Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
URBAN SPACES : August 1, 1999
Winds of change
The author is a practising architect and interior designer and a member of Core group, INTACH
Change is stressful yet motivating. Change, if anything has been the constant in our architecture, its image presenting at once multiple, diverse, even contradictory, facets. Like its people, India's architecture cannot be reduced to a single unified vision and its regional variations are too vast for any general definition. Increasing the complexity of multiple traditions further is the age-old jigsaw of civilisations and indigenous ideas and traditions coupled with the juxtaposition of imported external influences, which have been imbibed and reinterpreted, creating new vocabularies.
Sanchi Stupa, Buddhist school of architecture (courtesy Vistara).
Architectural historians have neatly compartmentalised Indian architecture into traditional Hindu and Buddhist with Islamic and Colonial periods of influence preceding the Contemporary era, though these can hardly be termed watertight. Traditionally, climate, material availability, topography and settlement morphology have been major determinants of built form, be it the Banni homes of Kutch, the elevated bamboo homes of Assam, the splendid stone havelis of Jaisalmer, the polls of Ahmedabad, the courtyard homes of Tamil Nadu or the wooden architecture of Kerala. The underlying deep structure of thought that generated these was an understanding of the manifest and non-manifest world, represented diagrammatically according to the canons of the Shastras. Principal among these, the Vastu Purusha Mandala was applied to houses, palaces, temples and even cities. Srirangam town, Modhera Kund, the Sanchi Stupa were all models of the cosmos. Essentially trabeate in form, the temple and palace structures reached high levels of craftsmanship. What may be termed traditional architecture itself was, however, not totally devoid of external influences - the Hindu temples reveal traces of Greek iconography, while Kerala's wooden architecture is reputed to have Japanese and Chinese overlays.
With Islam came new paradigms, values, myths and images, a new relationship between Man and God, resulting in a metamorphosis in architecture. The concept of "Paradise Garden" based on the double-axis symmetry and the four quadrants of the "Char-bagh" was the basis of great masterpieces in Central Asia from where the Mughals came. This concept was explored in great detail in India and in the Mughal era.
The arch, jali and dome were structural elements nurtured by Islam that transformed architecture, while geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy became important decorative elements executed in the finest marbles, metals and gems by highly talented craftsmen. The Muslim rulers, while shaping the administrative and legislative destiny of the country, were prolific builders with ambition.
The first Islamic sultanate structures were built of disparate dismantled pieces of Hindu temples, after which came an era of carefully planned structures and precincts, later assimilating and incorporating Hindu elements and workmanship.
Some of these key monuments are often perceived as symbols of India. The Qutub Minar, built to commemorate the entry of Islam, was essentially a victory tower with calligraphic inscriptions regarded as the pivot of justice, coinciding with the Hindu-Buddhist concept of the world axis.
The first work of seminal importance was Humayun's Tomb, an exemplary delineation of the Char-bagh concept and is considered the precursor to the Taj Mahal.
Modhera Kund, Hindu school of architecture (courtesy Vistara).
"It is a frozen moment in history," is how Akbar's new capital, Fatehpur Sikri, has been described. It is a physical correlate, a symbol of Akbar's zeal for a composite Indian culture. Built with great speed and energy, its structures have been modelled after the simple canvas tents used by the semi-nomadic ancestors of the Mughals. The free standing pavilions are constructed as stone analogues of the tents.
The most fascinating structure is the Diwan-é-Khas designed for private audiences, in a cube-like form with an elaborate central column connected to the four corners by bridges. Akbar sat on the pillar, the Emperor symbolic of the centre of the Universe and the four advisors sat in the four corners of the upper level. The overlap of Islam, Hindu and Buddhist myths is almost indiscernible here. The square plan, while of Central Asian origin, would have represented to the Hindu craftsmen the "mandala" - the model of the cosmos. In the centre in the place of the "Bindu" the source of all energy, sits Akbar as the Emperor. The column is clearly Hindu/ Buddhist in form representing the axis mundi. The statement then is one of staggering political and metaphysical impact - the physical realisation of Hindu myths transformed into a new vocabulary, the fusion of Islamic and Hindu styles. For its secular character and wide repertoire of building techniques, Fatehpur Sikri is truly without parallel.
The pristine purity of the Taj has inspired generations of musicians, poets, and artists. Shah Jahan's rendition of the "Char-Bagh" concept is one of calm perfection. The high point of Mughal architecture in mellow marble has subtle low relief carving, lace like jalis, exquisite inlays, pietra dura and calligraphy. Simple, yet perfect, proportions in facile grouping, rhythmic in disposal and skilful in the interrelation of each part in the total unity, the Taj offers myriad images with the passing light and colour of the moment.
