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A tale of two blocks

Raisina Hills, the North and the South blocks, their people, architecture and also their monkeys featured in a discussion at Oxford Bookstore on September 1. The event was the launch of a coffee-table book, Sentinels of Raisina Hills, by Dhirendra Singh and Mohan Joseph. The authors were in conversation with Rudrangshu Mukherjee of The Telegraph following the launch.

The discussion began with Mukherjee welcoming the authors to the first capital of India. He explained how the announcement of the shift of capital to New Delhi in 1911 had evoked a mixed reaction from the British and the Indians.

“But not everyone was unhappy with it. After 1857, Delhi was becoming a vital city with many rebels shifting there. The British realised that they could not ignore it,” explained Mukherjee. Thus began the rise of Delhi and Raisina Hills as the political hot seat of India.

The talk veered to how the architect, Herbert Baker, wanted the North and South blocks to be aligned with the viceroy’s house and not be situated at the foothills.

“Baker was against the viceroy being the supreme power. He wanted the government to be as important, and thus insisted on co-locating the North and South blocks with the viceroy’s residence. Through his work he wanted to show the unity of the viceroy with his government,” said Joseph, one of the authors.

The book has been written in the first person. The storyteller: the bricks and mortar of the grand structures.

“This is a book not about the lives and experience of the authors but their place of work,” said co-author Singh, a former Union home secretary. Joseph is a former joint secretary and financial advisor in the President’s secretariat.

Singh read out a section and explained the Indo-Western fusion in the architecture of his former workplace. He mentioned the use of Mughal-style jaalis, internal courtyards (modelled on Charbagh) and mural art in the two blocks. “Baker related to Indian art and aspiration so he fused Indian elements to his British design,” explained Singh.

More anecdotes about the Raj, its politics and some famous Indian civil servants followed. For a while, the focus shifted to the monkeys and pigeons that infest the buildings.

“Legend has it that civil servants don’t stop haunting the secretariat. They are reincarnated as the monkeys,” added Singh, tongue firmly in cheek.