As heated discussions about the central vista development project are now raging across art and architectural circles, I am getting more and more intrigued about the way Indian, or rather the elite Indian mind works.
If I really get candid, the central vista project, as it stands today is actually not at all about the cultural assertion of a new nationalist India as it is being portrayed by the ruffled elites of India who sense it as an attack on their culture-fiefdom, but is actually exactly opposite to it.
The fact that no designer has dared taking on the symbols of Raj is a proof that we are still unable to break free from the deep-rooted sense of subversion that “they”, our British lords and masters knew better!
Lutyens’ Delhi has been for long recognised as a symbol of Indian elites, but it is clear that it is still bigger than the Indian identity that we are seeking and hence even after seventy years of sovereignty, it is still a sacrilege for an architect to stand up and say that it stands as an insult to Indian architecture and needs to be reinterpreted.
If you are not an architect, you can’t be blamed if you don’t see things this way, as there is little doubt that Lutyens’ Delhi is grand and imposing and surely impressive.
As the buildings are built to impress the “natives” and send a subluminal message about the great power that King of Britain wielded across the globe, they must be treated as a huge success, because they not only did it during the Raj, but have continued doing it even today.
But, if you are an architect, you have a reason to worry, as you must be aware of what Lutyens had to say about our nation and, more so about our architecture.
Lutyens’ Delhi may represent something grand for the masses, but for the architects of India, it is nothing but brazen and open insult, as Mr. Lutyens, not being an Indian architect, was not a man who minced his words.
While Indian architect may say things like “juxtaposition of socio-cultural values on the materiality of the urban fabric”; if I borrow quotes from a fine essay on “Architecture and Politics in the Construction of New Delhi” by Suhash Chakravarty, Mr. Lutyens, a candid man, stated that “architectural creations of India which ‘were full of strange ideas’ which ‘shook his Western sense of truth’.”
If I quote further from the same essay of Shree Chakrabarty that quotes Lutyens, “He was struck by the ‘monotonous riot of nonsense’ with an ‘occasional lapse to really fine proportions and great simple conceptions’. Amber failed him. Mandu disappointed him. Agra and the Taj teased him. ‘The Mogul architecture’, Lutyens was ready as ever to pass judgement, ‘is cumbersome, ill-constructed building covered with a veneer of stone marbles and very tiresome to the Western intelligence.’ ‘The whole country was full of shrines, mosques and temples. ‘But nothing,’ a vexed and disturbed Lutyens lambasted, ‘was built to last, not even the Taj. ‘”
And if this is not enough, “he did not believe that there was any Indian architecture or any great tradition-‘they are just the spurts of various mushroom-dynasties’” and if we sum it up with fine British understanding about the natives, ‘It is all tommy rot.!”
While I am not interested in reading too much in what Mr. Lutyens thought about Indian architecture, I feel that he has a great lesson to offer to India, Indians and Indian architects in specific.
The fact that he could feel this way was obviously his (what we would like to call false) sense of superiority. He clearly believed that he was better and there was not an iota of doubt in his mind that Indians were inferior, and this feeling was common across those who ruled India.
Even if we want to term it as a false sense of pride, we have to introspect and see what it did to us, as people and as architects, as the signs are clear even today.
Even today, the central vista discussion is full of “why didn’t we call international firms?” sentiment from Indian architectural community.
Even today Indian architectural education raves about almost alien (to Indian sensibilities) architecture of Le Corbusier.
Even now most students from schools of architecture in India would have seen “Indian Jones” like distorted interpretation of Indian architectural elements by Luis Kahn at IIMA but only few would have seen the Kailāśa temple Indians built a thousand years back.
While elites may look at this as a great power of India, a nation that assimilated best of every culture it encountered, the truth is possibly opposite. As we have never felt the pride for what we have, we are a people who are easiest to impress and, in turn subvert.
Even though extreme cultural pride is not suitable for a nation to possess in an age of increasing global connectivity, India needs to watch out for an inner weakness that we seem to have developed as a culture.
We have become a nation that has taken openness to the extreme and hence have turned everything-Indian on its head, whereby we not only love everything that we have imported, but we also hate everything-Indian.
What we need is a balanced approach. We may not throw Lutyens out, but we must not be scared of questioning him from the context of being an independent nation is search of its identity.
If we want to take the best from the world, the way to do is to question it first before taking it as a Gospel, sorry Gita truth!