Jaipur, a Hindu city built in the era of declining Mughal power, continues to have relevance today and is a pioneering urban design attempt at facade controls, material and colour. The astrological observatories, Jantar Mantar, pure in form and geometry are sculptural in their composition.
Humayun's Tomb, Mughal era (courtesy Vistara).
European colonists brought with them to India concepts of their "world view" in the Age of Reason when values of rationality, industrialisation and modernity were highly venerated. They also brought along the whole baggage of the history of European architecture - Classical, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque - upon which to draw inspiration and create images of self and power.
The initial structures were utilitarian warehouses and walled trading posts, giving way to fortified towns along the coastline. The Portuguese adapted to India the climatically appropriate Iberian galleried patio house and the Baroque churches of Goa. Nagapatnam was laid out in squares and canals by the Dutch, while Tranquebar and Serampore were of Danish influence. The French settlement of Pondicherry with its rational cartesian grid plan and classical architecture made it an important urban design type.
It was the British, however, whose fundamental mercantile aspirations in the form of the East India Company grew to assume the dimensions of the greatest colonial empire, who left a lasting imprint on Indian soil. The British saw themselves as successors to the Mughals and used architecture as a symbol of power, a superior way of life and even as a surrogate for real power. Gautam Bhatia said that the Mughals', "architectural megalomania was the most convenient ploy for a monarch to keep a permanent and tangible record of his career - a record that outlasted him as well as the succeeding dynasties of despotic grandchildren" and could well apply to the British. The imperial impulse was chivalric yet bullying, self-seeking yet magnanimous, sometimes astonishingly insensitive, yet generally just and high minded. These contrary, but pervasive, elements were expressed in the architecture of the empire and they achieved their most eloquent expression in the structures of British India and it is no wonder that India came to be known as the Jewel in the Crown.
Contrary to popular belief there was never a definitive imperial style; the architectural history of British India is a story of constant experimentation with different building styles - classical, gothic, baroque, each reflecting moral and ethical values of the period. Surat, Madras, Calcutta and Bombay were the first four major British settlements, new towns established as trading posts within forts. The adjacent "Black" towns with their native populations, followed their own patterns of growth.
Trellis work, Islamic style (courtesy Vistara).
The first buildings were factories, later courts, schools, municipal halls and dak bungalows, the designers being military engineers distinguished by neither their volume nor their originality. A deeper concern with architecture was exhibited in churches and other public buildings.
Pattern books from England became prototypes for important buildings. These books differed from the Shilpa Shastras in that they advocated specific styles of architecture rather than general principles. Unlike Europe however the structures were mostly of brick, not stone and stuccoed with chunam, sometimes "facades" incised to look like stone.
The Government House, Calcutta, now Raj Bhavan, is an extraordinary neoclassical representative of the English country house. It incorporates with great panache wide verandahs essential for survival in a hot humid clime.
Churches, symbols of colonialism were in classical style. The earliest, St. Mary's in Fort St. George, Chennai, is a simple square plan with the tower later added as a steeple on a square. Based on London prototypes, several churches evolved with variations as highly original works.
Victoria Terminus, Neo Gothic style (courtesy Vistara).
Many structures followed the classical style. The Indian Government Mint in Calcutta is a half-scale replica of the Temple of Minerva at Athens. Pachaiyappa's Hall in Chennai was modelled on the Athenium Temple of Theseus. Mumbai's Town Hall is Classical Greek Revival, a style also adopted by the Indian business community and intellectual modernists. Deep shades over windows were the only concession to the classical.
The mid-1800s was a watershed in Indian political and architectural history. The transfer of power from the East India Company to the British Crown established what is loosely known as the Raj. It coincided with stirrings of Indian nationalism. The coming of the railways heralded a new era and linked distant parts of the subcontinent. Telegraph and printing revolutionised communication. New material, concrete, glass, wrought and cast iron opened up new possibilities. The professional architect had emerged. The maistris and sthapathis were reduced to itinerant workers from being court artisans.
On the one hand, the British had a messianic zeal to improve the lot of their colonial subjects, while on the other, they felt a need to maintain social and cultural superiority. This ambiguity offered "two conflicting theories as to the course of architecture, carried out by English hands on Indian soil - that of adopting or assimilating native styles and the opposite theory, that of planting European forms of architecture on Indian soil with little modification." The ideal imperial model of Classical and Neo-Gothic were clearly used as statements of a superior culture. Indo-Saracenic was an effort to merge British and Indian aspirations, to portray that the British in India were part of the milieu. Indo-Saracenic also had political overtones. It helped obscure the exploitative nature of British imperialism.
