A fine bal­ance

Wel­come to In­dia’s most live­able city

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA - STEPHEN McCLARENCE

Chandi­garh has been voted In­dia’s hap­pi­est city. It has the na­tion’s high­est per capita in­come and is one of its most pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tions. It houses a UNESCO World Her­itage site and is some­times called “The City Beau­ti­ful”. And it can be very con­fus­ing to nav­i­gate.

“Where ex­actly are we?” I ask Ravi Modka as we drive along a street that looks very like the one we’ve just driven along ... and the one be­fore that. “This is Sec­tor 10,” he says. “Op­po­site Sec­tor 10 is Sec­tor 16. We’re head­ing for Sec­tor 9, and op­po­site that will be Sec­tor 17.” There are, at the last count, 59 sec­tors. I need Ravi.

Chandi­garh, the cap­i­tal of the states of Pun­jab and Haryana, was in­de­pen­dent In­dia’s first planned city. Seventy years ago, the coun­try’s par­ti­tion — sub­ject of the film Viceroy’s House, re­leased this week in Aus­tralia with Hugh Bon­neville and Gil­lian An­der­son as Lord and Lady Mount­bat­ten — di­vided Pun­jab be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan. La­hore, the ex­ist­ing state cap­i­tal, was al­lo­cated to Pak­istan, so the In­dian half needed a re­place­ment. The then-prime min­is­ter Jawa­har­lal Nehru grasped the chance to cre­ate some­thing star­tlingly rad­i­cal. “Let this be a new town sym­bolic of the free­dom of In­dia,” he said. “Un­fet­tered by the tra­di­tions of the past, an ex­pres­sion of the na­tion’s faith in the fu­ture.” He saw it as “the first large ex­pres­sion of our cre­ative ge­nius flow­er­ing on our newly earned free­dom”.

A gen­tly slop­ing agri­cul­tural plain, dot­ted with ham­lets, was cho­sen as its site, and Le Cor­bus­ier, the cel­e­brated Swiss-French ar­chi­tect, was drafted in to su­per­vise the grand plan. He based it on a grid pat­tern and de­signed some of its main pub­lic build­ings, many of them in con­crete. They in­clude the gov­ern­men­tal Capi­tol Com­plex, which is among a world­wide group of un­com­pro­mis­ingly mod­ernist Le Cor­bus­ier build­ings that were given World Her­itage sta­tus last year. But they’re not the city’s big tourist draw, which will come at the end of my day-long tour.

Ravi, an af­fa­ble 22-year-old guide, is do­ing a mas­ter’s in eco­nom­ics at Chandi­garh’s high-rated Pan­jab Univer­sity. He comes from Shimla, the hill sta­tion about 50km north. What a con­trast, I say as we drive through Sec­tor 8 (I’m slowly pick­ing this up): Shimla, sprawl­ing be­yond its old Bri­tish core; and Chandi­garh, all or­der, rea­son, plan­ning, an ex­per­i­men­tal West­ern city in an Eastern set­ting.

“Yes,” he says. “Ev­ery­thing is so or­gan­ised here. Many peo­ple are rich and we don’t have any vi­o­lence. And you’ll no­tice that we don’t have peo­ple leav­ing lit­ter in the streets.” So is it a largely mid­dle-class, pro­fes­sional city?

“Higher mid­dle-class, you might say. Some­times a fam­ily of four might have eight ser­vants work­ing for them. Ev­ery­one who comes here says the same thing — that it’s a very un-In­dian place.”

We fol­low broad tree-lined boule­vards, al­most un­nerv­ingly calm by In­dian stan­dards. They sug­gest the leafy, gra­cious New Delhi that Sir Ed­win Lu­tyens de­vised for King Ge­orge V. Odd, I say, that Chandi­garh, a city cel­e­brat­ing In­dia’s in­de­pen­dence, should re­call the colo­nial power the coun­try had so ve­he­mently re­jected. Par­tic­u­larly af­ter one of Chandi­garh’s ar­chi­tects, the Amer­i­can Al­bert Mayer, said he wanted to avoid the “over-scale steril­ity and stilt­ed­ness of New Delhi”.

“Yes, that is in­deed an irony,” agrees Ravi. There are dif­fer­ences be­tween the two cities, how­ever. New Delhi’s ar­chi­tec­ture is a sym­pa­thetic fu­sion of Asian and Euro­pean; Chandi­garh’s bris­tles with Bru­tal­ism. Straight roads are the key. “The curve is ru­inous, dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous,” said Le Cor­bus­ier. “It is a paralysing thing.” New Delhi, by con­trast, in­cor­po­rates curves, most stylishly at Con­naught Place, the net­work of con­cen­tri­cally cir­cling roads at its com­mer­cial hub.

Chandi­garh has the air of a gar­den city, but for all the green­ness of its parks, it’s the mon­soon-weath­ered con­crete that reg­is­ters most forcibly. It was built on com­mu­nity-fo­cused, en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious prin­ci­ples, with the var­i­ous sec­tors given their own shop­ping cen­tres. “Many city dwellers are still vil­lagers at heart,” said Mayer.

We reach Sec­tor 10C, where a broad pi­azza is dom­i­nated by the long, low Mu­seum and Art Gallery, de­signed by Le Cor­bus­ier. Over the past cou­ple of weeks, the visi­tors’ book has been signed by peo­ple from Ja­pan, Mex­ico, France, China, Bri­tain, Rus­sia, Aus­tralia, Canada, Spain, Ger­many, the US, Le­banon, Korea and Swe-

Viceroy’s House,

The High Court of Chandi­garh, top left; Pan­jab Univer­sity, top; tree-lined av­enue of Chandi­garh, left; Hugh Bon­neville, Neeraj Kabi and Gil­lian An­der­son in

above

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