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The Lutyens' story

Print edition : Jul 20, 2002 T+T-

The Architect And His Wife: A Life of Edwin Lutyens by Jane Ridley; Chatto and Windus, London, &pound25.

FOR half a day on June 30, Soli Sorabjee and I went on a modest book buying spree in London, that also included an unobtrusive detour to the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square. It was, by and large, a rain-free day. We saw, we admired, we walked, we talked and bought a few books - these are much cheaper in America. We also made a rather rash but exciting deal - he, I and a few friends would open an unusual but top -class book shop in Delhi. Considering that we both have reached three score and ten, our decision was more an expression of hope, and not a recognition of reality. Well, you never know. Sometimes dreams come true. And we enjoyed ourselves and agreed that it had been an enchanting day.

Soli Sorabjee asked me at Foyles, "Have you bought the book on Lutyens?" "Yes," I said, and here is what I think of it. The author is the great-granddaughter of Sir Edwin and Lady Emily Lutyens.

Sir Edwin Lutyens O.M. (1869-1944) was the greatest British architect of the 20th century. His everlasting monument is our Rashtrapati Bhavan. Lesser ones include Hyderabad House, Baroda House (ruined by its current occupants), Rajpath, Janpath and India Gate. The Cenotaph in London is also his creation. The roads he built 80 years ago are comfortably taking on the traffic of the 21st century. Some vision. New Delhi is almost entirely the creation of Lutyens and his friend, foe, rival Herbert Baker, who built North and South Blocks and Parliament House. The two quarrelled bitterly and publicly. Lutyens was dismissive of Baker's work. Lutyens, to begin with, had disdain for Indian architecture. He told his wife, Emily, a former Viceroy's daughter:

Personally, I do not believe there is any real Indian architecture at all or any great tradition. There are just spurts by various mushroom dynasties with as much intellect in them as any other art nouveau.

This is, of course, crass nonsense. He even found fault with the Taj and the Fathepur Sikri (later better sense prevailed and he corrected himself). Sanchi, Konark, Khajuraho, Madurai, Ajanta, Ellora - "art nouveau"? Really Lutyens was an Edwardian and Edwardian society was by and large John Bullish, racist, smug, elegant, Oxbridge, willing to fight for King and country and a spectacular example of what Saul Bellow calls "trained ignorance".

THIS is a candid, complex and in some ways sad book combining two major and one minor biography. The major ones are of Lutyens and his aristocratic, slightly weird wife, Emily. The minor one is of Jiddu Krishnamurthi, a discovery of Mrs. Annie Besant who was convinced that Krishnamurthi was probably the new messiah come to save humankind from its greed and ills. Emily Lutyens, finding making love to her husband painful and repulsive, fell for the handsome Jiddu Krishnamurthi and embraced Mrs. Besant, Theosophy and all the mumbo-jumbo that went with it. Sir Edwin found his wife's exotic enthusiasms a pain in the neck and elsewhere. He engrossed himself in work, she in Krishna worship. Their children were neglected and they suffered endless agonies. Emily Lutyens died at the age of 90. Sir Edwin died on January 1, 1944. In their final years they re-discovered each other.

Reading this extraordinary book, a thought struck me - did the Brits have any idea that the magnificent buildings they created on Raisina Hill in New Delhi were to be used by them for less than 20 years? The first Viceroy to move into Rashtrapati Bhavan was Lord Irwin in 1929. The last was Lord Mountbatten (1947-48). The first Indian to reside in Rashtrapati Bhavan was not Dr. Rajendra Prasad but C. Rajagopalachari as Governor-General after Mountbatten departed in June 1948.

The Jaipur column in the majestic forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan carries an inscription - little known and less seen - jointly conceived by Lord Irwin and Sir Edwin Lutyens. The text reads:

In thought faith In word wisdom In deed courage In life service So may India be great.

Lutyens' New Delhi is under siege and parts of it are being vandalised. Maintenance is poor. Winston Churchill (1874-1965) said somewhere, "Our buildings shape us and we shape our buildings." These may not be the exact words but near enough. The grandeur of the New Delhi that Lutyens, Baker and many unmentioned Indians helped build remains. Let us see what our missile-loving President-in-waiting will do to Rashtrapati Bhavan, being the first bachelor to enjoy the beauty of the Mughal Gardens which further enhance the resplendence of a very great work of architecture where East and West meet and mingle in marble and stone.