Railway stations, banks and Insurance buildings, educational institutions, clubs and museums found expression in this multi-layered overlapping ideology of fusion. Chepauk Palace in Chennai designed by Paul Benfield is said to be the first Indo-Saracenic building in India, referred to as licentious "eclectic" incorporating elements and motifs of Hindu and Islamic precedents. Outstanding examples are spread across the country - Muir college at Allahabad, Napier Museum at Thiruvananthapuram, the Post Office, Prince of Wales Museum, University Hall and Library, Gateway of India in Mumbai, M.S. University, Lakshmi Vilas Palace at Baroda, the Central Railway Station, Law courts, Victoria Public Hall, Museum and University Senate House in Chennai, the Palaces at Mysore and Bangalore.
The hybrid combined diverse architectural elements of Hindu and Mughal with Gothic cusped arches, domes, spires, tracery, minarets and stained glass, in a wonderful, almost playful manner.
Taj Volume 23, No: 2, 1994
Chisholm, Henry Irwin and Gilbert Scott were among the leading practitioners of the time. Chisholm, one of the most gifted English architects working in India and a vehement supporter of Indian craftsmen said "those men have an art language of their own, a language which you can recognise but cannot thoroughly understand. For this reason an architect practising in India should unhesitatingly select to practice in the native styles of art - the natural art-expression."
Neo-Gothic with eclesiastic overtones was also contemporaneously being promoted, inspired by the Houses of Parliament in London. Victoria Terminus by F. W. Stephens, the finest example of Victorian Gothic, modelled on St. Pancras Station. An ambitious exercise in architectural exuberance, riotous ornament and romantic skyline, "it epitomises the spirit of the age, a paean of praise to the railway." It is a supreme example of tropical Gothic architecture with a subtle hint of Indo-Saracenic motifs, an extravaganza of polychromatic stone, decorated tile marble and stained glass.
The British set up military camps to deploy its troops quickly to protect its holdings from insurgency, local and foreign. This resulted in the distinct settlement pattern of the cantonments on the periphery of cities. Common elements were the church, the club, the parade ground, barracks, bungalows, spacious tree-lined avenues. The parade ground was of primary importance for manoeuvre practice as well as for polo and cricket on holidays. The ground served as a buffer between the "elegant" cantonment and the crowded gullies of the "native" town.
The "bungalow", its name originating from the humble Bengali "bangla" or hut was decisively influenced by the indigenous vernacular architecture, rapidly developed by the British into their ideal form of tropical housing. Wide verandahs overlooking gardens, keeping out sun and rain, yet letting the air circulate, ameliorated climate and were ideal settings for a leisurely lifestyle.
With Doric columns and "monkey tops" the Anglo-Indian hybrid bungalow became a prototype throughout the far-flung British Empire.
Ashim Ghosh/ Fotomedia
A major architectual statement was made in the urban and architectural design of New Delhi, regarded as the crowning glory of the Imperial era. Edwin Lutyens, a gifted English architect, was selected for the commission. "New Delhi has to convey the idea of a peaceful domination and dignified rule over the traditions and life of India by the British Raj." To Lord Curzon it was a symbol of moral supremacy; "Our work is righteous and . . . it shall endure." To Robert Byron, New Delhi was "The Rome of Hindostan". Vested with such metaphysical, social and political import, the question of style was of paramount importance. Lutyens, who dismissed Indian architecture and its advocates, stigmatising Fatehpur Sikri as the "work of monkeys", was brought under pressure by the Viceroy "to harmonise externally with the . . . traditions of Indian art". Hence Western architecture with Oriental motif was realised with chajjas, jalis and chhattris, as stylistic devices. The dome of the Viceroy's House was reminiscent of Sanchi but did not transform any of the mythic values and images of the sacred mountain or the axis mudi. Geometry reigned over symbolism. The result was an architectural pastiche involving transfer of elements. The discipline in the symmetry, silhouette and colour harmonise the entire composition.
In the following years as British hegemony waned in the times of nationalist struggle, aspirations were Revivalist for some, looking back to the past for inspiration about the future, and Modernist for others, seeking their identity in the progressive styles of the western world. Art Deco and International Modern were explored.
Two diverse viewpoints emerged as alternative images for future India by the prime architects of Independence themselves - Gandhi and Nehru. Gandhi's vision drew on traditional Indian experiences, going back to the primordial roots and the real India of the villages, making a moral and aesthetic statement through austerity. Nehru sought a modern, democratic industrialised nation, recognising that rediscovering our past only strengthens our ability to conceptualise new options, to invent our future. His beliefs in rationality and science influenced the young nation - and the new architecture it was to build in the decades to come.
The India of today is an incredibly rich reservoir of images and beliefs, each intervention and influence bringing with it its own, overlaying and transforming to create a pluralism inherent in Indian architecture.
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