Architectural masterpiece – Taj Mahal of Agra, splendid and most beautiful palaces of Udaipur, famous temples of South India and iconic British colonial era structures spread across the country – all of them have one thing in common, that is, they were built before India becoming an independent democratic country. It is difficult to find structures built with such finesse and immaculate perfection in the post independence India. Just as stonage did not come to an end because of scarcity of stones, architectural marvels in post independence India became rare not because of lack of skills. But it may be something to do with the changing priorities of the power that be which ensured slower but confirmed death of conventional architecture.
In post independence India, main objective was to put the scarce resources to optimum use and and promoting architecture was nowhere in the priority list. For example, when Kengal Hanumanthaiah, then Chief Minister of Karnataka, decided to build new Vidhana Soudha (originally the idea was mooted by KC Reddy, the first CM of Karnataka but Hanumanthaiah set the wheels in motion) for Karnataka in Bengaluru, then Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru had asked him why so much money being spent on a building? Though the Chief Minister had succeeded in convincing the Prime Minister, the incident speaks a lot about then prevailing attitude of our leadership towards architecture.
Post independence India had its priorities cut out . All efforts were directed towards development and alleviation of poverty. Above all, achieving a socialistic pattern of society was the goal paramount in the minds of leaders who never wanted to be recognised as elitist. Naturally, government patronage to architecture was a casualty. “We moved into an era of L1 bidding policy where lowest bidder gets the preference with little or no significance given to architectural innovation,” says A Satyanarayana, a heritage building lover. For the government which was grappling with perennial problem of resources crunch including funds, structure was nothing but four walls and a roof. Result is evident – creation of concrete slums. India as a state has given up the responsibility of projecting an idea of India through the built and physical environment long back.
However, initial years of independence saw some monumental creations with government patronage (it was the time when several state capitals, government and educational campuses were built across the country) but became a rarity as the years progressed and the nation engrossed itself in solving ‘other major problems which needed our leaders full attention’.
Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru is one of the major examples of government’s patronage for architecture in independent India and cases of such patronage are rare in modern India. This building has not only retained much of its original grandeur but has inspired similar structures elsewhere. Timing of the project also played an important role when the wave of nationalist sentiment that was sweeping the newly born independent nation. But Hanumanthaiah deserves credit for not just for being patron but also seeing through the project. Also, he took interest in finalizing the design and ensured that local style is given due importance. Such involvement by a political leader in the construction of a building is rarity in modern India.
Similar incident of patronage we have seen at the time of creation of new city, Chandigarh. Chandigarh was the dream city of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru and was planned by the famous French architect Le Corbusier. It is known as one of the best experiments in urban planning modern architecture in the twentieth century in India. The concept of the city was conceived keeping in mind Indian culture and practices. For example, each ‘Sector’, or the neighbourhood unit, is quite similar to the traditional Indian ‘mohalla’. Incidentally, Le Corbusier was not an obvious candidate to design Chandigarh, but his modernist vision appealed to Jawaharlal Nehru, who wanted the new city to depict the nation’s faith in the future. “It should be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past,” Nehru had reportedly told the architect then.
In the present times, we have been hearing some positive noise about the proposed capital city of Andhra Pradesh, Amaravati and the involvement of the Chief Minister of the state Chandtababu Naidu in the project. Right from the selection of designers and final layout, the Chief Minister has personally devoted time to understand project and make suggestions wherever necessary. The project is in the initial stages of the implementation and still many ‘ifs and buts’ are hanging over the project. However, if the project proceeds as per schedule it will set an example, how the power that can promote architecture and design.
But today we are living in an era of smart technology and smart cities. In India we are in an early stage of smart city development and no one knows whether in a smart city man will become machine or machines will be used to make the life of man comfortable. Most of the talks are about capital and investment with human beings figuring nowhere. Interestingly, smart cities are never talked about in terms of their architecture, but only in terms of their infrastructure. Unfortunately, fundamental values that make good architecture with a new form of patronage that will only create new set of problems for the profession.
In short, but for a few initial years of our independence the government never played the patron for the traditional local architecture. As a result the profession never received any encouragement to create innovative architecture and as a result we, today, see too little happening in public architecture. This is one of the reasons India isn’t making a mark internationally in the field of architecture and design. After all it is the lowest bidder who gets the government projects, not the best one!