How New Delhi’s 3.5 acre site of cultural space housing the trinity complex of Lalit Kala, Sangeet Natak and Sahitya Akademi came to be.
Architect Habib Rahman had just finished his work on the Maulana Azad Memorial when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited him to design Rabindra Bhavan, to mark the birth centenary of Rabindranath Tagore in the capital in the early 1960s. Rahman, who until then had never built an institutional building with Indian elements before Rabindra Bhavan, presented a design that irked Nehru, who saw no merit in a cube structure as a cultural space. What we see today, the trinity complex of national Academies — Lalit Kala (art); Sangeet Natak (dance, drama and music) and Sahitya Akademi (literature) — came from a rigour of wanting to create a modern vocabulary using the traditional grammar of design.
The nearly 3.5 acre site hosts a Y-shaped administrative block, which has the offices of the three academies across four floors, and a pentagon-shaped exhibition block, popularly known as the Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA) gallery. The long curved arms of the administrative block with fire-brick masonry end with rubble stone walls. With a sloping overhang that protects the building from rain, and chhajjas along windows to protect from the sun, the building was climate-sensitive long before air-conditioners made an appearance. A covered walkway that wears exaggerated arches connects the office building to the gallery.
As photographer Ram Rahman shows the ground plan of the site, he points to an open area that, once upon a time, held the ruins of a mosque where people offered prayers, even after the structures were built. “My father developed a language here with abstracted arches and jaalis as texture on the building façade. It was certainly a modern building but it looked at tradition in a very nuanced way. He was always sensitive to context. The curve of the façade rhymed with the Mandi House traffic island. The building then didn’t have compound walls, it was meant to be seen without boundaries from the road,” he says, talking of how there were skylights on the top and lower galleries at LKA, which has been covered up since and is a blank white wall now. The curved staircase within the gallery, too, had a northern skylight to allow natural light to stream in and well up the floors below.