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Many Delhis ago

The Begum of Bhopal came in a burqa and tennis shoes. A hundred thousand people in white packed the stands. Salutations with cannons and gunfire caused a stampede among elephants and horses, killing several people, writes Neelesh Misra.

delhi Updated: Aug 02, 2009 01:44 IST
Neelesh Misra

The Begum of Bhopal came in a burqa and tennis shoes. A hundred thousand people in white packed the stands. Salutations with cannons and gunfire caused a stampede among elephants and horses, killing several people.

A white general on horseback read out a royal proclamation in Urdu but another British officer mispronounced Hindi words as he presented medallions to his Indians troops — calling them “suwar” (pigs) instead of “sawar” (horseback troopers), and offering them a “billi” (cat) from the queen, instead of a “billa” (medal).

And then, at the end of the opulent December 12, 1911 ceremony to welcome British King George V to India, the monarch suddenly took a paper from the hands of the viceroy and made a barely-audible surprise announcement. To escape a rebellion in Bengal over its partition, the Capital of India was being moved from Calcutta to Delhi.

A new book, New Delhi: Making of a Capital by Malvika Singh and Rudrangshu Mukherjee (Roli Books) uses unpublished pictures to bring alive the magic of those years when Delhi — the heart of India, the city that symbolised India — was being built.

That was when two British men wearing three-piece suits and sola topis (dome-like hats) could be seen on an elephant, sauntering along the Raisina Hill. They were Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker, architects who had been hired to build a city fit to be the epicentre of the British empire in India, to rival the Capital the Mughals built.

Lutyen, a painter’s son and of Dutch descent, was the 11th of 14 children, his creative brilliance fuelled by his poor health. When cooped up at home, he began to draw sketches on paper, as well as with sharp pieces of soap on pieces of glass.

Baker was his long-time friend, and together they would become the Salim-Javed of colonial-era architecture.

Years later as an adult, Lutyen met a young woman and fell in love at first sight. She was Emily Lytton, the well-connected daughter of the first viceroy of India. She loved India. He had a colonial, ruler’s perspective of it. He made in high places, and soon was on his way to India, to build its Capital.

All the pomp of the new city was crucial. It was wrapped up in a show of the empire’s strength, and diplomacy.

“India in future,” as British Lord Montagu said in a 1917 speech, “would be a stage on the route to the Far east and Australia.” Lord Montagu also predicted that “within the next 10 years the mails between England and India would be conveyed by aeroplane.”

The First World War nearly put the project in disarray — with funds slashed — but it was soon back on track.

There were already many Delhis floating in the air — plans that would decide how and where millions of people would live decades later. One of the plans raised in the British House of Commons was to dam the Yamuna and build a huge lake with bathing ghats on the sides. It was rejected.

Lutyens and Baker had beaten several other architects to the lucrative job — they would get five per cent of the Rs 13 crore project — and the others still had an opinion.

One of them, leading architect Henry Vaughan Lanchester, was trusted by the king after he began to have doubts about Lutyens and Baker.

The jealousies would continue, and as years passed, just like the Salim-Javed story from Bollywood, the friendship of Lutyens and Baker would slowly wither away as well.

Several of Lanchester’s suggestions, to make Delhi a more interesting city comfortable for its residents and not just rulers, were incorporated — like curving roads, trees and shrubs, and heavy foliated hedges. Baker brought in the smooth integration of Eastern and Western elements in architecture, from the Buddhist stupa-like domes to the columns the latticed windows.

But on the whole, the seat of power was an area out of reach of common people, a manicured, beautiful but soulless expanse that had little connect with the real India.

Two sites had been shortlisted, miles apart with the red sandstone Jama Masjid in the middle. Finally the southern site was chosen, partly because of the same reasons relevant today for governments and industry — land acquisition would be cheap and painless.

So here it was: a geometric grid, the seat of power at the centre, two ceremonial revenues crossing each other at the centre, roads going past each other at thirty- and sixty-degree angles, with lots of roundabouts and open spaces.

It would take 17 years. And it would involve blasting the Raisina Hill.

Just as the Taj Mahal had done three centuries ago, the massive architectural project drew thousands of workers and the best of engineers from across India. By 1925, some 15,000 men were working on it. Bullock carts could be seen alongside expensive cars. Bullocks even mowed the lawns at the newly built mansions.

Most of the engineers then settled down here and became Delhi’s elite, building homes not too far from the mansions of feudal lords from Bikaner and Jaipur and Patiala and other principalities.

Multiple train lines crisscrossed the area to ferry construction material, including a track all the way around the Council House, now home to the Parliament.

Finally the grandeur and innovation came together to create what The Illustrated London News in 1920 called “The New Delhi: A City to Rival Paris and Washington”.

Eleven years later in February 1931, it was formally inaugurated. There was a grand parade, a viceregal party was thrown on the lawns in front of what are now the defence and home ministries; and in the old part of the city, bullock carts jostled alongside dhoti-clad residents at a fete for the public.

The walls and columns and windows were in place in the manicured, picture-perfect heart of India. The buildings had been built — in a decade and a half, it would be time to build a nation.