Architectural modernism might have begun in the Indian subcontinent in the late 1940s, but the roots of modernity are much older. What is intimately tied to modernity in South Asia is the colonial experience. Even though modernism and colonialism are inextricably linked, there is a fundamental difference between them. While colonialism flourished on maintaining a categorical difference between East and West, modernism was articulated about an ideal of blurring boundaries, about creating a universal civilization and history. The galvanizing call was for the commonality of the human tribes, a single trajectory for mankind.
But the fundamental character of modernism, its monolithic nature and its premise that a single international mode is not only possible but imperative, turned out to be its biggest enigma. A scepticism would emerge around the function of flattening those cultural topographies that bestowed identity and character. Paul Ricoeur saw this project as a subtle destruction of the “creative nucleus of great cultures.” Other interpretations would indicate a dubious relationship between modernity and globalization, between the enchanting image of a universal civilization and the ominous reality of a single global economy.
The east/west conundrum embodies a further complexity. In the transaction between the two, it is not quite clear what transpires: who sees, who lends, and who borrows. When Edmund Husserl, the leading German philosopher, announced sometime in the late 1930s the historical inevitability of “the Europeanization of all foreign parts of mankind,” he was restating an earlier perception: that Europe alone can provide other traditions with a universal framework of meaning and understanding’ the context and the categories for the exploration of all traditions of thought. These other traditions’ Husserl pronounced, will have to “Europeanize themselves, whereas we, if we understand ourselves properly, will never, for example, Indianize ourselves.”
Bombay street scene, 1996.
Is the Europeanization of the planet the true telos of mankind? Wilhelm Halbfass, who introduced this critical discussion in India and Europe (1988), thinks that in fact Europe itself has been superseded and left behind by the modern Westernized world: as he puts it, it is not the master and protagonist of the process of Europeanization anymore. Curiously, European culture has remained restrictive, seeing the world only through its own eyes and denying other possibilities, while the “others” appear to dwell in a more dynamic situation, where seeing the world is not exhausted by European categories.
The critical theme is brought up in recent studies of Ashis Nandy, who observes that the West does not incorporate India in its battleground, whereas “in the East the battle has involved the West … India has tried to capture the differentia of the West within its own cultural domain, not merely on the basis of a view of the West as politically intrusive or as culturally inferior, but as a subculture, meaningful in itself and important, though not all-important in the Indian context.”
The noted Indian thinker, Jarava Lal Mehta, responded earlier to the “Europeanization of the Earth” by accepting the challenge of “belonging, irretrievably and inescapably to this ‘one world’,’ to the global presence of Western science and technology. He insisted that “… there is no other way open, to us in the East, but to go along with this Europeanization and to go through it. Only through this voyage into the foreign and the strange can we win back our own self- hood; here as elsewhere, the way to do what is closest to us is the longest way back.”
An Indian Modernity
This journey into the foreign that would lead to selfhood – the character of the” modern project” in India – was inaugurated by Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833). Learning from Arab philosophy, Unitarianism and Vedic scriptures, Rammohun, in his various writings and reformist enterprises, unambiguously proposed the primacy of rationality and inquiry over habitual slavishness, and opened a modern quest of the self through the world of reason and comparison. Although his teachings influenced contending groups, it nonetheless became the basis of establishing a humanist world-view and rational dimension to modern India”
Rammohun Roy’s immediate influence was on the major movement that came to be known as the “Bengal Renaissance.” It encompassed a whole array of creative activities in social and religious reform, literature, theatre and art that began in the mid-nineteenth century and continued into the first half of this one. Bankim Chandra Chaterji, Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo Ghosh, Ananda Coornaraswamy, Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Stella Kramrisch, and even Satyajit Ray, in one way or another, belonged to this movement. The Bengal Renaissance did not prescribe a single coherent objective; in fact, there was much ideological conflict among various groups. But by the turn of the century, however, a modern ideal was strongly propounded through a diverse set of concepts and aspirations: from rationalism and scientific objectivity to liberal humanism and internationalism, and from Upanisadic spiritualism and Vedic metaphysics to Indian nationalism and social realism.
