For an exhibition on Nature of the City (Scindia House, New Delhi, until 12 January), I submitted a set of photographic works on Delhi’s modernist architecture, contrasting the ideals of the early vision to the state of the buildings now. Delhi has a large collection of modernist architecture that would be the envy of many cities in the world —from homes in Golf Links to public institutional buildings designed by talented architects such as Achyut Kanvinde, Karl Heinz, Joseph Stein, Raj Rewal and Kuldip Singh.
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Sadly, these have not been recognized as worthy of heritage status, unlike earlier Lutyens era buildings. We are destroying a cultural legacy in a completely unthinking manner. Chanakya Cinema, an award-winning design, is being demolished. So are early Heinz buildings in the Jamia area.
Born in 1955, I grew up literally watching New Delhi being built. My father Habib Rahman studied and worked with Walter Gropius, Konrad Wachsmann and Ely Kahn. His high modernist Bauhaus background did not serve him well on his maiden project, though—Gandhi Ghat in Barrackpore. Inspired more by Wright, he developed a contemporary form combining abstracted elements from Islamic, Hindu and Christian architecture, yet avoiding any sense of pastiche.
’Corbu/Post Corbu’ by Ram Rahman
This attempt to make a structure that was completely contemporary yet reached into our own cultural traditions would keep surfacing in Rahman’s work, thanks to Nehru’s nudging. Rahman was awarded the Padma Shri in 1955 for Gandhi Ghat and other buildings.
Icons of a new state
In the 1950s, Rahman designed several institutions of the modern state. Maulana Azad conceived three state cultural bodies: the Lalit Kala, Sangeet Natak and Sahitya Akademis. When Azad died in 1958, Nehru asked Rahman to design his tomb. Its concrete cross-vault rhymes with its backdrop, the arched eastern gateway of Jama Masjid. While it was built, Rahman designed offices, galleries and a theatre for the Akademis in a plot near Mandi House.
Nehru told Rahman to reflect the philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore in this building, which was to be a premier symbol of the culture of a new India. Called Rabindra Bhavan, it was finished in time for Tagore’s centenary in 1961. The plot included a small ruined mosque and some graves. Evolving the design idiom of his two earlier memorials, Rahman’s concept carefully incorporated the mosque between the gallery and Akademi offices.
This was clearly an era of powerful cultural imagination. The lessons Rahman learnt from this exercise also influenced his friend Joseph Stein. The buildings that came to mark the capital’s landscape in the 1960s and 1970s were completely different from the 1950s Bauhaus blocks.
’Curzon Road Hostels, Stair Work’ by Ram Rahman
My own review was provoked by the ongoing “renovation” of the Rabindra Bhavan gallery. The old neutral flooring has been torn out, to be replaced by marble. The brick and jali façade is to be replaced by glass. A big external lift shaft will displace what used to be the mosque and grave mound. Remaking the building into a contemporary mall, the renovation threatens to efface its cultural memory.
Not that other cities are any less to blame. The flyover in front of the Indian Museum in Kolkata has destroyed one of the world’s great cityscapes. The less said about Bangalore, the better.
Artist and art activist Ram Rahman is the son of the late architect Habib Rahman.