Updated: May 29, 2021 10:39:16 am
A number of landmark buildings in the national capital, including the National Museum, the annexe of the National Archives and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Art (IGNCA) would soon be demolished to make way for a revamped Central Vista and a new Parliamentary complex. Though fairly young, these buildings carry within them a slice of history of the time when an imperial capital was being designed by the colonial rulers, and the birth of a modern and aspirational India envisioned by the administrators of the country in the years immediately following its Independence in 1947.
Hub of colonial knowledge that made way for the National Archives and the National Museum
Along with a national anthem and a national flag, a country needs a museum in the name of the nation and an archive filled to the brim with documents bearing testimony to its long, cherished history. As art historian Kavita Singh notes in her article, ‘The museum is national’ (2003), “poor indeed is the country that cannot lay claim to enough history to fill an archive, enough scholarship to fill a library and enough artefacts to fill a museum!”
Thus, soon after the Independence of India, the project for a National Museum was started.
But the plan for a museum and an archive to exhibit India had been brewing since the time an imperial capital was being designed in New Delhi by the British. In their design of the capital complex, the British had marked out a special place at the intersection of Kingsway (Rajpath) and Queensway (Janpath) to be a hub for the vast amount of colonial knowledge gathered over a century and a half. Four important institutions were supposed to come up at this juncture: the Records Office (renamed as the National Archives) and the War Museum in the north west, the Medical Museum in the north east, the Ethnological museum in the south west and the Imperial Museum in the south east.
But then the First World War happened. A crippled economy and an uncertain political future in India meant that this grand project of an intellectual hub had to be left out of the new British capital. Nonetheless, one among these four institutions did find a place here as was intended. This was the Records Office. The genesis of the office happened in 1891 when the government of India decided to concentrate in one place all extant documents which had been lying around in secretariat offices in Calcutta. After the capital’s transfer to New Delhi, the records office was shifted to the area next to Kingsway. “The only building in the knowledge complex that got completed was the archives because for the sake of governance it was necessary,” says Singh in an interview with Indianexpress.com. Post 1947, it was renamed the ‘National Archives of India’.
Even though the three other museums did not get built, the National Museum, which was inaugurated in 1949 at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, was a continuation and culmination of what the British had been planning. The roots of the National Museum in fact lies in the Imperial Museum which was being planned by the Gwyer committee since the 1920s. Three months after India’s Independence, the Royal Academy in London mounted an ambitious exhibition titled, ‘The Arts of India and Pakistan’. It was meant to be a gracious celebration of the Independence of India and the creation of Pakistan, with the objective of linking up Britain and India. Art, sculptures, and artefacts representing over 5000 years of Indian history from the Indus Valley civilisation, right up to the late medieval period, gathered from museums and private collections from across the country, were brought under one roof.
The exhibition of 1947 was in fact a major turning point in the history of Indian art in the west. “If it marked the Independence of India from British rule, it also signalled the beginning of the freedom of Indian art from its history of past prejudices,” writes art historian Tapati Guha Thakurta in her article ‘Marking Independence: The ritual of a National art exhibition’ (1997).
Despite the best efforts though, the exhibition failed to attract crowds in London. “British interest in India was waning. Perhaps there was even a note of bitterness and resentment in the response to the show,” writes Singh in her article. But these artefacts were to have a more promising afterlife back in Delhi. In November 1948, they were put on display in an exhibition titled, ‘Masterpieces of Indian Art’ in the Durbar Hall of the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the Indian public to see. It was thronged by visitors, eager to see a mirror of the national self in the vast collection of historical artefacts.
Nehru, like most other state dignitaries, felt that it would be a pity to disperse the artefacts. Consequently, the temporary exhibition at Rashtrapati Bhawan was renamed as the National Museum. It was inaugurated on August 15, 1949 by the first Governor-General of India, C Rajagopalachari.