The movement, in essence, was a complex dynamic of acceptance and resistance. Indian intellectuals resisted both the trauma of colonialism and the tyranny of tradition, while simultaneously embracing anything from a global repository that assured a new degree of social and intellectual liberation. It also involved an inward journey, a rediscovery of the self, a conscious archaeological excavation of one’s own assumed cultural strata in order to find a mooring in the turmoil engendered by colonialism.
This inward journey, the awareness and understanding of “self” was double-edged: for while it was a moment of self-discovery, it was also a moment of distancing oneself from the familiar and the habitual. Self-discovery presupposed a sense of alienation and remoteness from tradition, as Jarava Lal Mehta remarked; it does not happen so long as “we unreflectively live under its domination, or fail to see the novel present as it actually is and claims us.” It is from this condition, where tradition is no longer available unreflectively, that the idea of cultural identity, be it national or architectural, ultimately emerges.
(Top): Chaman Lal, Mubarak Mahal, Jaipur, 1900.
(Bottom): Claude Batley, Lalbhai Residence, Bombay, 1941.
The Swadeshi Ideology
Art was one of the earliest sites of the fabrication of a modern Indian identity. The rise of Swadeshi (pro-indigenous) ideology, initiated by the movement around the Partition of Bengal, would generate a strong feeling for the idea of a nation, and in turn engender a search for “national” elements in literature, music, theatre, and above all in the realm of art and painting.
It was through the ideas and activities of E.B. Havell, the famous educator at the Calcutta Art School, and the paintings of Abanindranath Tagore, that art became a site for nationalist discourse. Ahanindranath’s work was projected as the rediscovery of the aesthetic ideal of India. The implication was broader; it was no less than the political project of national rediscovery. Through the Havell-Abanindranath discourse, art – Indian art as well as Indian ethos – came to be regarded as “essentially idealistic, mystic, symbolic and transcendental.”
The longing for a spiritualized Indian art was, however, sharply criticized from various directions: from the historian Akshay Maitreya who commented that one does not produce Indian painting just by painting in India, to Benoy Sarkar who, writing from Paris in 1922, extolled the necessity if not the inevitability of a ‘truly International mode style of art,’ It was also argued that, in their attempt to confront the colonizer, the Swadeshi traditionalists took refuge in a fabricated pre-colonial past, never questioning which or whose past was being recovered, whose past suppressed. This invariably led to eulogizing “a pre-capitalist social order” while ignoring “the grim realities of a people striving under sub-human conditions.”
The poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore also moved away from the agitational ideology of Swadeshism to seek more “universal” values. Although he appears disengaged from social realities, and actually comes close to the idea of the spiritual-artistic figure, he remained sharply critical of what he saw as a contrived Indian art. “When in the name of Indian art,” Tagore wrote, “we cultivate with a deliberate aggressiveness a certain bigotry born of habit of past generation, we smother our souls under idiosyncrasies unearthed from buried centuries. These are like ma with exaggerated grimaces that fail to respond to the ever-changing play of life. I strongly urge our artists vehemently to deny their obligation carefully to produce something that can be labelled Indian Art according to some old world mannerism.” Tagore was quite categorical about the universality of human creativity, in “the truth of the deep unity of human psychology” which would urge the breaking down of caste restrictions in human cultures and the capacity to combine and produce new variations.
All these would mean a sharp criticism of Swadeshi ideology. What appeared to be a return to an Indian ethos could also be contested as a selective and exclusive cultural formulation. In the end, it seemed that Swadeshism was tragically Janus-faced: It formed a virile articulation of the nation and was the first aggressive intellectual search for independent genres, but, ironically, it also consolidated the religious divide and the partition mentality.
