The jury will forever be out on what constitutes beauty when it comes to contemporary architecture. What one person sees as an over-embellished wedding cake, another will regard as a Taj Mahal – or whatever that second person’s epitome of architectural excellence happens to be.
Age, of course, mellows many harsh edges. So it is entirely possible that what I regard as venerable century-old buildings were once dismissed as brash abominations, an impudent – and imprudent – departure from the prevalent scalloped Islamic arches and Rajput jharokhas.
Adity Chakravarti’s labour of love documenting old houses in her blog has finally been “immortalized” in print with the release last week of Reha’ish: At Home in Lucknow. She has done her mite to preserve not only a period of architecture but a disappearing way of life too.
Institutional buildings do not encapsulate personal and familial histories as homes do – so wonderfully captured by Adity – but they do epitomize a time and a sensibility. They bespeak the urges of those powers who guided the destinies of nations, and are thus invaluable too.
The faux Rajput Hotel Ashok in New Delhi, for instance, captures the uneasy synthesis in the 1950s between the recently-dispossessed Rajput royals and Jawaharlal Nehru’s imperious democratic government, both of which jointly owned the property. Its unease is telling.
Similarly, the ineffably ugly Nirman and Shastri Bhavans, built in the 1960s on the razed premises of Lutyens era bungalows, show that the government’s socialist ethos had by then ousted any vestiges of Indian aesthetics- such as they were. They are still eyesores.
What is odd, however, is that while such sarkari blotches are allowed to survive and mar Delhi’s beautifully laid out Central Vista, other contemporary modern buildings in the city are being demolished. A case in point is the now-obliterated Chanakya cinema hall.
There is also talk of reducing the Lutyens Bungalow Zone so that coveted residential colonies such as Sundar Nagar, Jor Bagh and Golf Links are excluded from its restrictions. That would, of course, mean certain extinction of those gracious 1950s-1960s residences. Kolkata has been witnessing the inexorable disappearance of buildings constructed by the beneficiaries of the Bengal renaissance–doctors, barristers, engineers, professors and civil servants. Their demolition coincides with the imminent extinction of the bhadralok.
Architectural ‘evolution’ in every city reflects India’s changing socio-economic and even political equations. And they are of a piece with what has happened in India for millennia. Very little ancient or merely old architecture has survived as even motifs in the present.