Complexity and contradiction in urban India
By Ashish Nangia
CHANDIGARH, India - A strange revolution is happening across the face of India
that promises to change the way the country comes across to its own citizens
and visitors. This revolution promises to transform India's cities into the new
growth engines of Asia, if not the world.
Just as an example, the state of Punjab in north India is one of the most
prosperous in the country, but even here the plans for its cities are nothing
if not staggering in their scope. The face of Parkash Singh Badal, chief
minister of Punjab, regularly appears in newspapers as he launches one new
expressway after another or announces new industrial and commercial zones.
Similar stories of urban vitality continue to defy the recent
economic slowdown. Near Mumbai, India's financial hub, the residents of
Matheran, a hill station near the metropolis, recently asked for a train link
to their town. This would have seemed an outrageous request a few years ago,
but now the state government readily accedes to giving it serious thought, and
approving a whole new train line with startling rapidity.
The hinterland is not far behind major cities. For previously neglected towns
like Indore, Bhopal and Raipur, new airport terminals promise better
connectivity to the rest of India, and by extension, to the world. Once again,
the terminals are inaugurated by prominent politicians and public figures.
Whether these are election stunts or new realities, the fact is that India's
cities are changing rapidly, fueled by foreign and domestic investment and a
middle class hungry for modern facilities, energy and living room. But where
does this hunger for expansion come from? At least part of the answers must lie
in India's colonial past, and its drive to modernity in the post-colonial era.
There have been few Asian nations whose architecture has not been touched by
the West, and by modernity. This in spite of the best efforts by many Asian
nations to resist Western culture, and to provide alternate cultures that offer
other answers to the cultural hegemony of the Western world.
In Turkey, for example, modernity and Europeanization is tinged with a very
Turkish version of the meanings of these concepts, efforts that have slowed
Turkey's integration into Europe. In China, modernity has meant
enthusiastically joining the space race, and the race for military parity with
In India, where colonialism has left many legacies, not all of which are
negative, the nation's relations with the West are a curious mix of sympathy
and antipathy, of cooperation and disobedience, of moves towards independence
and happy coexistence. Much of this ambiguity is on display in India's urban
centers, as new expressways and high-rise buildings mingle with slums, red tape
and incredible poverty.
It may be worthwhile to glance at the 20th century to uncover India's
fascination with bigger and better cities. In 1930, the capital of the British
Raj, built at Delhi, symbolized the British Empire at its peak, with order,
discipline and lavish sums of money coming together to build a ceremonial,
administrative and judicial capital city.
British New Delhi was a monument to the colonial world, and to colonial Asia,
symbolic of the West's hegemony over Asia: from Turkey to the Philippines, the
British, French, Dutch and Americans ruled over nearly half the surface of the
world. For the Europeans especially, their overseas empires meant enormous
markets, sources of labor and military supplies, and a strategic reserve from
which to augment their own physical resources.
Much of this world order changed after World War II, as war reparations and
anti-colonial movements forced colonial powers from their previous dominions.
For some, this parting was peaceful, and for others, bloodily violent. The end
of colonialism was a monumental event, one that sought parallels in politics,
the arts and culture.
For many previously colonial nations, architecture is a powerful expression of
the will to be independent. After colonialism, an appropriate vocabulary for an
independent architecture became the buzzword. From town planning to individual
monuments, independent nations sought to use these new projects to create
independence myths, that still endure today. But after British New Delhi, it
was clear that great power status was at least in part achieved through the
grand and the monumental, an urban center that set out a vision for empire.
Much of New Delhi's monumentality was transferred to the new capital for the
Punjab in post-colonial India. Designed by a French-Swiss architect and town
planner, Le Corbusier, Chandigarh is a curious mix of rational Beaux-Arts
planning, the monumental building, wide tree-lined avenues, and sprawling
residential neighborhoods. A vocabulary for an "Indian" architecture was sought
in its low-cost housing using local materials.