The Idea of an Indian Architecture
The project of aesthetic and national recovery also laid claim to the idea of an Indian architecture. Architecture, predominantly practiced and professed by English architects until independence, was either in the romantic-domestic or the archaeological-monumental mode. The architect Claude Batley in Bombay and the art educator Havell in Calcutta were instrumental in the early part of this century in installing different ideas of tradition in education and practice. Batley’s research into the domestic tradition served as a basis for a projected resurgence of an Indian architecture. Otherwise, tradition was primarily defined in the stylistic synthesis known as Anglo-Indian. Although there was some illuminating work (the buildings of Samuel Swinton Jacob and Chaman Lall, for example), it was confined to palace architecture. Edwin Lutyens’s magnificent capitol at Delhi (completed in 1930), dominated largely by Neo-Classicism, remains the most monumental example of this synthetic creation.
A deeper approach was taken by the Austrian-born art historian and theorist Stella Kramrisch. While she introduced modern European art and art theories into the Calcutta circle, Kramrisch made the strongest theoretical interpretation of India’s ancient sastric architecture. In her magnum opus, The Hindu Temple (1946), she presented a metaphysical substratum to India’s sacred
architecture that integrated architectural form, sculptural iconography, symbolic image, myth and metaphysical conceptions, which she substantiated through interpretations of texts, rituals and architectural form. She was one of the earliest interpreters of the mandala, seeing in it simultaneously a ritual diagram, a cosmic model, and the basis of temple construction. This was a very different approach to Indian architecture from the earlier descriptive archaeological methods of James Fergusson, Percy Brown, and John Marshall, and the romantic model of Batley.
Meanwhile, both Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore made reference to building as part of their larger philosophical and social vision. Gandhi’s consciously simple buildings, particularly his house built in the ashram at Wardha in Central India, embodied his ideology of self-reliance and indigenous craft and ecological principles. Tagore’s “academic village” in Santiniketan was an architectural manifestation of his poetic ideal of harmony with nature. Although laden with moral and ethical lessons, both ideas remained more or less marginalized from the chaotic, vital social conditions of the 1930s and 40s, and from the enthusiastic orientation of an increasingly powerful group towards building a modern industrial state.
(Top): Gandhi’s house in Wardha, Central India.
(Bottom): Rabindranath Tagore in front of his mud hut “Shyamoli” in Santiniketan.
Brave New World
It was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, who would paraphrase the spirit of the time, a brave new world unfettered by tradition and medievalism. The orientation was towards a secular and democratic order combined with an industrial and scientific spirit. The heroic optimism of the 1950s was concretized in architectural terms by Le Corbusier in Chandigarh (1951-65), the capitol of the Punjab.
In post-independence India, and in almost all South Asian nations, the name Chandigarh reverberated, despite the controversy it engendered, as the most powerful Asian version of the modernist vision. In Islamabad, Pakistan also built its future-oriented alternative. Although both Chandigarh and Islamabad originated in the traumatic history of Partition, both remained for a while shining models of a new urban and architectural possibility.
The state endorsement of architectural modernism was rooted not only in industrial technology and the new trans-geographic realities, but also in the notions of universal history and free society. As Mulk Raj Anand, the eminent litterateur and editor of MARG, remarked: “The architecture of the future will thus be a humanist creative activity, not only in terms of human beings as they are today – but as they may become under the conditions of the free societies released by the urges incipient in the Asiatic and African world today.”
(Top): Antonin Raymond, Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry 1936-48.
(Middle): Minnette De Silva, Karunaratne House, Kandy 1947-51.
(Bottom): The Garden, Lunuganga, Bentota, 1950-
Modernism was then seen not just as an aesthetical device, but as part of an ethical, visionary and conceptual approach to confronting social realities and dealing with the deprivation and discord of humanity in general. With humanism as a compelling motive, architecture took on Herculean if not an exorbitant task.
