Sobha Singh was 22 when he and his father Sujan Singh were invited by the British for the Delhi Durbar of December 1911. The contractors from Sargoda (Punjab) were working on the Kalka-Shimla rail road at the time and when they heard that the British capital would be shifted from Calcutta to Delhi, an astute Sobha Singh is said to have surmised: “It’s time to buy land here.” Years later, he would be called “aadhe dilli da malik”.
Delhi’s most famous pre-Independence builder — whose firm is now at the centre of a legal dispute with the government over alleged non-payment of rent by the latter in Delhi’s Sujan Singh Park area — has lent more than his touch to some of the Capital’s iconic buildings, including Regal, Scindia House, Connaught Place’s A Block, and Chelmsford Club.
But Sobha Singh was not the only contractor who shaped the new Capital. Called Delhi’s ‘panj pyaares’ — after the first five Sikh volunteers to be initiated into the Khalsa order — this group had, besides Sobha Singh, Narain Singh, Dharam Singh Sethi, Baisakha Singh, and Ram Singh Kabli. There were at least three other prominent contractors — Akbar Ali from Jhelum and Lachhman Das and Seth Haroun from Sindh. Each brought their expertise to the work that turned a barren stretch into a landmark city.
Though the building of Delhi was to begin soon after the announcement in 1911, with World War I, budgets were slashed and costs escalated. The inaugural would have to wait another two decades.
British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker were called in to design buildings along the Central Vista, which included the Viceroy House (Rashtrapati Bhavan), Secretariat Buildings (North and South Blocks), numerous offices and government housing. The land was levelled, and the long winding streets of Old Delhi were relinquished for hexagons and axial layouts.
But the real builders were these contractors, besides the many architects and engineers who shaped the landscape and gave Delhi its monumentality.
At a time when Delhi was home to hyenas and jackals, when families in Old Delhi warned their children not to go to New Delhi after dusk — the boundary then was Amrita Shergill Marg — here were industrious businessmen who saw beyond the reality of the barren, undulating terrain.
Khushwant Singh, Sobha Singh’s son, wrote in his book Not A Nice Man To Know about these “pioneer builders…of little education and modest means” who went on to become millionaires.
One of the first to arrive was Haroun, a Sindhi, who helped build the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Then there was Das, “legendary for his honesty”, who never used cheap material and always paid his labourers right. He assisted in building Parliament House and Bikaner House and his family was famous in Agra for the work they did on marble. Narain, who arrived from Sangrur, would go on to build roads, level the terrain and lay the foundation for Rashtrapati Bhavan. His son Ranjit Singh built The Imperial with Francis Blomfield as its architect; his grandsons currently manage the hotel. Baisakha Singh, who arrived from Amritsar, was responsible for the construction of the entire North Block, besides the bungalows for government officers.
Dharam Singh would go on to build a palatial house on Jantar Mantar Road, which later housed the All India Congress Committee office. In fact, most of them built houses for themselves along the same street. Sobha Singh got his architect Walter George to build him a house, which is now Kerala House. Next door was Baisakha Singh.
It is said that Sobha Singh and Baisakha Singh wouldn’t let walls come between them, that they even had a boundary wall breached so that their families could mingle without leaving the gates. Opposite Sobha Singh’s house lived Narain Singh.
Delhi was part of Punjab at the time of the Delhi Durbar, and most contractors came from Punjab or Sindh. These contractors found an opportunity to move to Delhi when a new capital was being built.
Sumanta Bhowmick, Additional Director, Parliament of India, whose book Princely Palaces in New Delhi tells the history of imperial and post-Independence New Delhi, says, “We must credit them not because they accumulated wealth, but because they were an industrious and enterprising lot who came to Delhi at a time when the land was bare except for brick kilns and tombs. Delhi wasn’t an attractive place at all.”
But among all the builders, Sobha Singh landed the biggest chunk of projects, including Vijay Chowk, India Gate, National Museum, AIR, Baroda House, and Sujan Singh Park (SSP). What marked SSP as a unique project was that it was a precursor to other housing projects in Delhi, including colonies by the Delhi Development Authority, introducing the style of four blocks of houses surrounding a park.
Architect Gaurav Raj Sharma, who recently did renovations of apartments in SSP, says, “After the shifting of the Capital, there was a shortage of housing stock in New Delhi. In 1943, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation approached Sobha Singh to develop around a hundred flats for government use in a four-storied building. The 11-acre land on the south-eastern fringe of New Delhi was offered on a 99-year lease.”
The condition of the lease was that the lessee would build, using his own funds, and on completion, the government retained the right to use the whole of the buildings or any part by paying a fair rent. This arrangement would continue until the end of WWII and up to one year later. After this period, “a certain number of the flats, not exceeding 50 per cent of the total, shall be leased to government officials at a fair rent”.
This builder-model of apartment construction is followed to this day in the real-estate market.