“Although the National Museum was a continuation of the plan set in motion by the colonial government, in the time that it came into fruition it was expressing the ideals, pride, enthusiasm, and aspirations of a newly independent nation. So in its narrative it was de-colonial,” says Singh.
In 1955 the National Museum was moved to its present location, where it was inaugurated by Nehru, in the building that was one of the first feats of post-independence architecture.
The post-Independence heritage of New Delhi
In the years immediately following the Independence of India, Nehru sought to build a capital laden with aspiration and dignity, fit to find a place in the modern world. New Delhi was to be the place that foreign dignitaries from across the world would visit and consequently, art and architecture was to play a crucial role in the city.
Singh explains that unlike most other official buildings that were built in the 1950s on a shoestring budget, no expense was spared for the National Museum. It was designed by G B Deolalikar, the first Indian to head the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), who had also designed the Supreme Court of India. “It was supposed to be a place of pride, a sort of temple of Indian national culture,” says Singh, adding that the best quality teak and stone were brought in for building this stately structure.
Art historian Rebecca M Brown in her article, ‘Reviving the past: Post Independence architecture and politics in India’s long 1950s’ (2009), writes that while architects and policy makers in the 1950s decided on a modern architecture for New Delhi, retelling of Indian history was to play a crucial role in these buildings as well. “The centrality of history in the construction of nationhood operated as a political concern alongside the interest in becoming modern,” she writes.
A key example in this regard is the Vigyan Bhawan conference centre which was built the same year when Nehru laid the foundation stone of the National Museum. This building too was designed and created under the auspices of the CPWD, with Ramprakash L. Gehlot as its primary architect. Brown explains that the building looked to a “Buddhist iconography, and therefore operates within a larger web of Buddhist references very much alive in the 1950s political landscape.”
Other buildings built in the same period like Vayu Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan, Udyog Bhawan, also consist of Chhattris and Chhajjas and are topped by domes to give an Indian character.
Speaking about the huge ceramic murals inside Shatri Bhawan built by the artist Satish Gujral, veteran photographer Ram Rahman says, “at that time Nehru made very clear that art and sculptors must be part of a public building as a public statement.”
“He also wanted young artists to create them. His point was that new India must be built by new Indians,” says Rahman, who has been doing extensive research on modern Indian architecture. Rahman’s father Habib Rahman was one among the many young architects who were invited to Delhi by Nehru. Under Nehru’s directions, Habib built some of the finest public buildings of the time like the Rabindra Bhawan, the Dak Bhawan, the Sardar Patel Bhawan.
“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,” Rahman had said in a lecture titled, ‘Nehru and the Indian modern’ presented in 2015.
Despite the important historical significance of this period of architectural activity, these buildings are yet to be considered as heritage and worthy of preservation since they are less than a hundred years old. The threat to post-Independence architecture of India came into public attention recently when Delhi’s iconic Hall of Nations and Hall of Industries were demolished in 2017 to make way for the state of the art modern complex. They were built in 1972 to mark 25 years of India’s Independence, but were not categorised as heritage by the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) since they were only 45 years old.
“It is unfortunate that despite all that we say about being a decolonised country, wanting to re-write history on our own terms, we still seem to think of heritage as something belonging to the colonial or pre-colonial period. We don’t see our own doings in the post-Independence period as being the heritage of an Independent India,” says Singh. “If we were really patriotic and proud of what the nation has achieved in its 75 years, then some buildings that are architectural feats in the history of modern architecture would not be demolished. Buildings like the National Museum and the Vigyan Bhawan deserve a place in our history.”
Kavita Singh (2003). The museum is national. India International Centre Quarterly
Tapati Guha-Thakurta (1997). Marking Independence: The ritual of a National art exhibition. Journal of Arts and Ideas
Rebecca M. Brown (2009). Reviving the past: Post Independence architecture and politics in India’s long 1950s. International Journal of Post Colonial Studies
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