indian building industry. Successfully accomplished on time and within budget through this [creatively] improvised [but] effectively ‘hand-made’ approach, this was an example of what has more recently been celebrated among the entrepreneurial elite of Indian business… as jugaad or frugal engineering.
“The visceral structure that resulted was a monument to the marriage of ambition and pragmatism that emphasised the prevailing drive for a self-reliant mode of technological progress and social development in the context of the socialist nationalism of the early 1970s… it brokered a compromise between the old Nehruvian idealism of universal modernist ambition, and the weight of a socio-economic reality in which an abundance of labour, however poor in technical skills and resources, had to be redressed. But there is no reason to believe that Rewal’s and Mahendra Raj’s solution was therefore any less triumphant an expression of the, as yet, unquestioned modernist ideals that underpinned it.”
The permanent exhibition structures are not just a generic artefact of a historical condition. They are an extraordinary exemplar of a distinctly Indian approach to problem solving and innovation, that has overcome many resource and infrastructural issues in the past to be celebrated by business and cultural leaders alike for its continuing validity today. Should they survive, these heroic structures will be a marker for future generations of where they have progressed from, and how.
It is a welcome and timely coincidence, in light of the current stay on demolition, that Dehliites have the opportunity over the next few months to reflect on the broader significance and impact of these and other iconic architectural structures of the era — including the NDMC and NCDC complexes designed by Rewal’s contemporary, Kuldip Singh, also in collaboration with engineer, Mahendra Raj — as these have been explored in the exhibition, “Delhi: Building the Modern” at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.
Curated by photographer Ram Rahman, whose father, the late Habib Rahman, was another key protagonist of the architectural hubris of modern Delhi in the early 1970s as CPWD’s chief architect, the exhibition is a striking assemblage of the original architectural artefacts, photos, and discourse. These include large-scale images of these buildings in their prime by the legendary architectural photographer, the late Madan Mahatta, together with original wooden models, and the astonishingly elegant structural drawings of Mahendra Raj. Together, these fascinating traces of the design genesis of the buildings enable the viewer to revisit the individual qualities and shared ethos of these bold projections of possible architectural and urban futures that began to redefine the physical identity of Delhi in the 1970s, as the capital began to expand exponentially into the megalopolis it has since become.
It is pertinent to note that the physical presence and power of such innovative structures in the cultural landscapes that have shaped the modern world, and the urgency of addressing the immanent prospect of demolition faced by many of these seemingly coarse, now unfashionable buildings of the recent past, is also driving a coordinated international conservation effort. Readers of this newspaper will be interested to know that some of Delhi’s own most iconic buildings of the 1970s will be featured in another major exhibition, “SOS Brutalism”, to be mounted at the Deutcher Arkitectur Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, later this year, in which India’s seminal role in the development of the global architectural movement that became known as “Brutalism” will be a feature.
Who could have predicted that the Eiffel Tower, a temporary exhibition structure commissioned to showcase the architectural and engineering genius of its day, would be the very embodiment of both Parisian and French cultural identity today? It would be a tragedy if Delhi could not renew or find a suitable new purpose for the noble exhibition structures that so boldly stated, almost half a century ago, India’s confidence in the future that it is now realising.