British Colonial Architecture IV The Seats of Power - Shimla and New Delhi

The British Empire legitimized its colonial rule as an entity furthering the abstract principles of the ‘Rule of Law’, the ‘Progress of Industrialized Society’ and the ‘Model Ruler’. It is thus ironical that the public buildings of the empire were anything but of the people, in the main they continued the well-established Indian traditions of ostentation and luxury. This is in contrast to the partan accommodation of the majority of officials who actually governed - they lived in the ubiquitous bungalow, originating from the simple double-roofed hut of Bengal, and which would expand in size and complexity on a scale ascending strictly in accordance with the gradations of their hierarchically ordered service. An essential ingredient was the Classical portico, extended to form the sun-shielding verandah in more elevated permutations, asserting the dignity of the ruler without ostentation.

Shimla was the viceroy’s seat for half the year, during the summer months.

The vice-regal lodge here is patterned after an English great house, complete with a quaint reproduction of a rural parish church, now in ruin and inhabited mostly by bats and a play space for children who live near. Even though the vice-regal lodge is grand, it pales in contrast with the last capital of British India laid out from 1913 by Sir Edwin Lutyens in collaboration with Sir Herbert Baker, who was fresh from his imperious triumph at Pretoria.

King George V proclaimed the transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi at the climax of the 1911 Imperial Durbar. New Delhi was inaugurated early in 1931. Like Calcutta, it was stamped with the hallmark of authority and like most other seats of British power in India it stood apart from its Indian predecessors. This was contrary to the original intention. The prevailing enthusiasm of Anglo-Indian imperial designers for the synthesis of eastern and western styles quailed before the problem of assimilating an urban order, devised in accordance with the principles of the modern English Garden City, and the vital chaos of Shahjahanabad: the latter seemed to be the very embodiment of all the evils of laissez-faire growth that the formulators of the Garden City movement specifically deplored.

An equilateral triangle is defined by the ceremonial, administrative and commercial centers of the new metropolis. The commercial centre in the north forms the apex. Rajpath, the east-west axis of power, provides their base. The north-east diagonal serves the Law; the north-west diagonal bypasses the cathedral and the originally unforeseen parliament. Rajpath is aligned with the entrance to the Purana Quila. It runs through the India Gate War Memorial and the portal buildings of Baker’s secretariat, from the chattri in which the city’s founder, the King-Emperor, stood in imperial majesty to the durbar hall of the house where his Viceroy sat.

Lutyens had arrived in India to undertake this great work with little or no respect or appreciation for the architectural legacy which preceded him, and his views grew only the more derogatory with first-hand familiarity – especially with the Anglo-Indian Imperial hybrids developed by his immediate predecessors. Many Europeans in India were of a similar opinion. The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, however, asserted that the new capital was being built for a joint British-Indian administration and must symbolize reciprocity between the British and Indians of all creeds.

In his Indian Architecture of 1913, E.B. Havell pointed to the example of Akbar and maintained that, through architecture, enlightened patronage could reconcile racial and religious differences. The king had of course the casting vote, and he himself showed a proclivity for the Mughal style. Lutyens was forced to concede (as if he had a choice!) that indigenous decorative motifs might be used ‘within reason’, their luxuriance providing a foil for Classical order.

Centered on the great circular durbar hall, the Viceroy’s House is clearly a revision of its Calcutta predecessor. Both have a ceremonial core and four satellite blocks of living and office quarters, though in Delhi the western ones containing the Vice-regal and state guest apartments are linked to the centre not by loggias but by the major suite of reception rooms. Apart from the English country house derivation of the plan and the Pantheon ancestry of the durbar hall, Lutyen’s imperial eclecticism ranged from Wren’s St. Stephen’s Wallbrook (for the Viceroy’s library) to the Mahastupa at Sanchi (for the central cupola) and the chahar bagh. On the way he took in the ubiquitous Indian chattri and chadya, cross-fertilized acanthus and volute with padma and bell for his Order and tethered Indian elephants at salient portal corners where the great ancient Mesopotamian monarchies had ceremonial syncretic winged monsters. Baker was equally liberal with his Indian motifs in the Secretariats and the massive, strangely unassertive, circular Parliament building, but Lutyens thought him singularly insensitive to the spirit of the scheme as a whole in the angle at which he set Rajpath’s ascent between the Secretariats to the plane of the Viceroy’s house.

Apparently there is a saying which warns of the dangers of building at Delhi – the saying prophesies that the empire will soon be lost. Whether it be myth or not, the fact is that independence for India was near. After Independence, there was a brief protest against the continued use of the Viceroy’s house as a state building, arguing that its colonial antecedents would make it a continuing reminder of the past. This debate however did not last long and the Viceroy’s house is today Rashtrapati Bhawan, the state house of the President of India. The only concession made was to remove the statue of King George V from its cupola, to be replaced by that of Gandhi (the cupola remains empty to this day). The British crown lost its biggest jewel in 1947, but not before the subcontinent was divided into two, and this legacy haunts the politics of the region to this day.


More by :  Ashish Nangia

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