All great civilizations boast architectural wonders that are not only expanses for the soul, but temples of the mind. I gaze upon temples and stupas and get a glimpse into the heart of ancient India. In the medieval forts and palaces, I am transported into my country’s heritage. I look at the Taj Mahal and see both the extremes of love and the cruelty of a Mughal emperor. These are all icons of our glorious past. But when I wish to see a vision for our nation’s future, I am left bewildered. As someone born in in free India, I humbly ask my fellow citizens, why is it that we have failed to create architectural icons representative of the nation in over sixty years?
The post-colonial establishments of free India – Parliament, Raj Bhawan, India Gate were designed by our British rulers. Even the Supreme Court of India, which was designed by Ganesh Bhikaji Deolalikar shortly thereafter, bore the hallmark of the same Indo-British style. Our rulers changed with Independence, and they changed the names of our cities, streets, and buildings. Yet ironically, the physical reminders of a foreign regime became the most visible icons of modern India.
I find it disconcerting that we cheerfully embrace all our colonial icons in post-Independence India, especially since there has never been a dearth of architects in this country.
The first years after Independence, Nehruvian thinking and Five-Year Plans guided our development. Massive dams and bridges were built. Roads, schools, and hospitals were constructed. These were very noble ideals that were required then, as much as they are now. However, the resulting architecture neither represented the cultural aspirations of the local communities, nor were the buildings entirely utilitarian. Nehruvian Chandigarh is neither an example of simple living, nor of high thinking. Frenchman Le Corbusier’s Modernist structures for Chandigarh are massive, stately buildings, yet they are vapid and sterile. Where is the link to the rich living heritage of the people of Punjab and Haryana?
Clearly, Modernist architecture did not mesh with local culture and identity. Even in urban conglomerates such as Mumbai, the Indo-British style epitomized in colonial-era buildings such as Gateway of India and Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus was more appealing than the vague Modernist style found in monstrosities such as the Bombay Stock Exchange.
Perhaps, the concept of pan-Indian architecture is a foolish notion. In a pluralistic country such as India, the concept of nation might be best defined as the sum of the myriad disparate, and often chaotic subcultures. Perhaps, we should look locally for inspiration.
After Independence, the chief minister of West Bengal, Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, spearheaded efforts towards the development of the state. Durgapur became an industrial complex; Digha became the popular beach town; and Bidhannagar was planned as a a major suburb of Calcutta. The first Indian Institute of Technology was established at Hijli near Kharagpur. For economic progress, we required bold, utilitarian buildings. Unfortunately, that is all we ever got from successive governments.
As a result, today, the icons of Kolkata are the icons of imperial Calcutta. Victoria Memorial, Raj Bhavan, Writer’s Building, Shaheed Minar, and Howrah Bridge are lasting legacies. Religious monuments in Kolkata and surrounding areas such as Kalighat, Dakhineswar Kali Temple, St Paul’s Cathedral, Belur Math, Nakhoda Masjid, and the Jain Temple also predate Independence. Major projects since Independence such as Vidyasagar Setu and Salt Lake Stadium are useful, but nondescript, and forcefully linked to the city only in physical presence. Other buildings such as Chatterjee International are downright offensive. The only sense of architectural belonging I feel in the city is in the Metro rail system with its beautiful murals.
Elsewhere, buildings pop up like mushrooms during the monsoons. Shopping malls, cinema mutiplexes, steel technology “parks”, and high-rise housing complexes jostle for attention in the bustling metropolis. I know that the problems for architects and urban planners are daunting. But where is the sense of identity? Where is the link to Bengal’s cultural past and vision for the future? Every day, old buildings are torn down and replaced by ugly ones made from shoddy materials. Memory is fleeting and mediocrity substitutes for creativity.
Urban architecture stands in stark contrasts to the vernacular buildings dotting the countryside. The temples of Bishnupur are always inspirational, but we need only to look to the nearest thatched kachha-houses complete with courtyards and intricate alpona designs for elegance and economy. In fact, I find the small tulsi-mancha in front of nearly every home in rural Bengal to be more aesthetically appealing than any of the thousands of hideous buildings coming up these days.
Image (circa 1945) courtesy University of Pennsylvania Library Online Archive.
© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban