Be Indian, Buy Indian
For South Asia, it is all about identity.
When we think of ‘ modernity’, we often think of having the latest gadgets, the latest cars, or branded clothes. But modernity is much more than this. It is a state of mind, a belief in the power of the future, and of the power of rationalism and scientific thinking to solve the problems we are often confronted with.
Historians put the roots of moder- nity somewhere in the 18th and 19th centuries, when humankind first came out of the depression and began to (re)discover the power of science and technology. New disciplines were invented to cope with a rapidly expanding world – physics, chemistry, the life sciences, mathematics. A world full of global exchanges came about – trade routes between east and west meant that it was now possible for the West to learn from Chinese and Indian wisdom, to import their spices, and to build lucrative connections. Indeed, for the West, the only way it could measure its modernity was to compare it with the ‘primitive’ east.
Interestingly, a school of thought that is now emerging is that the East had its own versions of modernity, which have not been accepted into the Western canon of things until very recently. While the West had its own ‘universal’ standards, for example literature, art, philosophy, and so on, for the East, these things were usually designated as a subset of the universal. Thus, there were categories like Asian art, Indian philosophy, African art, Japanese fiction, and so on.
Till the late 20th century, the same seemed to be the case of architecture.
While Western architecture was the ‘father’ of movements such as ‘Modernism’, Postmodernism’ and ‘Deconstruction’, for the major countries of the East such as China, India and the Middle East, architecture was forever doomed. It would appear, to be aping the West and producing mimetic copies of the parent canon. This of course was never true
Modern architecture in India – South Asian architecture from the 1800s to the end of the 20th century – evolved its own particular brand of modernity; modernism that was not dependent on the West, but rather in dialogue with it. This modernity depended instead on a past and an imagined future that was at once rich, full of possibilities and dependent on an imagined construction of reality.
When Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress came to power in 1947 the situation was different. There was a perceived need by Indian leaders to somehow ‘build’ the nation along lines that in some way reflected the ‘identity’ of the country. This question of identity aroused significant polemic, reflecting the diversity of India. For one, there was a rift between the ‘moderns’ and the ‘revivalists’, those who wanted to look forward and those who wanted to look to India’s past for inspiration. India’s past was too fractured and too vague an entity, in postcolonial India, to evoke associations of form and design in a truly national way. The danger of going modern, however, ran the risk of associating with the British; an act which Indian leaders felt would be too reminiscent of their recent past. Inventive solutions were found in state and state sponsored architecture that circumvented these debates, or at least strove to keep all parties happy. in the new town of Chandigarh, for example, a French-Swiss architect and planner was engaged as the principal designer of the new project. At Bhubhaneswar, Otto Koenigsberger, who had already been working in India for some time, was hired. The Scotsman Patrick Geddes, the American Albert Mayer and others who were not too evidently associated with the former colonial power too found their place in the sun, in post-1947 India.
Architecture of the state, however, continued to be a closely controlled phenomenon. A cartel of designers and architects, in conjunction with the powers that be, produced forms and designs which were modern in their outlook, yet attempted to create an ‘Indian’ identity. Using materials such as concrete, brick, sandstone and others, architects invented ways to offset the main features of the Indian climate – the harsh summer and the devastating monsoon. Architecture also made a strong political statement, one that emphasized the power of the state as the patriarch and benign overseer of the ‘masses.’
The cartelization of architecture as a profession was also possible as long as there remained a few select schools of architecture in the country – predominantly those in Bombay, Ahmedabad and Delhi. However, change was imminent, and it came with the Janata party experiment and Indira Gandhi’s emergency. These two projects proved that power was not held by a monolithic apparatus, and with the first winds of liberalization that came in the 1980s, architecture and design in India too saw change.
India embraced the world wide web, cable television and international publications. Travel became easier and for the global Indian this meant exposure to the architecture of the world. Architecture practices employed foreign architects with the result that more and more international concepts entered India. Shopping malls, cinema multiplexes, industrial warehouses and factories, tall buildings and skyscrapers, all became part of the new architectural vocabulary.
For architects, this meant two things – the first was to acclimatize themselves with a global world and technology, and the second was to update themselves constantly with the latest gimmicks and software. Indeed, for the Indian architect his Ipad and smart phone have become an essential part of his image, as are his buildings – but this would come a decade or two later.
Indeed, as new firms have shown, architecture and projects that employ high tech imagery and gizmos still have to prove themselves as having an ‘Indian’ and domestic influence. The tendency to employ and award contracts to large multinational firms has shown an apparent unwillingness to ‘trust’ the Indian with complex projects, and to ascribe to the ‘Indian’ anything else than what his or her own identity ‘proves’ him to be.
‘Be Indian, buy Indian’, the famous (and not apolitical) slogan of the 1980s is Orwellian in more than one instance in this case.
There is hope on the horizon.