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A CITY WITHOUT BEAUTY

This was not to be, as the authority, in a dedicated partnership with the builders and land mafia, chose to damage the lungs, the blood stream and limbs of this ancient city. They rode roughshod over every norm and regulation, tearing the ethos of Delhi into shreds. The river Yamuna is a polluted sliver of a stream; the Aravallis, one of the oldest range of hills in India that border this prestigious state, have been brutally assaulted in spite of much protest with the sanction of the administration that endorsed the breaking of the law by its inaction; the traditional waterbodies and baolis within the city, connected to one another through carefully laid-out channels, have been systematically buried; the green lungs were permitted to be poisoned by uprooting the green network in favour of ugly glass and chrome buildings. Swathes of undeclared money passed hands and Dilli was pillaged, in a manner of speaking, for the first time after Independence.

Glass monsters

Ironically, when the British were trying to find a locale for building the new capital of India in 1911, one of the suggestions was to use the Ridge, the land between Old Delhi and Shahjahanabad, with the sprawling area to the south of the last capital. Lord Hardinge refused to allow the Ridge to be tampered with and is believed to have said that if you tamper with nature, nature will take her revenge. Therefore, it was the land at the edge of the forested Ridge, and beyond the village of Malcha, that was earmarked for the project, with the Raisina Hills selected to house the palace and buildings that represented the pinnacle of power. In an unthinking desperation to grab whatever was available at any given moment, those in power — a comparatively minuscule club of people — twisted the established rules, to debase and destroy. The majority suffered as a small ruling class along with the builders and the landwallahs made good at the cost of the citizens of Delhi, of New Delhi in particular.

What a stark difference there was between the British builders and their Indian contractors, and Independent India’s ‘modern’, indigenous builders who got it completely wrong in their overarching greed to make big bucks quickly. Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker used traditional building elements that made sense in this country where the extremes of weather demanded features that protected those who lived in the built structures. They used courtyards, deep verandahs, high ceilings with roshandaans, jaalis and chajjas, to name a few, all in a concerted effort to keep the air flowing and the cool captured. They made waterbodies in courtyards, much like in the havelis of old. To bring shade, trees were planted to line every road.

In contrast, the Indian builder imitated the faulty chrome and glass monsters that dotted the skyline in colder countries of the West, dustfree and without forbidding heat. These ugly highrises punctured the sky, attracted heat with their sealed windows, and so required strong artificial cooling in a country that had a huge power deficit. Our ‘new’ city, on the outskirts of the last one, symbolizes the lowest common aesthetic of the West and India’s worst.