A LANGUAGE SPOKEN IN WHISPERS
Among the key issues that the makers of the Constitution of India had to deal with was India’s feudal set-up, which had severely affected the country’s social fabric. The Indian Government introduced many land reforms, and among these, the Zamindari Abolition Act (1951) became the first major agrarian reform.
In the opening section of Stretched Terrains, Ram Rahman (co-curator) lays out, in capsules, a playground of photographs, architectural models, and engineering drawings, as a diorama of wonders, with an Future-of-the-World Expo-like feel. The title of his section is Delhi: Building the Modern, showcasing key architects and their built works which defined Delhi’s modern architecture during the Nehruvian years.
Gazing at the miniature field of drawings, models and photographs, it felt like I was back in my architecture school. At the very beginning of the exhibition, I found myself face to face with a scalemodel of architect Raj Rewal’s The State Trading Corporation built of solid wood, a material that is no longer in use for professional model-making. This ‘mini-box’ of wonders, with lift-off roof sections gives you a peek into the interior labyrinthine spaces. Surrounding it were an array information panels, tracing early Modern Architecture in Delhi. Ram builds a concise introduction with a handful of projects from the 1950s to make visible the beginning of the first generation of architects of Modern India. Both Achyut Kanvinde and Habib Rahman, who were taught by Walter Gropius, built projects that have the Bauhaus influence with regional twists. I would also like to mention here that almost all projects in this exhibition are public buildings and the entire array suggests that in this period of Delhi’s development, the government was the biggest builder with a vision.
Now looking at the placement of The State Trading Corporation scale-model (sitting in the centre of the room) I was interested in knowing how its own grid had a connect with the larger grid of the national imagination (suggested by this brief infographic timeline). The project that immediately caught my attention was a short note on Nehru’s International Exhibition on Low-Cost Housing (1954). Nehru wanted India to free itself from the imperial influence and move towards the egalitarian, and this was a major step forward for a country with a residue of imperial buildings and no housing projects post independence.
From the panel: “One of Habib Rahman’s first responsibilities at the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) after moving to Delhi was managing this ambitious exhibition which brought in architects and engineers from across India and other nations. This showcased the importance of cheap utilitarian mass housing which Nehru was determined to project. The site next to Purana Qila became the permanent exhibition grounds for trade and industry.”
The image of the International Exhibition on Low-Cost Housing triggered a memory (from my teenage years) — the very last frames of Raj Kapoor’s film Shree 420 (1955) where he and Nargis star as the leading pair, with the sorry fate of society as the backdrop (cinephile moment#1). Kapoor plays his Chaplin-esque character of a young jobless man, who comes to the city with a Bachelor’s degree and a positive attitude, only to be corrupted by the greed of the wealthy and their Ponzi housing scheme — Janta Ghar. In the last reels of the film, Kapoor delivers a monologue to his fellow street dwellers, who had invested their savings in order to have a roof over their heads.
“ab aap apne aap ko bhi dekh leejiye kyon kehta hai ki aap gareeb hein, bekaar aur beghar hein, aaj aap mein se har ek ke pass ek crore satter lakh rupia hai wahi rupia jo maine aap ko janta ghar ka kwaab dikha ke jama kiya tha mein apko dhoka dena nahin chahta aap logon ko ekkhta karna chahta hoon agar aap chahen to apna sau sau rupia wapis le sakte hein
magar meri maniye toh apni daulat ko yoon lootaiye nahin apni taquat ko ghataiye nahin sau sau rupye mein kabhi kisi ka ghar nahin ban sakta magar dedh crore rupye mein lakhon ghar ban sakte hein agar aap apni goverment se ja ke ye kahen ki yeh raha dedh crore rupia aur hum lakhon aadmi ki himmat aur mazdoori hai hume zameen do hum apne ghar khud banayenge”
The closing scene of the film has a low-cost public housing in its background as a promise of the good times to come.
With that somewhat happy memory I move onto the most defined segment in the exhibition, and one must say the most striking — the Hall of Nations (born in 1972; demolished in 2017).
“a visionary conceptual and technical masterwork... literally handcrafted in reinforced concrete by workers using very simple tools.”
Ram delicately stitches together Madan Mahatta’s photographs, never-seen-before engineering drawings by Mahendra Raj and an exquisite space frame model of the now-demolished structure by architect Raj Rewal. Along with these visionary drawings, Mahatta’s photo-documents vary in both form and personality. Some show how the space-frame structure was produced in-situ and others suggest a more cinematic emotion of a grand dream of imagining our own Modern. Mahatta must have been commissioned by the architect’s office to photo-document the entire construction process of the largest in-situ spaceframe in the world.
Ram collages some of these pictures with Mahendra Raj’s exquisite drawings that speak a language of technical mastery in both conceptual and mathematical understanding of structure, as well as architectural draftsmanship. The layout of Mahendra Raj’s drawings and Madan Mahatta photo-documents is very organic. It was interesting to note that these documents could speak about the building in the absence of architectural drawing(s).
