Great cities such as Bombay, Calcutta, Bangalore, or Indore, Hyderabad and Chennai — as well as others like Jaipur, Cochin, Panjim and Bhubaneswar, to name a few — were legendary and famed. They had their own special, entrenched histories and traditions, cultures and diversity. Travellers from across the seas were drawn to this extraordinary land that was ahead of the world in aesthetic sensibilities and their many manifestations. The spirit of this sub-continent is still intact, albeit bruised. It needs to be restored and reinvented with love and care to deal with a changed environment, one where modernity and tradition are linked in order to forge an energetic and creative future.
It is most unfortunate that today, what confronts the resident and the visitor in each of these cities are large, unplanned and unkempt slums, with no redeeming features whatsoever. There is just a glimmer of a prosperous and confident past embedded in the crumbling, neglected older buildings that stand as fragile symbols of a mighty civilization. In these cities that have suffered abject neglect at the hands of corrupt municipalities, urban affairs departments and land mafia, there resides a repressed but alive soul that ‘modern’ India has consistently damaged by gross mismanagement. Across the country, leadership has failed in almost all public domains to provide dignity of life and living to its people. Rulers live in gated and secluded parts of town where civil amenities work. The real stakeholders of India have been denied their right to the basic amenities of civil society, while their arrogant ‘rulers’ live in their ivory towers.
Delhi is the only city in India where change and growth has been inclusive and positive, blending the best of the past with the aspirations and vitality of the present. There are lessons to be learnt. From Mohenjodaro and Harappa to Jaipur and New Delhi, and every great city in between, India was streets ahead of the world in urban planning, incredible architecture and unmatched skills. Modern, independent India has managed to destroy every inherent strength in its quest for low level, mediocre ‘modernity’. The modern Indian State introduced into our advanced landscapes a concrete, sterile and alien environment that clashed with our sensibilities as a people. Our many-layered legacy was assaulted.
The rare examples of modernist architecture and interior design in India, which can be found in the Manik Bagh Palace in Indore, were mutilated beyond recognition by the Indian State when it took over the property and ‘restored’ it, turning it into the office of the excise commissioner and his babus. In Hyderabad, the Salar Jung Palace was ‘converted’ into a museum that is arguably the single most decrepit, badly maintained repository of a ‘family’ collection anywhere in the world. Baroda House in New Delhi has been abused and manhandled by the staff of the railways, who should not have been housed in a historic building designed by Edwin Lutyens. It is a small mercy that Humayun’s Tomb has not been used as a central bank, the Taj Mahal as a coffee shop, or Lodhi Gardens as a parking lot. Anything can happen in an India that has forgotten its history and does not care to conserve it for future generations.
The State has, over the last few decades, killed the pride of Indians in all that is Indian. It has successfully endorsed the ‘mall culture’ that is impersonal and motivated by a false sense of values and upward mobility. Sadly, it is downward all the way as we batter the soul and sensibility of this ancient civilization and modern democracy. The babu should retreat and the rulers should take charge of the legacy by involving skilled professionals outside the government to do what needs to be done.