27 January 2010

New Delhi: Making of a Capital - Book Review

A thoughtful visual history of the people who dreamt up New Delhi

Malavika Singh & Rudrangshu Mukherjee
240 pp; Rs 1,975

The seeds of this lovingly-produced book were sown one day in 2001 when Pramod Kapoor, publisher of Roli Books and self-confessed “sepia junkie”, stumbled upon a box of glass negatives containing “some of the most amazing aerial images… of the partially-built Parliament House, North and South Block, and Rashtrapati Bhavan” in the archives of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). After more research, Kapoor enlisted the services of two writers with impeccable credentials. Historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee described the transfer of capital from Calcutta to Delhi, while Seminar publisher Malvika Singh provided an eminently readable account of the building of the new city, not just summarising architectural debates but describing the colourful, often squabbling personalities who were part of them. The well-known tale of the original friendship and later quarrel between Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, for example, is retold with rare empathy and brought to a fitting conclusion by Baker’s moving obituary for his estranged friend when he died in England many years later.

We also meet lesser-known figures like Henry Vaughan Lanchester, an architect who failed to get the contract for New Delhi. Lanchester’s plans reveal the Delhi that was not to be: an architectural link between the new city and the old, to lessen the “alienation of the people from the… colonial power”; the incorporation of the Yamuna into the plan; an embrace of Delhi’s older historic structures. Ironically, Lanchester later became Hardinge’s sounding board for Lutyens’ ideas. But his radical ideas, like having curving streets rather than Lutyens’ right-angled avenues (which, he pointed out, would simply act as tunnels for the hot, dry summer winds) lost out.

What makes the book unique are the historical documents it reproduces. Competing architectural plans and articles from British newspapers produce a narrative that runs parallel to the new text. One is amazed at the detail in which The Times engaged with the building of New Delhi – listing the tehsils that made up the enclave and which quarries the stone would come from.

The photographic narrative, too, is often at a counterpoint to the text. Despite Lutyens coming off in the text as brash and white-supremacist (“even my ultra-wide sympathy with them [Indians] cannot admit them on the same plane as myself), his idiosyncratic chandeliers for the children’s nursery cannot but charm. And while the text doesn’t overtly take on the project’s imperial nature, an unsaid critique is embedded in the photographs: men mowing a bungalow lawn with bullocks, a chandelier bigger than its cleaner. Most telling of all are the book’s last images, from a film shot on August 15, 1947: people thronging Rashtrapati Bhavan – a democratic vision of New Delhi that has never been seen before or since.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 40, Dated October 10, 2009

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