Designing the Indian Capital

In Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi, author Swapna Liddle details the journey of deciding, deliberating and creating the city that is today home to over 18 million Indians, Excerpts:

While the town plan had been taking shape, the question of the appointment of the main architects for the important public buildings, such as Government House and the Secretariats, was also being debated. Though initially the opinion in official circles was that commissions for an important project such as this should be through open competition, that idea was soon dropped. A suitable architect, or rather architects, since the project was deemed to be too large, therefore had to be chosen.

Lutyens, while still a member of the Town Planning Committee, had begun to work on some preliminary sketches for Government House, and was hopeful that he would get the entire commission. Hardinge, though impressed with his proposals, had doubts about Lutyens' suitability. At the root of the objection lay Lutyens' very negative view of Indian architecture, and his insistence on using a purely European style for the government buildings. The issue of architectural idiom was crucial. The earliest pronouncement on the importance of style had come from George V himself, in his speech at the laying of the foundation stones during the Durbar of 1911. He had said, 'It is my desire that the planning and designing of the public buildings to be erected will be considered with the greatest deliberation and care, so that the new creation may be in every way worthy of this ancient and beautiful city.'

So, what was worthy of a city that boasted of some of the grandest monumental architecture of Sultanate and Mughal times? The idea of a new capital at Delhi had been conceived as part of a new vision of governance for India, to give Indians a greater stake in the empire. For the important architects of that decision, George V and Hardinge, it was crucial that the very buildings of the new capital express that sentiment. They were, therefore, enthusiastic supporters of an Indian style. In a meeting with Lutyens in March 1912, the King had expressed himself as being in favour of the Mughal style. Hardinge agreed on the need for an Indian look for the new city, and reported that the rulers of the Indian princely states, Indian members of the Legislative Council, and in fact, Indian public opinion in general, was inclined in that direction.

The most coherent campaigner for the Indic style was E.B. Havell, retired principal of the Calcutta School of Art. In a letter to the Times just ten days after the Durbar, he expressed the opinion that by shifting to Delhi, the government would 'leave the commercial atmosphere of Calcutta, with its shoddy imitations of European architecture…and find itself in the heart of Hindustan, where the artistic traditions of Indian building are still, for all practical architectural purposes, as much alive as they were when Akbar, by calling into the service of the State the skill of Hindu temple builders, gave Saracenic (i.e. Islamic) architecture in India a wonderful new impulse.'

Here, Havell was clearly addressing the ideological underpinnings of the transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. There was to be a departure from the old regime, which was too closely associated with the British commercial interests that Calcutta represented. The new Raj was an Indian empire, in the tradition of other great empires of Indian history. The example to follow was that of Akbar, the Mughal ruler, who through his policy of 'sulh-e-kul', had set the state above partisan interests, treating all subjects equally, irrespective of religious beliefs or ethnic differences. It was this impulse that had to be reflected in the architecture of the new city.

Hardinge, as the head of the government in India, was acutely alive to the political implications of the choice of architectural idiom. He induced Lutyens to visit Mandu, Indore, Lucknow and Kanpur in December 1912, to receive inspiration from the architecture to be found in these historic locations. Lutyens, however, was harshly critical when it came to evaluating the Indian architectural tradition, and could find no redeeming features in it at all. He was dismissive of Hardinge's ideological concerns, saying, 'I do want old England to stand up and plant her great traditions and good taste where she goes and not pander to sentiment and all this silly Moghul-Hindu stuff.'

Fortuitously, a letter appeared in the Times newspaper in London, on this very issue of a suitable style for the new imperial capital. It was written by Herbert Baker, whose name had been mentioned very early as a possible candidate for membership of the Town Planning Committee. This letter brought Baker again into the limelight, for he expressed views close in sentiment to the official line, remarking that, 'British rule in India is not a mere veneer of government and culture. It is a new civilization in growth, a blend of the best elements of East and West…It is to this great fact that the architecture of Delhi should bear testimony.' The government, which was looking for precisely this attitude, was gratefully welcoming. Swinton remarked: 'Here we have a man who is a successful architect and speaks not only like a poet, but like a statesman.'

By happy chance, Lutyens and Baker were personal friends, and admired each other's work. Soon, the idea that both might work together on the project, had gained currency. When it was conveyed to Lutyens that his candidature may be accepted if he agreed to the collaboration, he assented with alacrity, remarking, 'Baker has a delightful personality and most pleasant to work with.' Lutyens by now was also trying to appear more accommodating, according to Hardinge, 'quite ready to adopt Indian architectural details in any designs that might be confided to him.'

