Building New Delhi

Published : Oct 09, 2009 00:00 IST

THE typical coffee-table book is rich in illustration and poor in text. It enlivens an idle hour but does little to instruct. But the volume under review is rich in illustration, in text, and in the documentation. It is a work of enormous research and patient, consistent dedication a genuine team effort. Malvika Singh is publisher of the highly respected monthly Seminar, which has completed 50 years in print; Rudrangshu Mukherjee is a historian and editor of the editorial pages of The Telegraph; and Pramod Kapoor is a collector of historical records and publisher of Roli Books. Kapoor describes how the volume was conceived and how he began painstakingly collecting, over the years, the documents and the photographs from various institutions and libraries in London, the British Library included. He expresses every collectors feeling when he writes being a sepia junkie, I find a new high every time I discover historical documents and images that are not easily accessible to us in India.

While Malavika Singh, who has lived in New Delhi all her life, writes an evocative Introduction, Rudrangshu Mukherjee writes a fascinating history of how the capital of the Raj was shifted from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Delhi. The documents and illustrations record, almost brick by brick, how New Delhi was built, from the announcement by King George V at the Coronation Durbar in New Delhi, on December 12, 1911, to the Inaugural Ceremony on February 10, 1931. The construction began in 1914 and was completed in 1926. The Council House was inaugurated on January 18, 1927. The Agreement between the Secretary of State for India and the architects Herbert Baker and Edwin Landseer Lutyens is reproduced in full in facsimile. Disagreements tore them apart, a sad but inescapable part of the great venture. It is unrealistic to expect two great architects not to disagree on so complex and long-drawn an enterprise.

Lutyens bitter reproach of disloyalty in his letter to Baker dated July 4, 1922, and Bakers equally sharp and elegant reply dated July 14 remind us of an era where such correspondence in controlled wrath was possible. To be frank, even the best of Indians neglected the art of disagreeing in elegant, dignified prose. The two were reconciled later. Baker supported Lutyens election for the presidency of the Royal Academy and wrote a moving obituary in The Times on January 4, 1944. The full story of their relationship is told in detail in Robert Grant Irvings excellent work Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker and Imperial Delhi (Oxford University Press, 1981).

Lord Curzon attacked the move to a city that was a mass of deserted ruins and graves in a speech in the House of Lords on February 21, 1912. True to form, he volunteered, in a letter to The Times (October 7, 1912), suggestions for the guidance of the selected architect of the new Delhi in the hope that the contribution of ideas would perhaps not be unserviceable or unwelcome.

The story goes that when New Delhi was being built, Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France during the First World War, visited Delhi and was taken on a tiresome tour of its many ruins. When he came to the Government House and North and South Blocks, he exclaimed, What excellent ruins will these make!

The malevolence was not directed at India but at the British whom he cordially detested.

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