Since the 1930s, various modernist architectural and urban models were proposed for South Asia, from the early Pondicherry Ashram by Antonin Raymond (1938) to the intervention of numerous foreign architects, including Otto Koenigsberger (in Bhubaneswar). Richard Neutra (Karachi), Edward Durell Stone (Delhi and Lahore), Constantin Doxiadis (Islamabad and Dhaka), Gio Ponti (Islamabad), and Paul Rudolph (Mymensingh). However, it was the work of Le Corbusier and Kahn, in India and Bangladesh, that left the deepest impression on an incipient modern architectural culture.
By the end of the 1950s, architectural modernism seemed quite established in South Asia, dramatically changing the landscape of the region. The proponents of modernist ideas were making their mark everywhere, from Delhi, Ahmedabad and Bombay to Dhaka, Karachi and Colombo. Achyut Kanvinde, who started practicing in the late 1940s, Balkrishna Doshi, Charles Correa. Joseph Allen Stein, Habib Rahman, Jeet Malhotra, Laurie Baker, and, a little later, Ranjit Sabikhi, Raj Rewal, Uttam Jain and others began to define a contemporary tradition in India.
In Sri Lanka, Geoffrey Bawa and Minnette de Silva, and in Pakistan, Mehdi Ali Mirza in his brief career, and Muzharul Islam (later in Bangladesh) became the most notable architects to articulate the language and scope of a new architecture.
(Top): Mehedi Ali Mirza, Babar Ali’s House, Lahore, late 1950s.
(Middle): Edward Durrell Stone, WAPDA House, Lahore, 1962.
(Bottom): Joseph Allen Stein, India International Centre, New Delhi, 1965.
Climate and Identity
Climate was the first dimension through which abstract modernism attempted to negotiate with place. The genre of Tropical Architecture established a climatic, material and constructional rationale for planning and building in most Asian countries. The architects highlighted in an issue of The Architectural Review (July, 1960) on the theme of architecture in the so-called Commonwealth countries would be instructive. Balkrishna Doshi, Charles Correa, Muzharul Islam and Minnette de Silva were identified as carrying out the principles of an emerging genre and signifying, what the editor termed, “progress towards architectural self-sufficiency.”
Since the 1950s, when climate was addressed primarily in a quantitative sense (temperature gradient, heat loss, physical comfort zone, and so forth), climate and culture have now become more intertwined. Correa broke new ground in a series of compelling essays that pointed to the phenomenology of warm climates so that climate is now subsumed in the discussion of architectural typology and cultural memory. We are acutely aware today how the persistence of a type in a particular geographical and cultural milieu might indicate the synthesis of ecology, mythology, and sociology.
Climatic features would also come to be reified. Doshi, echoing the pensive reflection of Hassan Fathy, would characterize the courtyard of the hot-dry climate as an echo of Brahmand. In Sri Lanka, Geoffrey Bawa would explore the pavilion-in-the-garden as the paradigm for dwelling in a hot, humid, and vegetal milieu.
In 1983, in a momentous essay that established “regionalism” as an enduring idea in architecture, Kenneth Frampton wrote how site and climate, among other things, offered resistance to a homogenous adaptation of modern principles, and could actually inflect them towards a more critical production of architecture. “The fundamental strategy of Critical Regionalism,” Frampton writes, “is to mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place [italics added].” In fact, it is possible that the peculiarities of a particular place – the air, wind, water and topography for example – are its particularities, that they define the character of a place, and from its irreducible matrix, its life-world, to employ the Husserlian term.
Corbusier, like Louis Kahn somewhat later, derived a whole new architectural vocabulary out of reflections on climate. Le Corbusier’s climatic rationale, matched by a powerful architectural oeuvre, offered a new family of forms with which one could build the “brave new world.” But it was not only the infectious inventiveness of Le Corbusier and Kahn that distinguished their work; more importantly, it was their insistence on giving a quasi-sacred dimension to architecture within the modern secular and functional context that probably established their work in the South Asian milieu.
Both Le Corbusier and Kahn, one in Chandigarh and the other in Dhaka, conceived the parliamentary assembly as a hallowed congregation within the secular world. Both brought their architectural resources to bear on giving form, shape, and space to this new cosmological phenomenon. In deliberate riddles and puzzlements, Le Corbusier suggested the making of a modern mythology where the sun-path diagram became the emblem of a cosmic rhythm, an industrial flue became transformed into an honorific form, and various cosmological curios, icons and emblems were presented as mysterious signs.