So, by mid-January 1913, a collaboration between Lutyens and Baker had been agreed on, with one condition. This was the appointment of Swinton Jacob as an associate, or an architectural adviser. Swinton Jacob was an architect with a long career in India. He was a practitioner of the IndoSaracenic style, which sought to make modern buildings with emphatically Indian features, and had been a popular movement in India from the 1870s. Jacob himself had designed important buildings such as St Stephen's College at Kashmiri Gate in Delhi, Daly College in Indore, and the Canning and Medical Colleges in Lucknow. Hardinge hoped that Jacob would ensure that Indian features were used in New Delhi's architecture. It was only when Lutyens accepted this collaboration and agreed to adapting his designs to official requirements, that his commission was finalized.

Apart from the appointment of the architects, administrative and infrastructural details also had to be worked out before the city could begin to take shape. To begin with, on 1 October 1912, a special enclave of Delhi was created, covering an area of 557 square miles, and with a population of 392,000. It was put under a Chief Commissioner, Malcolm Hailey, who was also appointed the president of the Imperial Delhi Committee. This committee, which controlled the plan and execution of the New Delhi project, consisted of the president, an architect, an engineer and a finance officer, assisted by a secretary. Lutyens, Baker and Jacob were to constitute an 'architectural board', responsible for the design of the main government buildings, and also to advise on general matters of design in the city.

An important step in the process of city planning was acquisition of land, amounting to some 40,000 acres, that had been designated as the area required for the new city. In order to keep costs low, urban areas such as Paharganj, had been excluded. So, most of the area of the proposed capital was rural and agricultural. For the purposes of planning and acquisition the total area had been divided into five blocks. Block A, largely agricultural and containing eleven villages, including Naraina, Palam and Mahram Nagar, was reserved for the cantonment. Blocks C, D and E were earmarked for the future expansion of the city.

Block B, measuring over 13,000 acres, was the core of the new capital, the 'Imperial City area' where the government buildings would come up. This contained some areas of high population density, such as the hamlet of Jaisinghpura and nearby Madhoganj, within which some land was owned by the Maharaja of Jaipur. His ancestors had received these grants in Mughal times. Apart from these semi-urban areas, some 55 per cent of the land was cultivated. Most of the rest was locally known as khandrat, (literally, 'ruins'), because through it were scattered ruins, the remnants of various historical eras of the city. Also in this tract were some pockets of other economic activity, such as brick kilns, and even a derelict cotton mill in Raisina.

The acquisition proceedings created a class of the dispossessed, who were compensated in cash. Many nonagricultural people who had been expropriated due to the acquisition of the land on which their houses, shops or places of work or worship stood, usually found alternate pieces of land to relocate to. Some of these were allotted plots in new enclaves that were being developed for the purpose. For instance, a site of about twenty acres was allotted on the southeastern portion of land acquired for the new capital, for building of houses for 'expropriated menials and daily labourers'. The resulting settlement was developed along a strict grid layout, prescribed by the Imperial Delhi Committee and named after Mr Young, Deputy Commissioner. Soon, however, the name was corrupted, no doubt by residents who found more meaning in 'Jang'-pura than in 'Young'- pura.

It was not so easy for those who lost agricultural land. There was little land available for purchase within a reasonable distance of Delhi, particularly at the low rates they were given as compensation. In far-off areas such as the Canal Colonies in Punjab, land was available, but prices were even higher. Some agreed to accept this option, on the condition of paying for the land in instalments. While landowners and occupancy tenants were compensated, however inadequately, agricultural labourers were left without their source of livelihood, and without any compensation at all. Some of these, as well as owners whose lands had been acquired, continued to cultivate the land even after it had been acquired, as the government decided to let it out to them on short leases, until the land was actually needed for development. They thus became tenants of the government. To some extent, therefore, the government offset the cost of acquisition and prevented the loss of land revenue.

In the making of the new capital, much preliminary work had to be done even before the ground was broken. The appointment of the architects remained uncertain for a long time, a matter of careful negotiation. The creation of the administrative unit of Delhi prefigured the later Union Territory and the Delhi State as we know it today. Finally, the land for the building of the new capital was made available through a policy of extensive acquisitions. This is the land on which not only the imperial capital of New Delhi was built, but the future development of Delhi's 'colonies' would take place.

(Excerpted with permission from Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi by Swapna Liddle, published by Speaking Tiger, in 2018)

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