While Chandigarh is lauded for being clean and green, it came in for criticism
for its lack of future direction, an inability to provide a "vision" for Indian
architecture beyond combating narrow streets and dank sanitation. "Chandigarh
hits you on the head and makes you think," remarked Jawaharlal Nehru, India's
first prime minister, but many might conclude that it makes you think of the
West, and not necessarily of "Indian" architecture.
Still, Chandigarh has spawned many look-alikes in north India, its plan being
easy to replicate and its planning principles understood and respected for
their clarity and coherence. The city is criticized for increasing social
stratification, and it is from this that other experiments in city planning
have sprung up from India's next generation of architects.
At a more utopian level, the town of Auroville in south India has been a
mystical answer to the question of Indian architecture. Posing as a city that
welcomes all, Auroville has a master plan that resembles a revolving galaxy,
and a concept that stems from Sri Aurobindo Ghosh's yogic conceptions of
reality. Auroville has the gold-plated Matri Mandir, or Mother's Temple, at its
core, and utopian communities that produce food, artifacts and export items
from local resources string out from the center.
There are other towns in India that result from similar planning experiments.
Jamshedpur, Gandhinagar and Bhubhaneswar also result from post-colonial urban
planning schemes that sought to change society through architecture. Whether
they have succeeded in doing so is debatable, but what is clear is that the
majority of India's cities still suffer from a lack of planning, and grapple
with providing basic services to the large percentage of their population that
remains desperately poor.
If India's big cities are the theater for dollar dreams, there is another
silent war being fought: that against poverty and disease, a war that is well
chronicled in recent Hollywood oeuvres such as Slumdog Millionaire. This
war is being fought along several fronts: governmental, as well as myriad
non-governmental organizations that attempt to bring relief and succor to
India's poor through education, sanitation and mass housing schemes.
The way forward for India's cities is also being debated at a professional
level: at meetings of architects and urban planners who struggle to resolve
multi-million dollar schemes with the reality and social responsibility of
making them socially relevant.
It is thus in India's new generation of architects that the debate for what
constitutes an "Indian" architecture is being contested. Is an original
architecture possible in India at all? Some conclusions can be drawn from the
state of architecture in India today. There is corporate architecture: the
architecture of developers, retailers and the big corporation. There is
architecture of the state: memorials, expressways, flyovers and monumental
construction. Finally, there is architecture for the underprivileged: mass
housing schemes, rural and urban poor projects, community architecture and so
Taken together these three signify in many ways the India of the 21st century:
where big business and powerful state and social concerns vie for political and
economic gains. Cities are big business, but they are also significant vote
There is yet another architecture that is becoming increasingly popular and
profitable in modern India, and that is the architecture of India's heritage.
As the recent attacks in Mumbai have shown, heritage buildings and landmarks
are especially prone to vandalism at the global scale, and in the modern age
have become international targets. Heritage architects and consultants in India
are not slow to take note of, and express concern at, the ways globalization
has affected India's rich heritage.
Added to renewed concerns for heritage is the race to be inscribed on the
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage
map, a status that brings prestige to the city or monument that achieves this
complex nomination. While the city of Chandigarh's nomination is almost
complete, Amritsar in Punjab and Auroville in south India are also sending out
feelers to have their historic centers inscribed on the World Heritage list.
This list is not the only game in town: India's own body for art and cultural
heritage, or INTACH, has made impressive moves to document and conserve the
nation's built and intangible heritage.
Beneath the conflicts of which vision of urbanism to choose for the future lies
a question that India is really asking itself: how to reconcile the outward
trappings of modernism and the West - tall buildings and state-of-the-art
facilities, with the needs of its huge middle class, and that of its
desperately poor. Reconciling these three imperatives with legacies of a
colonial past is not going to be easy.
But then, India has always been a land of glorious opposites and famous
contradictions, and the 21st century promises many more.
Ashish Nangia is an independent scholar. He has a doctorate in
architecture and the built environment and has lived in Delhi, Paris and
Seattle. He currently writes from Chandigarh, India. Ashish can be contacted email@example.com.