While looking at the photographs, the climax of Yash Chopra multi-starrer Trishul (1978), which was shot in the interiors of this structure, immediately comes to my mind (cinephile moment#2). The night-time scene starts with somewhat expressionist lighting, casting ominous shadows, and moves into a full-blown action sequence with cars driving through entrance glass panels, fist-fighting, and gun-slinging. And in this mise-en-scene, the deep dramatic voices of Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjeev Kumar make roaring echoes of two rival builders of New Delhi. Architectural photography, in my view, is all about scalar and volumetric emotions of both the building and its site. When Ram lays out the project, he does so in a storyboard format. You see the wide shots along with the majestic interiors of the Hall of Nations, which moves into silhouettes of the space-frame in progress with reinforcements bars being bent into position all the way to a cast concrete module, possibly produced for structural testing. These photographs can no longer be viewed in the same context as opposed to when they were first commissioned.
Ram also layers his scenography by blowing up some of these photographs to large-scale prints, strategically placing them so that they can speak of the grand visions that they had once captured, as well as become an extension to the exhibition’s landscape; corners open up into the city grids. Further into the exhibition, there is a photograph of Architect Joseph Allen Stein’s Escorts Factory (1964). It’s a marvelous moment. A perfect frame
of a bright new factory space without its workforce. A space so pristine that it somehow becomes place-less. Had it not been for the caption, I could have mistaken it for a space from the glorious days of industrial Detroit. Somehow this photograph reminded me that Architecture is a language spoken in whispers.
My most favorite photograph in the exhibition of the India International Centre’s stairwell. Mahatta shoots top-down, with Architect J.A. Stein in mid-frame, ascending the concrete folded steps and with the hint of the photographer’s shoes caught in the foreground. The picture looks like it’s a shot straight out of a Hitchcock film.
Norman Forster : I’m curious Zaha, I mean how do you view drawing as such, sketching. Is that important to you? Zaha Hadid : I find that very important. I do. Norman Forster : Are you critical that newer generations of architects are perhaps less dependent or more... Zaha Hadid : They can’t do it anymore. in the same way that they can’t write (pause) a sentence. They can’t do it.
[From the panel discussion Zaha Hadid: Beyond Boundaries, Art and Design (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rtMRwj0DPI)]
Interestingly, this exhibition does not include a single architectural drawing, and only brings to focus through the presentation of engineering drawing the coded language shared within a closed group of practitioners. Engineering and structural drawings are like X-rays of buildings made before they are built. They are mathematical diagrams of how to make that which constantly
defies gravity. Most viewers will look at these engineering drawings as complex computational diagrams. You see, when architects draw lines, those lines have a very specific code. They speak of material, depth, dimension, and a shift in levels. They speak of a textural skin. The weight of a line has meaning and this meaning is only visible to those eye that have studied this language of representation. It’s a code that not everyone can decipher.
Mahendra Raj’s engineering drawings continue to expand the imagery of ever-evolving architecture of ideas. These exquisite drawings hint at the constructability of the unbuildable. They also gently hint at the vanishing techniques of draftsmanship and the memory of places gone forever. While stepping out, I thought to myself ‘this really exists and it has already happened’.
The exhibition Delhi: Building the Modern held at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, from February 3 - July 31, 2017 — curated by artist and photographer Ram Rahman — comprised a rare collection of original models and engineering drawings along with photographs from the last five decades of the 20th century. Featuring Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde, Joseph Stein, Raj Rewal, Kuldip Singh, JK Chowdhury, and engineer Mahendra Raj, the exhibit also contextualised the modern cultural moment with a display of original copies of Design magazine published by Patwant Singh, and the public murals on government buildings done by MF Husain and Satish Gujral. This connects to the adjoining display of a rare large collection of works by Husain from the 1950s.
Delhi: Building the Modern was a segment within the exhibition Stretched Terrains curated by the Museum’s Director Roobina Karode.
This page, clockwise from left: an excerpt from the opening remarks by Jawaharlal Nehru at the International Exhibition on Low-Cost Housing, New Delhi (1954); screen grabs from the film Shree 420
(1955); an archival image of a model village at the International Exhibition on Low-Cost Housing
Shree 420 (1955) Dir. Raj Kapoor/RK Films Shemaroo Entertainment LTD / https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPLr46wm5Jc
This page, top: Hotel for NDMC at Chanakyapuri (Akbar Hotel), Drawing no. 31.DH.18A: Framing Plan at ele. +14’4”& +17’-4” (Tower portion),1967; bottom: Ministry of Foreign Trade (Hall of Nations), Drawing no. 101.ITF.65: Reinf. layout at lvl 7&8, 1971/1972 Opposite page, clockwise from top: Hotel for NDMC at Chanakyapuri (Akbar Hotel), Drawing no. 31.DH.20: Details of elev +14’-4” & +17’4”, (Tower portion)
- 2, 1967; Images of the Hall of Nations — engineered by Mahendra Raj — while it was being built; Ministry of Foreign Trade (Hall of Nations), Drawing no. 101.ITF.193, Reinf. details, typ. 9 member joint, 1972