A Reading of ‘The Architecture of Shivdatt Sharma’ and ‘A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India’

Image : Jon Lang, A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India


Parni Ray



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 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.

'Indian architects owe much to other architects and to the world around them as indeed the world to Indian architects. This book is as much about the flow of ideas as about architects and buildings.'

Jon Lang, Preface, A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India, Ranikhet, Permanent Black, 2002

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.

'The story of Modernism in India remains to be told told. It is still largely lost in dusty archives somewhere. One day, these archives that are held in personal collections around the country will hopefully be gathered in a single collection, under a common roof, with a curator. Then we might get a better picture. Until then, this book, the first in a series, is intended to offer preliminary insight into this story, through the life and work of one one of India's most distinguished and prolific modernists, Shivdatt Sharma.'

Vikramaditya Prakash, The Crucible of Modernism in India, The Architecture of Shivdatt Sharma (Modernism in India Series), Ahmedabad, Mapin Publishing, 2012

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 Central Scientific Instruments Organization Cafeteria, Chandigarh. Designed by S.D Sharma in 1962.

Image: The Architecture of Shivdatt Sharma

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.

The fourteen-story New Secretariat Building in Calcutta was designed by Habib Rahman while still working for the Bengal Public Works Department. Built in 1954 it marked the beginning of high-raise construction in India.

Image: Wikicommons

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.

The Rabindra Bhavan in Delhi was designed by Habib Rahman and built in 1961 to mark the birth centenary of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The building is home to The Lalit Kala, the Sangeet Natak and the Sahitya Academy, three National Academies of India dedicated to the Arts.

Image: Wikicommons

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.

The Indian Institute of Technology Library, Kanpur. Designed by Kanvinde the campus was built in 1962.

Image: Wikicommons

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.

Established in 1992, the fantastic structure of the The National Science Centre, New Delhi, was designed by Achyut Kanvinde, and is an example of his mature style. The centre, a science museum, takes forward the architect's longstanding relationship with the nation's scientific community and stalwart scientists, such as Vikram Sarabhai.

Image: Wikicommons

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.

Several other architects influenced by several other international modernists were also designing new buildings in India at the same time as Sharma, Rahman and Kanvinde. Lang points to the stylistic influence of Frank Llyod Wright on the architectural design for the National Institute of Design. He similarly brings up the Kothari building in Chennai, designed by S.L Chitale and the Indian Express building in Mumbai, designed by Joseph Allen Stein, (among many others) for their adherence to the International style.

Images: A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India

Buy A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India here

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