A new kind of entrepreneurial energy and cultural confidence
Sixty years ago, when India became independent, the newly formed Government under Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister, had many urgent problems on hand. Such as, the resettlement of refugees, and handling the numerous puzzles that unfolded in the wake of the Partition. One of the important issues before Nehru was about how a city should be in a free India.
Over the decades, that question has continued to occupy the attention of planners and architects, both Indian and Western, who have offered “urban solutions and architectural designs to transform India from a rural society into an urban state,” writes Ravi Kalia in an essay titled ‘Cityscapes’, included in ‘India 60: Towards a New Paradigm’ edited by Ira Pande (www.harpercollins.com).
Nehru demanded the creation of a city ‘unfettered by tradition’. To him and the internationally influential Swiss architect and city planner Swiss-born Frenchman Le Corbusier (originally, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret), “the machine age held the promise of liberating individuals and improving society, to be achieved by the simple, but powerful dictum: modernise your house and your life will follow,” narrates Kalia.
“For both men, India offered unimaginable freedoms played out in a vast and exotic landscape: skyscrapers and steel/chrome/aluminium factories announcing the aesthetic potential of new materials that were already transforming life outside the home. Modernism offered a shimmering vision of escape from everything conservative, tradition, and limited.”
A Wikipedia page devoted to the master architect describes him as ‘a pioneer in theoretical studies of modern design’ who was dedicated to ‘providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities’. His Immeubles Villas (1922) was “a project that called for large blocks of cell-like individual apartments stacked one on top of the other, with plans that included a living room, bedrooms, and kitchen, as well as a garden terrace,” to solve the urban housing crisis in France while at the same time raising the quality of life of the lower classes.
That year, Le Corbusier also presented his scheme for a ‘Contemporary City’ for three million inhabitants. “The centrepiece of this plan was the group of sixty-story, cruciform skyscrapers built on steel frames and encased in huge curtain walls of glass. They housed both offices and the apartments of the most wealthy inhabitants,” states http://en.wikipedia.org.
“These skyscrapers were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces. At the very middle was a huge transportation centre, which on different levels included depots for buses and trains, as well as highway intersections, and at the top, an airport. He had the fanciful notion that commercial airliners would land between the huge skyscrapers.” Fanciful? Le Corbusier’s design had ‘smaller multi-storey, zigzag blocks set in green space and set far back from the street’ to house the proletarian workers.
The ‘six-decade’ India book informs that with the political endorsement of Le Corbusier’s ideas came “a new appreciation for the aesthetic of the international style and the consequent visual variety in the Indian cityscape.” Recognising the effectiveness of urban planning as a policy tool for modernisation and socio-economic change, it was proposed to build at least 300 new cities, including several new state capitals, by the end of the twentieth century, Kalia chronicles. “It was hoped that these new cities would improve communication systems, raise economic standards, bring law and order to areas torn by communal passions, and provide social mobility to the economically depressed classes…”
Another essay in the book is ‘An elegy for small towns’ by Pankaj Mishra, written after travelling around the county in the course of a research on small towns. He finds “a new kind of entrepreneurial energy and cultural confidence” animating many of what had been ‘sleepy provincial places’.
Writes Mishra: “New shiny buildings had sprung up along main thoroughfares, raunchy music blared from small shops and stalls, the local newspapers carried sensationalist headlines, and restaurants with tinted windows offered greasy food with ambitious names.” Meanwhile, “an older middle-class culture, one that had largely emerged and flourished in small towns” is disappearing…