Brash Abom­i­na­tions or Ar­chi­tec­tural Evo­lu­tion?

In­sti­tu­tional build­ings epit­o­mize a time and a sen­si­bil­ity and some­times, an un­easy syn­the­sis

The Economic Times - - Saturday Feature -

ized” in print with the re­lease last week of Reha’ish: At Home in Luc­know. She has done her mite to pre­serve not only a pe­riod of ar­chi­tec­ture but a dis­ap­pear­ing way of life too.

In­sti­tu­tional build­ings do not en­cap­su­late per­sonal and fa­mil­ial his­to­ries as homes do – so won­der­fully cap­tured by Adity – but they do epit­o­mize a time and a sen­si­bil­ity. They be­speak the urges of those pow­ers who guided the des­tinies of na­tions, and are thus in­valu­able too.

The faux Ra­jput Ho­tel Ashok in New Delhi, for in­stance, cap­tures the un­easy syn­the­sis in the 1950s be­tween the re­cently-dis­pos­sessed Ra­jput roy­als and Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s im­pe­ri­ous demo­cratic gov­ern­ment, both of which jointly owned the prop­erty. Its un­ease is telling. Sim­i­larly, the inef fa­bly ugly Nir­man and Shas­tri Bha­vans, built in the 1960s on the razed premises of Lu­tyens era bun­ga­lows, show that the gov­ern­ment’s so­cial­ist ethos had by then ousted any ves­tiges of In­dian aes­thet­ics- such as they were. They are still eye­sores.

What is odd, how­ever, is that while such sarkari blotches are al­lowed to sur­vive and mar Delhi’s beau­ti­fully laid out Cen­tral Vista, other con­tem­po­rary modern build­ings in the city are be­ing de- mol­ished. A case in point is the now-oblit­er­ated Chanakya cin­ema hall.

An­other one fac­ing the de­mo­li­tion ball is the Raj Re­wal-de­signed set of pyra­mids called the Hall of Na­tions at the soon-to-be-re­pur­posed Pra­gati Maidan. Grow­ing up in a bun­ga­low op­po­site that ex­hi­bi­tion ground, I used to find them as fas­ci­nat­ing as the nearby Pu­rana Qila.

In­deed, that jux­ta­po­si­tion of airy con­crete tri­an­gles and solid stone-and-mor­tar fort walls is prob­a­bly what fired my life­long in­ter­est in ar­chi­tec­ture and his­tory. Both are, af­ter all, very elo­quent rep- re­sen­ta­tives of the sweep of In­dian his­tory, as told through its rulers and ar­chi­tects.

A court has stayed the de­mo­li­tion order till the Her­itage Con­ser­va­tion Com­mit­tee comes to a de­ci­sion on it. And that points to the nub of the is­sue. What is her­itage? And how far should that tag be stretched – to in­clude Re­wal’s pyra­mids or Shas­tri Bha­van? Both? Nei­ther?

There i s a l so t a l k of re­duci ng t he Lut yens Bun­ga­low Zone so that cov­eted res­i­den­tial colonies such as Sun­dar Na­gar, Jor Bagh and Golf Links are ex­cluded from its re­stric­tions. That would, of course, mean cer­tain ex­tinc­tion of those gra­cious 1950s-1960s res­i­dences.

Kolkata has been wit­ness­ing the in­ex­orable dis­ap­pear­ance of build­ings con­structed by the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the Ben­gal re­nais­sance–doc­tors, bar­ris­ters, engi­neers, pro­fes­sors and civil ser­vants. Their de­mo­li­tion co­in­cides with the im­mi­nent ex­tinc­tion of the bhadralok.

Ar­chi­tec­tural ‘evo­lu­tion’ in ev­ery city ref lects In­dia’s chang­ing so­cio-eco­nomic and even po­lit­i­cal equa­tions. And they are of a piece with what has hap­pened in In­dia for mil­len­nia. Very lit­tle an­cient or merely old ar­chi­tec­ture has sur­vived as even mo­tifs in the present.

That mind­set has to change. In­di­ans must be­come more em­pa­thetic to both old and con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­ture, as his­tor­i­cal ex­em­plars –even if they are built in our own life­times. That of course, should ideally be ac­com­pa­nied by a much-de­layed aes­thetic re-awak­en­ing.

Log­i­cally then, Shas­tri and Nir­man Bha­vans and all sarkari mon­strosi­ties of the 1950s to 1980s should be pre­served, not just Re­wal’s pyra­mids. As also the cookie-cut­ter “builder homes” pro­lif­er­at­ing in 21st cen­tury ur­ban In­dia as much as the gra­cious res­i­dences Adity writes about.

At present only the ven­er­a­ble old res­i­dences and whim­si­cal but mem­o­rable 20th cen­tury In­dian ar­chi­tec­tural aber­ra­tions such as the pyra­mids face an­ni­hi­la­tion while medi­ocre or plain ugly ones sur­vive. Is that the sole legacy we want to leave of our times?

Hall of Na­tions in Pra­gati Maidan (L) & Cover of Adity Chakravarti’s Reha’ish: At Home in Luc­know

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