Cast In concrete : Nehru’s Search For New India

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Since Independence in 1947, democracy, development and the economy have been the driving agendas in India. Many don’t know about the immediate aftermath of Partition, between resettling refugees, drafting a Constitution, and military challenges, India would inaugurate a new tradition of urban planning to complement the image of modern India. In 1948, the government of (East) Punjab announced its intention to build a new provincial capital in the state. With Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision, by 1964  the construction of Chandigarh, a full-fledged city the size of Paris designed by leading architects of the era was inaugurated.

Chandigarh is a city of post-independent India, a symbol of freedom and modernism dreamed by then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. After the Partition of Punjab, India’s Punjab required a new capital, which led to the idea of Chandigarh. As a result of political changes stemming from independence and partition, India was forced to build new state capitals and add extensions to existing cities to provide homes to refugees, house state governments, and deal with urban congestion. Although the British had built New Delhi as the new capital of the Raj at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were hardly any trained Indians to undertake the task of planning and architecture. The architect‐planner Le Corbusier, together with Nehru, provided the new planning model and architectural design that would overshadow imperial New Delhi. Chandigarh was to serve as a training school for Indian planners, who could then duplicate their experience in other cities to improve urban India, and also influence rural India.

Corbusier was a revolutionary architect of his time and led the “Purist” movement in the field of arts and architecture. The motion urged artists and architects to build objects and buildings in their primary forms, devoid of many details. Corbusier was a keen admirer of concrete and steel, symbols of modernism in his eyes. He along with three architects – Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew were appointed along with two Indian architects M.N. Sharma and Aditya Prakash for providing the new planning model and architectural design for the city of Chandigarh.

The story of Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar, and Gandhinagar is not one of the qualities of life in a new city or success /. It is, instead, a chronicle of a period during which India made a bold attempt to make a break with her past. The confines of the socio‐urban experiment included an innovative master plan, modernist buildings, new land‐use patterns, provisions for education, recreation, medical and social services, the careful and deliberate inclusion of ideas that had their origin in a culture far removed from her own. Between the opinions of the planners and hopes of the government officials there lies a narrative of planned cities and the people who inhabit them, and the influence of modernism on India generally.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court. Photo credit: Paul Lechevallier/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons-BY 2.5]

The success and failures of Le Corbusier’s vision for the modern city are still debated, but it has had an undeniable influence on the architecture of India. He sculpted the buildings with Concrete, which is harsh to look at, and Le Corbusier did not get the climate control right: in the summer, with seven months of searing heat, it gets very hot, and in the winter, it is very cold. The primary feature of the city is its division into a grid, where each grid represents a sector, self-sufficient and able to function as a city. High-rise structures were ruled out at the planning stage, a rule that is followed till now. Le Corbusier’s architecture seems to possess an infinite capacity to stir both enthusiasm and animosity. His works are like dense poetic texts combining many levels of meaning over a hermetic core.

Jawaharlal Nehru famously wrote in 1959: “Now I have welcomed one great experiment in India, which you know very well, Chandigarh. Many people argue about it, some like it, some dislike it. It is immaterial, whether you like it or not; it is the biggest job of its kind in India. That is why I welcome it. It is the biggest because it hits you on the head because it makes you think”.

The Legislative Assembly

Nehru believed that architecture was essential in building a cultural vision of a new, democratic society. The radical modern movement in Europe was a model of inspiration for the inception of, Chandigarh. He encouraged and inspired young Indian architects who later designed post-Independence buildings in Delhi. Some of those include Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde, Durga Bajpai, Charles Correa. Delhi became the site where both European and American modernisms took root. Experiments in modern architecture over three generations in public buildings, factories, and housing, made Delhi home to one of the most important collections of this tradition in the world.

Gandhi Memorial Hall (formerly Pyare Lal Bhawan), 1962; Architect: Kanvinde & Rai;

Nehru pushed architects to develop a design vocabulary which was rooted in Indian traditions but pointed to a new future. While we have celebrated the medieval, Mughal and also, the British imperial architecture as our heritage, we have little awareness of the modernist legacy of our cities and its international importance. These buildings epitomized the grand ambition of the newly-independent India (Nehruvian India) and are a powerful example of the democratic vision.

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