Image : Jon Lang, A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India
In this first edition of IN MY BOOK I wade through Vikramaditya Prakash’s The Architecture of Shivdatt Sharma and Jon Lang’s A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India. Both delve into the architectural identity of modern India. The first via the work of a single architect - S.D Sharma- located primarily in Chandigarh, the other via the work of several architects, local and international, across the country. Modernist design (like modernism itself) is often understood to have been borrowed by India from the ‘West’. But the flow of ideas is not unidirectional and the source of modernism is not easy to fix, Prakash and Lang suggest.
To be modern, Jon Lang proposes, is to believe that there are better ways of doing things. ‘A modernist is someone whose whole line of thinking owes much to the spirit of the enlightenment and the belief that the world can be improved’ he says. In keeping, he points out, modernist architects tend to see architecture as a means of improving the lives of people.
It is thus not surprising that Indian modernist architecture had its moment at the dawn of the nation’s birthing. Aspirations of betterment underscored the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru’s nineteen years in office. In his celebrated speech on the eve of India’s independence in 1947 he had stated, ‘as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over...And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams’.
This work came to take the form of a variety of developmental projects, which Nehru saw as a means of defining the new nation and improving the life of its citizens. They included the construction of cities, public housing as well as buildings for institutions that would help constitute independent India. Much of this was made possible by architects who described themselves as modernists.
Shivdatt (SD) Sharma, the subject of Vikramaditya Prakash’s monograph, was among them. Uprooted from Lahore by the partition, Sharma joined the Capital project team early on. Over the years, he has come to credit his training as an architect to the years spent here, and to the mentorship of Pierre Jeanneret and Le Corbusier. He says he carried much of what he learnt to Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), where he was appointed the Chief Architect in 1973. The nine years he held office here were to prove a prolific period; while here he designed several buildings that came to define ISRO, one of the most significant scientific institutions in post-colonial India.
Like Sharma, several others from the Chandigarh architect team- including J.K Chowdhury, Jeet Malhotra and Aditya Prakash- would go on to be involved with institutional projects across the country. Corbusier’s impact on their work, as well as others they in turn influenced, was considerable, Lang suggests.
But before him there was the Bauhaus school of design.
The Bauhaus had had an exhibition in Calcutta in 1922. But while that made its impression on fine artists in the country its effect on Indian architecture was negligible, Lang says. The built environment in India was impacted by the Bauhaus due largely to the work of young architects who had returned to India following their training in the US.
Several, including Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, who were instrumental to the establishment of the National Institute of Design, studied architecture in the US and came back to practice in India during this time. Habib Rahman and Achyut Kanvinde, who had studied under Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University respectively, stood out among them. Their work in Delhi, Calcutta and Ahmedabad marked a pivotal moment for Indian Modernist architecture, Lang goes on to show.
Soon after his return from the United States and work on the striking Gandhi memorial in Barrackpore, Rahman was scouted by Nehru himself and invited to join the Central Public Works Department (CPWD). As part of the CPWD he designed public housing colonies, governmental offices as well as institutional buildings.
Kanvinde had been appointed the Chief Architect of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in 1947. He designed several building while in this position, including the CSIR headquarters in New Delhi as well as several significant institutional buildings, such as that of the Physical Research Laboratory (Ahmedabad), associated with scientific research in the country. These would all prove crucial experiments in the field of modern design and go on to define the nation's landscape, both directly and indirectly.
These experiments, Lang points out, were facilitated by a desire shared by the likes of Sharma, Rahman and Kanvinde to bring new approaches to new India. That they continued with the stylistic features associated with their mentors (Corbusier, Jeanneret, Gropius) had to do with several factors. The most important among which was the simplicity of the structural and constructional ideas associated with them, Lang says.
But while their work did bear a stamp of their respective mentors at the outset these architects were an eclectic group whose oeuvre as designers evolved considerably with their experience in the country, Lang points out. ‘emulating’ styles is quite common among young architects, he says. Despite this, the influence of ‘Western’ stalwarts like Corbusier and Gropius has often led people to see Indian architectural modernism as ‘derivative’. A big reason for this, Lang says, is that modernism itself continues to be understood to ‘belong’ to the West in its original form.
This notion can be misleading, both Prakash and Lang assert. For one it obscures the fact that ideas from India have continued to influence the West. Unlike the influence of European and American modernism on India the counter flow is harder to discern because it is neither as well documented, nor as widely discussed, says Lang. The narrative that gets upheld instead, Prakash points out, is inherently colonial and represents local designers from India as ‘copyists’ and their former colonial overlords as the ‘original thinkers’.
It is this, Prakash suggests, that has led to the near obfuscation of the creative labour local architects such as S.D Sharma put into Chandigarh, which continues to be identified as the creation of European architects. Given the little claim Sharma and others have had on the making of Chandigarh it is no wonder that them drawing from the city’s architectural vocabulary later has been seen as them borrowing from Corbusier’s work, not their own.
To allow for a more multivocal understanding of modernism that can make room for varied makers, Prakash proposes it be reevaluated as a ‘global heritage, a global cosmopolitanism at work’. Rather than seeing it as a singular European creation born out of a singular European history- the original version of which can only be located in Europe- Prakash suggests modernism be seen as a consequence of the colonial world and its aftermath.
In this reversed worldview, not only are the specific circumstances in postcolonial India responsible for the modernist architecture that prospers there the idea of ‘original’ Modernism and emulation itself is dissipated. As a result a variety of authors, not just American and European ones, are allowed to claim the many stylistic features of architectural modernism. And several architectural expressions can claim to be authentically modern.
Ar. Shivdatt Sharma on the Chandigarh School of Modernism - In Conversation
Shivdatt Sharma is one of the premiere Modernist architects of India. He started out in the Chandigarh Capital Project Team under the leadership of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret.Read Essay
Prof. Vikramaditya Prakash on the Authors of Chandigarh - In Conversation
Dr. Vikramaditya Prakash is Professor of Architecture at the University of Washington, Seattle. Here he discusses the first generation of Indian Modernist architects who worked on the Chandigarh Capitol Project.Read Essay