What is the guiding vision behind Amaravati, what should it set out to achieve? This is hardly reflected in any of these concept images. What has been our record of urban planning in last 50-odd years after Chandigarh? While the community of professionals may whine about the entry of foreigners on their turf, our own record is hardly anything to write home about. First, our planners have not been able to shed the Corbusierian influence of zoned, sectoral grid-iron planning. There is a near-dearth of urban design imagination that brings about vitality or vibrancy to city life.
A case in point is Naya Raipur, the new capital city of yet another newly carved Indian state, Chhattisgarh. According to their official website, the Naya Raipur Development Authority sets out to plan an ultramodern green and smart city, which aims at promoting a modern lifestyle with a foundation in traditional values. This is the state of our urban vision today – a collection of catch-phrases and jumlas. Once again, a glance at the envisioned images of Naya Raipur reveal a sterile urban landscape of regimented concrete blocks, as if the city is taking part in a military parade.
It appears that the chief minister is unhappy with the designs that were drawn up and has expressed his admiration for the way Rajamouli envisioned the kingdom of Mahishmati in the period fantasy film Bahubali. Naidu wants the film-maker to bring the same grandeur to Amaravati. In the past, Rajamouli has spoken of the influence the mythological series of Amar Chitra Katha comics had on him. ... It seems that the vision for his new capital city has finally dawned upon Chandrababu Naidu. “At my home and work place, I want a representation of our history, folklore and mythology,” he said at a meeting of the Capital Region Development Agency. To help fulfil that vision, where else could he seek inspiration, but in the grand, over-the-top, super-spectacular sets of Mahishmati?
Two questions arise: Firstly, how relevant it is to seek inspiration for a twenty-first century, modern capital city in mythical imaginations of the past? And secondly, how useful it is to channel cinematic imagination in real world urban design?
The reason why the area around the small village of Amaravati (between Guntur and Vijaywada) was chosen as the site for the new capital, rather than developing an already established urban centre like Vijaywada, was to claim the glorious historical legacy of Andhra Pradesh. The claim of Amaravati and nearby Dharanikota rests on its historical importance as the eastern capital of the Satvahana or Andhra dynasty. This dynasty ruled over vast swathes of the Deccan, from its west to east coast, for roughly 400 years from the 2nd century BCE, thriving on extensive trade with the Roman Empire. Moreover, there is a name association with Indra’s celestial suvarna-nagari, Amaravati, built by Vishwakarma, the architect of the gods himself.
The ancient capital is also known for the magnificent Amaravati stupa, the most elaborate to have been erected in India. In its sculptural brilliance, it presented a vivid testimony of prosperous urbanity of its time. The structure of the stupa was dismantled in the 19th century, but quite a few of the sculptural panels were salvaged and most of them are housed in a specially created section in the British Museum, occupying the same place of pride as the Elgin Marbles. While the limestone reliefs depict incidents from Buddha’s life, they also describe a thriving social and cultural life of enormous vitality of the period, set in fascinating architectural settings of palace gables, vaults and balconies, city gates and mansions.
Many of these architectural features find their way in the subsequent development of Dravida architecture, as seen in temple spires, gopurams and colonnades of surrounding cloisters. Can these visions from the past provide an inspiration for a new city of the 21st century in a meaningful way? If we accept that as a valid premise, then can a film-maker provide that inspiration?
India has, from the early days of cinema, seen a trend of artists and painters take up the mantle of Art Direction, a task now increasingly shared by architects. The cross-over between architecture and film-making, or specifically set design, is not surprising. Legendary Russian film-maker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein had trained as an architect. In his essay Montage and Architecture, he draws analogies between crafting a film scene and negotiating an architectural space. It was inevitable that the cinematic medium and set designing would draw quite a few architects, as they can dream unhindered by the constraints of real life, especially today with the use of digital techniques and CGI.
Inviting Chandramouli to envision the New Amravati, seeks to reverse this flow of ideas. This is not far-fetched, given the newly stated goal by the chief minister that the city must represent “history, folklore and mythology”. Indian film-makers have always risen admirably in that department, when it came to recreating the past in their films – rarely constrained by authenticity. Despite this, such recreations have often had a lasting impact, on the collective memory of a nation of film-goers. Scores of visitors to Fatehpur Sikri and Agra Fort go there to seek validation of their memories of Mughal-e-Azam. When they demand to see the tunnel that Prince Salim used in his bid to rescue Anarkali, the obliging local guides do not fail them and point to an imaginary trap-door in the flooring. In recent times, the imaginative recreations of older cities in films like Jodhaa Akbar (2008) and Mohenjo Daro (2016) have found a far greater potential to remain in public imagination than the supposed realities of their historic selves.
Politics and cinema are inextricably linked in Andhra Pradesh. Naidu’s political mentor, his father-in-law NT Rama Rao, the founder of the ruling Telugu Desam Party, was a mega-star of Telugu films, enacting many mythological roles through his long career. NTR pioneered the practice of recruiting the services of film-makers to erect elaborate stages for his election campaigns. Recreating mythological scenes or historical settings had similar filmic appeal to his large fan base.