There were two things going for Jawaharlal Nehru in his relatively trouble-free 17 years as prime minister of India. The first is that most Indians, but particularly the middle classes, were in awe of him. His demeanour, patrician style, easy familiarity with the white man (and woman) and Anglophone cosmopolitanism put him in a separate league from the rest of the political class. It accorded him the licence to meddle in things that were outside the scope of politics. Secondly, Nehru lived in a pre-media age when every action of the prime minister and his government wasn’t subject to exacting scrutiny. This information deficit proved very handy.
Blessed with these advantages, Nehru could afford to take India for granted. He ran the government of India in the manner of an enlightened autocrat, doing things which his successors could never dream of. I am not referring to his grand designs that involved both conceptual innovations and colossal misjudgements. Nehru left his mark on many of the little things that went unchallenged: the choice of the national dress, the marginalization of Vande Mataram, the decision to take the Ashokan Bull Capital out of the Indian Museum in Calcutta and install it in Rashtrapati Bhavan, and above all the direction of post-Independence aesthetics.
I am not familiar with anything Nehru said or wrote about the architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens. My own suspicion is that Nehru, a man whose heart was firmly with the upper-class progressives of England, would have been a shade uneasy with the central assumptions that governed late-imperial architecture. Lutyens, a hugely accomplished architect who never fully imbibed Hindustan, felt that the ambiance of the Raj “makes one feel very Tory and pre-Tory feudal”.
Regardless of whether this was said in earnestness or jest, Lutyens was naturally concerned with giving full expression to both majesty and grandeur in his designs for the new capital of India. In his own words, “To express modern India in stone, to represent her amazing sense of the supernatural, with its complement to profound fatalism and enduring patience, is no easy task.”
There are various assessments of Lutyens’s expressions of “Indiain stone”. What is, however, interesting is that the architect worked with a clear political brief that his designs must incorporate specifically Indian features. New Delhi, its imperial creators were clear in their minds, would be a symbol of the British-Indian Empire, and not an arrogant assertion of Englishness. Maybe this is the reason why, despite occasional populist rants against exaggerated grandeur and opulence, Lutyens’s creation remains iconic in Independent India. Those who have witnessed the Beating Retreat ceremony at Raisina Hill each January have invariably been overawed at the sight of the mounted camels on North and South Blocks silhouetted against the fading light.
The historian, David Cannadine, once suggested that Britain and India were bound by a common attachment to ‘Ornamentalism’. He was dead right and Lutyens’s Delhi remains its high point.
Yet, in many ways Lutyens’s Delhi remains an aberration. Under Nehru and his daughter, India undertook the creation of many more administrative centres for the states — Bhubaneshwar, Chandigarh and Gandhinagar come to mind. But whereas each of the new cities can claim different measures of spaciousness, the new architecture is unabashedly Modernist in style. In the India of big dams, IITs and five-year plans — the “temples of modern India”, as Nehru put it so evocatively — relatively little importance was attached to the incorporation of a visibly Indian ethos.
This departure from Lutyens didn’t happen because, like good Hindus, the decision-makers lacked a sense of history. The enthusiastic endorsement of the contemporary was a consequence of Nehru’s own preferences. Never someone to smuggle his ideas through the backdoor — who, after all, would contest the mighty Jawaharlal? — Nehru outlined his approach at the opening of a public building in Chandigarh: “I am very happy that the people of Punjab did not make the mistake of putting some old city as their new Capital. It would have been a great mistake and foolishness. It is not merely a question of buildings. If you had chosen an old city as the Capital, Punjab would have become a mentally stagnant, backward state. It may have some progress, with great effort, but it could not have taken a grand step forward.”
Such an assertion, if made today, would have invited fierce controversy and the prime minister would have been sharply criticized for letting his preference for newness ride roughshod over the Indian inheritance. But in the India of the mid-1950s, Nehru could easily get away by allowing his personal aesthetic preferences to be equated with the supposed wishes of the “people of Punjab”.
As things have turned out, the decision to let Le Corbusier’s avant garde prevail in an alien setting did not result in a revolution of free spiritedness. Punjab or, for that matter, Haryana may not have fully overcome Nehru’s fears of becoming “mentally stagnant” and “backward”, but the architecture of Chandigarh has not contributed significantly either way. In many ways, the city remains an oddity. This is so markedly different from the small enclave created by Lutyens within the now-sprawling metropolis of Delhi. The blend of green space, gracious living and political power has made Lutyens’s Delhi a symbol of both privilege and authority. India is a far cry from being an Imperial Republic, but Lutyens’s Delhi comes closest to being the country’s only Imperial City.
The implications of this are far-reaching. The perquisites of a spacious, rent-free government-cared bungalow for babus, netas and even a few hangers-on exercise a macabre attraction for those who are granted the privilege and those who aspire to it. With rare exceptions, those who check into an independent bungalow in Lutyens’s Delhi are reluctant to return their keys and check out at the end of their tenure. They invariably aspire to transform temporary occupancy into a permanent allotment and, like a membership of the Delhi Gymkhana Club, to bequeath it to their heirs. So brazen is this sense of entitlement that one family, which has had an uninterrupted presence in Parliament since 1971, has even named their allotted government bungalow after its princely state.
The historian, Sir Lewis Namier, had suggested in his studies of early-19th-century Britain that lofty causes espoused by politicians are often a cloak for very trivial and selfish concerns. The extent to which posturing in India’s national affairs is dictated by the simple desire to retain a Lutyens’s bungalow isn’t often fully appreciated in the outside world. Politicians and officials, it would seem, have a mortal dread of retirement or defeat because that necessarily involves vacating official accommodation. In today’s Delhi, a large number of public servants, it would seem, would want the mandatory re-housing of former presidents and prime ministers (and their spouses, if deceased) to be drastically enlarged. One day, if the relevant papers are transferred to the archives, historians may be able to document how many shoddy compromises and rebellions have been dictated by the lure of a roof in Lutyens’s Delhi.
Architecturally, the style evolved by Lutyens in the building of New Delhi is the subject of legitimate study. Yet, the legacy of Lutyens is more than bricks and mortar. In trying to capture India in stone, this great architect also shaped the mentality of power. More than his creation being influenced by India, the country has been shaped by the city he built. Compared to him, the legacy of Nehruvian aesthetics has been nominal.