Tucked away in a corridor at Madan Mahatta’s magnificent show of photographs of Delhi’s modernist architecture from the 1950s to the 1980s is a small image of Sapru House. Taken in 1957, the photograph records — in black and white — a building whose red-and-white sandstone façade and stupa-like dome is an unmistakeable echo of the stately architecture of British New Delhi, though with the pillared verandah becoming a column-embedded wall, and the chhatris more extreme than anything Lutyens might have done. And yet this was a post-independence construction, built to house the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and inaugurated by Nehru.
From the colonnaded exterior and stupa-dome of B L Doctor’s Sapru House to the stark horizontals of Habib Rahman’s World Health House building seems a huge leap. But the gap between them is a mere seven years: Sapru House is 1955, the WHO building 1964.
Delhi Modern — curated by photographer Ram Rahman, Habib Rahman’s son — contains very few buildings like Sapru House, many more like WHO. Rahman’s grid-like Hindustan Times Building, the sweeping curved exterior of Kuldip Singh’s NDMC tower, the rolling roofs of Joseph Stein’s American School — what the Delhi-based Mahatta documented was the work of a new generation of modernist architects.
In the modernist dream, the Indian city was an empty space in which the future could be literally inscribed, in architectural form. It was a dream voiced by Nehru in 1949 when he visited the site for Chandigarh, declaring it “free from the existing encumbrances of old towns and traditions” and enthusiastically calling for Le Corbusier’s city to be “the first large expression of our creative genius flowering on our newly earned freedom”. A decade later, inaugurating a conference in Delhi on the future of Indian urban form, Nehru’s speech was a characteristic melding of the personal with the epochal. He proclaimed his distaste for the “dark corridors” of older South Indian temples (“they suppress my spirit”), declared his love of “sun and air”, and asserted that function must govern form.
I cannot help wondering if Nehru’s rather un-Indian desire for sun was the result of a gray English childhood. But psychobabble aside, India’s modernist intellectuals could not have had a better advocate. If MARG magazine’s 1946 founding issue (on ‘Planning and Dreaming’) announced the need to start “on a clean slate and… build our industrial civilisation”, Nehru was no less programmatic: “The past was good when it was the present,” he said, “but you cannot bring it forward when the entire world has changed into a technological period.”
Their manifesto may have been all about minimalism and functionality and a refusal to kowtow to previous traditions, but modernists had their own desire for monumentality. Kuldip Singh’s impressive National Cooperation Development Corporation Building (1981) on Khel Gaon Marg (which I grew up calling “the bell-shaped building”) has what looks like a gigantic pillar drilled through its core. The technological splendour of Raj Rewal’s pyramidical grid for Asia 72 at Pragati Maidan, the massive concrete bulk of the Shriram Centre: these were meant to awe the population of a developing country — and they did.
The open circulatory spaces Nehru saw as anti-“oppression”, urbanist Ravi Sundaram suggests, was crucial to modernity’s disciplinary regime. Visibility, as Michel Foucault famously argued, is a way to manage and govern populations: the deliberately external staircases of JK Chowdhury’s IIT buildings might bear thinking about this way.
The most extreme modernist fantasies — like Brasilia, where Le Corbusier’s disciple Oscar Niemeyer did away with the plazas of Latin American urban tradition — displayed a hostility to everyday forms of community, estranging people from the spaces they were in. Chandigarh had its problems. Delhi suffered the consequences of an imported Master Plan, where Albert Mayer’s team put in place a segregated land-use policy whose alienness has led to decades of inevitable ‘non-conforming’ developments.
Reams have been written about the dullness of Delhi’s sarkari architecture, but Mahatta’s ’50s and ’60s images document an island of genteel elegance: hotels (Claridges), intellectual-cultural spaces (Stein’s India International Centre, Rahman’s Rabindra Bhavan, IIT), international institutions (the WHO, the American School, the Ford Foundation, the International Trade Fair buildings), and the homes of modernist architects themselves, all furnished with Taaru furniture, Riten Mozumdar wall-hangings and John Bissell’s Fab India linens. “Almost every Delhi home in those days was outfitted by these three designers,” writes Ram Rahman. Even as I balk at the elitist obliviousness of that “every”, I can see why he would wax nostalgic about a moment “when India’s design confidence…was truly internationalist”.
But the pictures that give me most joy are those of Rahman’s RK Puram (1965); Kuldip Singh’s 1975 DDA flats (Malviya Nagar/Saket); Ranjit Sabikhi’s Yamuna Apartments. Delhi’s modernists — elite though they were — had a vision of middle class urban living in which privacy did not yet mean a withdrawal from the world. Balconies were staggered for privacy, but still open; brick tower blocks have badminton courts in their shadow. Boys lean on cycles outside their building, others sit on a low boundary wall. Workmen walk through. One wishes in vain to be back in this world, where Gurgaon’s gated condominiums were not yet the inevitable future.
The writer is a Delhi-based cultural anthropologist