The present-day Indian capital of New Delhi has served as the seat of rule for a full range of indigenous and foreign empires, from various Hindu and Muslim dynasties through the Mughals and the British. Its geographically and economically strategic location and historic importance made it the logical choice for the seat of the Republic of India upon independence in 1947. Based on the plans of the British architect Lutyens, New Delhi's architecture reflects that imperialistic heritage; as the seat of the Raj from 1911 until independence, Delhi bears a lasting impression of British imperialist rule and culture. The question of the appropriate path in India's post-Independence struggle to establish a renewed collective national identity—a struggle hampered by Partition, religious strife, linguistic and ethnic diversity, poverty, and staggering misrule—is open to debate. Several key aspects are nonetheless clear.
The commission for the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts (IGNCA), the most extensive project in government architecture in the nation's history, represented a powerful opportunity to assert a post-colonial Indian identity in Lutyens’ Delhi. American Ralph Lerner was awarded the prize and commission; Lerner's plan, however, designed in conscious harmony with the overall style of Lutyens, reinforced the Raj at the expense of the Republic, and elevated 150 years of foreign hegemony over 5000 years of opulent evolution. A subsequent project of equal import—Raj Rewal's Parliament Library—presents us with a fascinating counterpoint to Lerner's IGNCA. While Lerner's project is embedded in the imposing Western style of Lutyens and New Delhi, Rewal's work speaks to all eight incarnations of the ever-shifting capital of India, Delhi- old and new.
India's identity must be embedded in the legacies of the rich, broad history of Indian civilizations while paying homage to the more recent forces-indigenous changes, conquest and colonization-that have shaped India. This identity must also reaffirm India's freedom from its colonial shackles, however mixed the view of those shackles. Cultural production, in all manifestations, inheres in a people; architecture in particular is a tactile, lasting expression of national identity, literally rooted in a nation's soil, tying this form of cultural production most closely to a nation's collective sense of self. This paper explores the implications of Lerner's design for the IGNCA in light of Indian history, culture, and politics, analyzing the symbolic importance of the IGNCA with respect to Indian national identity. In comparison with the designs of other recent public buildings in Delhi, most notably the Parliament Library of Raj Rewal, Lerner's IGNCA design is conspicuous principally for its reiteration of Britain's cultural stamp on India.