Kahn’s expression was more categorical. At the Assembly Building in Dhaka, he chose an unambiguously honorific typology, a centralized volume with hierarchical rings of space. The plan itself could be seen as a mandalic formation – an order of a nine-square grid, as suggested in Florindo Fusaro’s analysis — where the explicit forms, the spatial concatenation and the artifice of light are orchestrated as if to express the inexpressible, the sublime “emptiness” of the center, or what Kahn conceived of as the ‘transcendent nature’ of the act of assembly.
The evocation of the sacred is both dubious and compelling. This sense of the sacred as something wondrous, extraordinary, alaukika in a Tagorean sense, is an uneasy theme. Suspicion naturally arises in this regard from opposite quarters: secular intellectuals find this to be reactionary and regressive, on the one hand, while guardians of religion perceive it as a threat to their entrenched theological positions, on the other hand. Such a spiritual creativity nonetheless introduces the profound question: Is there a sacrality in secular existence? Is there an “other divinity” in modern life?
(Top): Le Corbusier Assembly, Chandigarh, 1951-62.
(Bottom): Louis I Kahn, Parliament Building, Dhaka, 1962-83.
Ideals and ideologies
In his most revelatory essay “Between Notion and Reality” (1987), Balkrishna Doshi articulates the sacred as the central lecture and well- being. In a critique of straight-laced modernism and the mechanistic condition of the Contemporary world, which he sees at the root of today’s frustrations and insecurity, Doshi argues for reinstating the sacred, for it is the link to the “inner-self” which is ultimately the “seat of our true happiness.”
The key feature in Doshi’s recent architecture is the combination of ambiguous, plural spaces and the routes of are articulated there. These ambiguous spaces, Doshi writes, “activate the human psyche and induce it to sink toward the centre, the mythical world of man’s primordial being. Time and space are internalized and a deeply rooted personal identity with the built-form gets established.” The route of movement is another way of engaging rituals. And, “when space is a place for observance of rituals, it becomes sacred. At this point, I think, architecture emerges; the built-form becomes timeless and has a quality which goes beyond the obvious, a meaning and profoundness which go beyond the particular person or action.”
Doshi’s recent projects are also telluric offerings in some form or another: An ode to the dark, vital earth to claim a sort of metaphoric return to more terrestrial cosmologies. At Sangath, ‘building’ and earth intertwine, and, at the Hussain- Doshi Gufa, the structure rises from the dank bosom of the earth as a subterranean creature (in perhaps an allusion to the mythological creature Vrtra, slain by Indra, complete in the sinuous serpentine form with the vertebral anatomies). It is a contemporary reflection on a primordial architectural paradigm, the cave, and on the irrational subconscious dimension of man.
Correa’s re-discovery ofthe sacred realm is also clear from the themes of his recent projects and the way he often narrates them. At the State Assembly in Bhopal and the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, Correa makes unequivocal reference to a cosmo-astrological basis of architecture. The mandala plan in a nine-square grid, the reification of the central space as “sunnyata, ” and the whole panoply of Buddhist sacral iconography, Tantric emblems and astrological signs in one very witty conflation serve to represent a metaphysical schema. The condition of arraying different plastic and utilitarian forms all along the periphery is to emphasize a rhetorical point: the center as “emptiness”. “Emptiness is infinitely satisfying to the human mind. Art and architecture are simply the concrete externalizations of our attempts to understand that void.” It appears that Correa has taken up the recurrent challenge of Indian metaphysics: The paradox of how to express the inexpressible, to manifest the non -manifest through the world of formal and material creations.
