Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens should be very pleased with Delhi’s Master Plan 2021, the controversy surrounding it notwithstanding. In New Delhi, Lutyens had called for a tightly knit, high density city. When a voice was raised in favour of the City Beautiful, which would allow heroic architecture and high-density, he approvingly wrote to his wife, Lady Emily, “Now they [the Government of India] want, apparently, a town rather than a Garden City. I agree to this and am glad if they [the Government of India] do it.”
But the story of city building in India has been fraught with controversy. Efforts at building by both the British and the Indians have never been singular in purpose. When the British built New Delhi, the images from both Garden City and City Beautiful clashed. On the one hand, the British called for a tightly knit, high-density city that evoked broad boulevards and the high-rise buildings of the Champs Elysées or Bombay; on the other, the British felt that in hot and humid India they must have space, greenery and low-density. Crouching bungalows on spacious parcels of land ensured distance between the English and Indians. Similarly, the desire to build something that would reflect and exalt British ‘achievement’ and also acknowledge Indian tradition as a concession to the Indians produced mixed results in New Delhi.
In India, the urban debate and architectural discourse was never particularly local: it was energetically universal. The ruler of a princely state and regional politicians were eager to draw from global experience. But the pressure from the nationalists to search in the ‘national’ past for the ‘Indian city’ only fuelled censure of Western ideas. Within the Indian political establishment, architectural ambitions and tastes broke along ideological and cultural lines. Progressives with wide exposure to Western values were prepared to accept ideas from the West in order to modernise India. Conservatives steeped in tradition argued fervently for a grander, visible echo of the past that would restore national greatness, a sense of being ‘somebody again’. This naturally produced a contradiction in purpose.
Soon after Independence, Prime Minister Nehru declared New Delhi as “most un-Indian”. Nehru’s remark set the terms of the debate on the character of India’s new cities and architectural style. But Nehru also fully understood that modern India could not be built without Western technology. But Western technology had to be fused with Indian cultural traditions. What Nehru objected to in New Delhi was not the ‘leafy capital’ — for that resembled bucolic India; he was objecting to the over-monumentality of its official buildings decorated with classicism as the urban centerpiece attesting to British rule in India. It, therefore, followed that a new paradigm had to be invented for Indian cities. Nehru provided the imaginative shape to the new city at Chandigarh in 1950: “Let this be a new town symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past... an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.” Nehru’s greatest gift was his ability to bring to surface images that fused traditional India with the modern world.
Today, planners, architects, bureaucrats and private citizens are debating the future of Delhi. What is missing in the new debate is a vision that fuses the two urban Indias: the wealthy, who live expansively; and the disenfranchised poor, whose movements are propelled by misery. India’s experiments in urbanism and modernism accentuated the gap between what India professes and what India has achieved, beginning with the reminder that clean water, power and basic housing remain unattainable for the bulk of the population, while the literacy rate stubbornly stays higher than 50 per cent.
What should New Delhi — vis-à-vis an Indian city — look like in the 21st century? Should the Indian capital be dotted with shopping malls, restaurants, bookstores stretching from Rajpath (as suggested by Planning Commission Deputy Chair Montek Singh Ahluwalia) to Gurgaon (the city that personifies Indian consumerism); or should State resources be directed toward building a sustainable infrastructure that promotes law and order, and assures steady supply of power, clean water, better sanitation and sewers, affordable housing for the economically weak, as recommended by former Delhi Chief Secretary Omesh Saigal? Or, should the government develop more schools, colleges, research institutes?
It is, of course, difficult to intelligently explore the notion of commercialising Rajpath, since the full text of the proposal has not been made public. But on the face of it, there are aesthetic and security issues involved. What is clear is that there are no simple solutions for Delhi because the problem is of scale: the tension between the small, albeit slowly growing, privileged class that enjoys luxury goods and expensive Conti (a unique nomenclature for all foods west of the Hindu Kush) meals in upscale restaurants and lives in stark contrast to the poor.
India’s collective memory awaits new voices, new ideas, and new storytellers who might peer into its contradictions and make irony the life-blood of the story, rather than merely the unseen background. At the very least, such an approach might change the national urban landscape. “However well we may deal with the towns,” Nehru reasoned, “the problem of the villages of India will remain for a long time and any social standards that we seek to introduce will be judged ultimately not by what happens in Delhi but in the villages of India.”
Ravi Kalia is Professor of Urban Architectural History, City University of New York. His book, Imaging India in the Twentieth Century is to be published shortly.