Building India

Print edition : October 13, 2017

India International Centre, designed by Joseph Stein. Photograph by Madan Mahatta.

Rabindra Bhawan, design and photograph by Habib Rahman, 1961.

Memorial to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, designed by Habib Rahman, 1959. Photograph, courtesy Ram Rahman.

Achyut Kanvinde (extreme left) with Primie Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, looking at the first model of Lalit Kala Akademi.

Kanvinde in the house that he designed for himself. Photograph by Madan Mahatta.

CSIR, Delhi, with M.F. Husain's mural on Nehru. Photo: Photograph by Ram Rahman.

Stairway at Ford Foundation, designed by Joseph Stein.

Model and photographs (Madan Mahatta) of the NDMC building, which was designed by Kuldip Singh.

At the exhibition titled "Delhi: Building the Modern". Kuldip Singh, Mahendra Raj, Kiran Nadar, Raj Rewal, Helene Rewal (sitting) Ram Rahman.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took a keen interest in fostering young talent in architecture and patronised the “modern” style in an effort to make it emblematic of an ambitious new nation.

WHEN the greatly admired 18th century poet Mir Taqi Mir wrote “The streets of Delhi are not mere streets, they are like the album of a painter”, he was onto something. Throw a stone in or around Delhi and it is bound to hit an architectural wonder, possibly hundreds of years old. Home to striking structures from the Tughlaq, Lodi, Mughal and British imperialist eras, Delhi’s architecture has a great legacy to live up to. In post-Independence India, as the nation-building process was afoot, there was a choice to be made—whether to rely on traditional building styles or to attempt new shapes, designs, compositions and layouts. As new State capitals had to be designed, homes to be built for the refugees, cities to be expanded, institutions to be constructed, building and building styles became a primary concern.

Not known to many, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took a keen interest in fostering young talent in architecture and patronised the “modern” style in an effort to make it emblematic of an ambitious new nation. Until 1947, modern architecture was practically non-existent in India. Nehru recognised early on that architecture could be the outward and visible manifestation of changing times and used it to showcase an India that was progressive with a distinct urban identity.

Sanjay Kanvinde, son of the pioneering architect of independent India Achyut Kanvinde, said: “Even as a Bill was being contemplated in Parliament to have a national style for buildings, Nehru’s address put the matter to rest.” Nehru invited the French architect Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh and in one fell swoop changed the landscape of architecture in India. He said: “Now I have welcomed one great experiment in India, which you know very well, Chandigarh. Many people argue about it, some like it, some dislike it. It is totally immaterial whether you like it or not; it is the biggest job of its kind in India. That is why I welcome it. It is the biggest because it hits you on the head, because it makes you think.” He encouraged the idea of not being tied down by old rules. He goaded designers to think in terms of light, air, water and human beings and declared that Chandigarh was of immense importance whether it succeeded or not.

During Nehru’s centennial year, a volume of his writings on art, architecture, heritage, cities and city-planning was released by Syed Shafi, who prepared the first Master Plan of Delhi and was part of a team that prepared a Plan for Mecca. Ram Rahman, son of renowned architect Habib Rahman, said: “It is a 164-page book. I have never seen any world leader anywhere who has actually engaged and written so deeply on issues of urbanism and architecture as Nehru has.”

At Independence, there were only three schools of architecture: Bengal Engineering College, University of Hyderabad and JJ School of Arts, Bombay. Delhi had become a meeting place for architects, designers, technocrats, bureaucrats, artists and engineers. The government was the single largest builder at the time—constructing office buildings, educational and cultural institutions and huge housing projects to house Partition refugees and the bureaucracy. Ram Rahman said: “Father came to Delhi in 1952 or 53, Kanvinde came in 1947. Both had intimate interactions with Nehru as designers.” The two architects (Rahman was from MIT and Kanvinde from Harvard) had the biggest projects in the 1950s and both joined government service. Rahman remained with the Public Works Department (PWD) throughout his career, while Kanvinde left the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1955 for private practice. Both had trained under the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, and his influence was evident in their earlier work in Delhi.

Other architects, who had worked under either the Edwin Lutyens team or Corbusier in Chandigarh, also came to Delhi. There were many large-scale projects and Delhi produced a rich mix of modernist buildings. Resources were minimal in the 1950s. Despite the shortage of finances and other limitations, structures built between the 1950s and 1970s stood out for more reasons than one.

Mahendra Raj, a civil engineer, who worked with Kanvinde, Raj Rewal, Kuldip Singh and Charles Correa remembered the days when the search for a new capital city for Punjab was on. He was sent to the site where Chandigarh stands today as the first engineer, in 1949, before construction had even begun. “I studied in Lahore and was appointed by Punjab PWD there. When Partition happened, government officers were asked where they would like to go. Being a Hindu, I had to opt for India and was posted in Shimla. Many Muslims also opted for India and several Hindus opted for Pakistan. Anyhow, in Shimla I was tasked with the maintenance of the Shimla-Tibet road, which was not even a road, just a dust track, but it had to be maintained. I used to travel on foot. In those days, Shimla was the capital of Punjab as it had infrastructural facilities since it used to be the temporary summer capital. When the site for Chandigarh was selected, it was my task to collect material. Coal was in very short supply. And to burn bricks you needed coal. We started collecting coal, steel, whatever we could.” He recounted his exchanges with Corbusier, with whom he worked on projects such as the High Court of Chandigarh. As a 22-year-old upstart, he argued with him over the facade of the Secretariat building. Initially Corbusier was angry. A day later, he changed his mind and accepted Mahendra Raj’s idea.

Kanvinde spoke about his father’s exchange with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was then Minister of Education. He wanted domes, arches and turrets in the design for Azad Bhavan, now headquarters for the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. “People in the meeting kept quiet and blindly supported him.” But Achyut Kanvinde, despite being the youngest, interjected and presented a different point of view. “To his credit, Azad reacted by saying: ‘What you said is correct and can be adopted.’” Achyut Kanvinde went on to build several modern buildings, including private homes, CSIR laboratories and Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. The last incorporated a series of corridors linking all the buildings. In designing his own house, Kanvinde incorporated a central atrium around which all activities are organised. Nehru was interested in the construction of private houses, too. He said: “A house is not merely a place to take shelter from the rain or the cold or the sun. It is, or should be, an enlargement of one's personality, and if human welfare is our objective, this is bound up with the house. Indeed, changes in housing in other parts of the world have effected social revolutions in the community.”

In an attempt to record and preserve modern architecture of the Nehruvian era, an exhibition titled “Delhi: Building the Modern” was put together by Roobina Karode as part of a string of exhibitions called Stretched Terrains at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. It included models, structural and engineering drawings, photographs of architects Raj Rewal, Mahendra Raj, Kuldip Singh, Habib Rahman and Kanvinde, covering a period of two decades between the 1960s and the 1980s. The architectural photography of Madan Mahatta charted the scale, innovation and the contexts of modernisation in architecture. “Mahatta’s photographs also bring into discussion buildings and works of other important architects like J.K. Chowdhury and Joseph Stein,” said Roobina Karode.

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