Literary Review

Ghosts of Chandigarh past

Chandigarh is in India; ed Shanay Jhaveri, The Shoestring Publisher, price not menioned.  

If you stand on the upper parapets of any tall building in Delhi, Lucknow, Patna or most North Indian cities, the view is essentially the same: close up, the buildings resemble architect-designed structures with some semblance of self-created order — a partial cityscape that has emerged from a drawing board. But as the eye moves away, architecture dissipates into half-baked urbanity. In the middle distance is a composition of people and buildings, of movement and unhindered human action; and farther afield, the scene appears as a soft focus dust haze — a pantomime of half-finished walls set in city squalor — barely decipherable as a place with precise intentions.

Chandigarh was the only modern city in North India conceived in geometry and with a European sense of urban control. Its perception and visible structure still retains to a great extent the vision of its master architect, Le Corbusier. Of the numerous texts published on it, almost all address two specific issues: one, the architectural conception of the city; and two, the urbanity of its division into sectors, along with its garden-planning ideas.

Shanay Jhaveri adds a third type to the list. Chandigarh is in India — despite the strained reference in its title — is unusual, in that it casts a welcoming glance on the many forms of art that emerged full-blown at the time — painting, textile, collage, screen art, landscape, photography, film, interiors, etc. That the specific and personal nature of many of these artistic efforts finds its way into the book is the strength of Jhaveri’s inclusive vision, even though many owe their allegiance only to modernism, and not specifically to the only real modern city of India, the Chandigarh that is in India.

The book works on many levels. At first glance, it appears — like many of modernism’s inspirations — as a work of art itself. An unlikely catalogue of information laid out in a unique sequence supporting a discontinuous narrative. Every page dominates the underlying storyline of modernism and becomes a conception to look at, to admire and appreciate in compositional terms (I was tempted to tear off pages and frame them for the wall). The book’s prime concern seems not much to tell a coherent story but to bewitch the reader with page after page of evidence on the grand recent period of design history.

The author makes the same claim of greatness in the text. The subject matter, he says “tries to dislodge the dominant image of Chandigarh so far circulated of only Corbusier’s weathered buildings, isolated and fetishized as the camera-ready ruins of a failed Utopian vision”. He could hardly be more spot-on in his analysis of the city. However, it is hard to see how the book can become a relevant tribute to Indian modernism, when so little of it survives in its original form, indeed when the primary structures of Indian urbanity are little more than an indecipherable pastiche of the personal and the vernacular.

It is often rare that a city’s design can be discussed in a conversation on art. “Where,” writes Jhaveri in his introduction, “is the work that infiltrated the city’s planned quarters, its avenues and gardens, to express the great confidence and desire that willed it into being? Where are all the images, the words, and the songs that tell of Chandigarh’s enduring tale?” A loaded question, it assumes that the city’s modernism could be felt, grasped and expressed in other works of art that emerged out of the modernist vision. The book is a testament — albeit a bit exaggerated — to that claim. The artists, whose works appear in the later section, were largely independent creators who either left a peripheral stamp on the city with their own diligent work or those who used modernism as an inspiration in their private expression. How Chandigarh becomes a master mentor is hard to see. If anything, the city is today but a ghostly presence, a background, to an overpopulated Indian reality. And in effect, its success as an altogether different city is less inspiration, more bureaucratic delusion.

What remains of Chandigarh’s modernistic model is only a tribute to Indian bureaucracy. Like all formal structures in India, the city survives only because of strict zoning and paralysing building regulations. Rules as old as the city itself. Had the real India been unleashed on the place over the period, had waves of rural migrants been allowed to make space within the plan of a continually changing Chandigarh, the city would have been a true experiment in Indian urbanism. In its sealed state, and half a century of bureaucratic control later, its false sense of liveability is fostered by a draconian conservation, similar to providing fences around monuments. The care lavished on its parkland, leisure valleys and sculpture gardens, the wide avenues and bureaucratic bungalows makes it an altogether artificial construction surviving in a vacuum. A brilliant monumental lie.

Sixty years earlier, when Jawaharlal Nehru said that Chandigarh “hits you on the head”, the reference was to a pleasant shock compared to the cataclysmic experience of the real Indian city. Sixty years later, when you travel along the wide boulevards, Chandigarh still hits you on the head. But you may well ask whether hits on the head are still valid in urban India, or should a more studied approach to city life be put into practice. Perhaps even Nehru may think differently today.

Still, the book’s eccentric offering is its greatest asset. By choosing to represent such myriad forms of art and in ways that captivate the reader with graphic idiosyncrasies — cropping photographs, juxtaposing text and drawings, oversizing lettering, framing the banal, and tilting and overturning images, the book makes constant unsettling demands on the reader; thus becoming a work of the very art described in its pages — a book on art that is a work of art. It is a compliment to an age that is overrun by the messy tumult of Indian city life, and a formal tribute to a style that history refuses to acknowledge.

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 4:09:15 PM |

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