Be In­dian, Buy In­dian

For South Asia, it is all about iden­tity.

Southasia - - Architecture - By Ashish Nan­gia Dr. Ashish Nan­gia is an ar­chi­tect with in­ter­ests in sus­tain­abil­ity, modern ar­chi­tec­ture and ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory. He holds a PH.D in ar­chi­tec­ture from the Univer­site de Paris Vin­cennes Saint De­nis, and the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton, Seat

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.

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