On the other hand, architects like Muzharul Islam and Achyut Kanvinde remain somewhat suspicious of explicit metaphorization and focus on what they claim to be the “real” in architecture: the tectonic and the constructional. Distancing itself from symbols and metaphors, their architecture instead employs tropes of rationalism, of mass forms assembled in the clear light of reason and necessity. The materialist claim is, first, that metaphors are deceptions, that they are construed and not constructed, and, second, that they might still embody some old history of repression. “Whose symbols? For whom?” as Muzharul Islam would sharply respond when questioned about the downplaying of symbolism in his work. His materialist ideology finds a definite rationale in the political condition of South Asia. He consciously distances himself from symbolism of any kind, and for that matter any religious evocations (the two being intricately linked together in South Asia), for the simple reason that both are premised and practiced on the basis of dividing humanity, and both are implicated in some way in the tragic political events of the subcontinent. In a modern multi -cultural egalitarian definition of society, there is always the possibility of exclusion in re-evoking ancient symbols and signs. Kanvinde stays away from symbolism out of a deep respect for it; there is, he insists, an appropriate place and occasion for symbols. Even when Kanvinde designs a religious building’ as in the ISKCON temple at Delhi (1997), where he adapts Nagara temple elements to modern materials and technology, there is more concern about tectonics and spatiality rather than the creation of a mystifying condition.
In this sense, architecture – the architecture of Kanvinde, Muzharul Islam, Joseph Allen Stein – tries to find its significance in itself, asserting what one might call the autonomy of architecture: the realness of building, the art and mark of construction, the well- built thing, on the body of which, if need be, meta -architectural things might gather. The focus is on the tangibility of tectonics, as elaborated by Kenneth Frampton in Studies in Tectonic Culture, and the ‘realness’ of presence, as explored by Michael Benedikt. These ideas are not far from the materialist philosophy of Carvaka (circa 6th c. BC), which questioned Vedic dogmas and asserted that perception is the only means of knowing the truth while everything beyond it is doubtful, and to the ideology of “momentariness” in Buddhist ksanavada, which denies the reality of both past and future as imagination.
What “real” architecture aspires to is a sort of ascetic condition, where the goal is to gradually filter out everything conditional and extrinsic, to arrive at an irreducible stratum where there is a simple coincidence of appearance and reality, where nothing needs to be qualified by something else. An ascetic ideology might be valuable in its own right, but what would be lacking in the architectural experience is a certain exuberance, even play, as this is often seen in folk creation. This does not need to be other-worldly at all times but it certainly serves to expand our experience of the” real.” As Correa remarks in respect of the sacred, reductiveness might actually diminish the experience of life.
The dimension of the sensorial and the sensuous is celebrated in the work of Geoffrey Bawa. This is based primarily situation of the body in space, in heightening the awareness and experience of the different senses. Shades and shadows, and winds and air, become substantial rather than ephemeral things. One needs to listen to Tanizaki on the Japanese perception of shadows to realize how intangible things often form the reality of a particular place. The real, if it is fully addressed, also then involves the sensorial and the phenomenal.
The architects however, do not always operate in a world neatly sub-divided according to the categories of the metaphysical, the rational and the sensorial. Doshi’s Sangath is wondrous both in its architecture-earth reference experienceinnovative tectonic dimension. Sangath is also a strong example of the aural, tactile and peripatetic of architecture. Correa at the Bhopal State Assembly and the Jawahar Kala Kendra has tried to systematize the signs, icons, and emblems of the sacred towards building a metaphysical center, while also incorporating the spatial experience of the meander and the exuberance of” folk” art. Muzharul Islam, while steadfastly Adhering to his materialism, has, almost grudgingly, invoked the metaphorical, if not the metaphysical, in the centralized plan of the National Library.
Modern architecture in South Asia is no longer monolithic. From a common set of ideals, it has gradually evolved into an adventure of difference’, reflecting the cultural complexity of South Asia itself, and the different routes taken towards independence. Among the various approaches, ranging from the tectonic to the metaphysical and from the socially-conscious to the sensorial, there are now emerging further conversations as well as contestations, a chance for coherence as well as contradictory formations.