The year was 1955. Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who had buckled down to design India’s first planned city of Chandigarh, had been expecting architect Balkrishna V Doshi to pay him a visit. “I was assisting Corbusier with some drawings. Newly married, I arrived at the capital of un-trifurcated Punjab with my wife. When Corbusier saw us, he drew a sketch spontaneously and offered it to me along with five notes of ₹100 each as a wedding gift,” recalls the 2018 Pritzker prize-winning architect, over a phone call from Ahmedabad.
The sketch enjoys a special spot in Doshi’s collection of souvenirs — comprising artworks, hand-written letters and a small sample of Open Hand’s plaster cast — that hold a mirror to his camaraderie with Corbusier. Now in his 90s, the architect has passed on most of this memorabilia to his children and grandchildren, who consider it “priceless heirlooms of the family’s history”.
To Doshi and his family, Corbusier’s memories and gifts may be priceless, but to the art world, his creations are precious. On October 6 this year, Corbusier’s 135th birth anniversary, a 1960-dated console desk in teak wood, with Chandigarh’s administrative buildings listed as its provenance, was auctioned in France. With its design attributed to Corbusier and Doshi, the website of French auction house Piasa shows, the desk went under the hammer for approx. €1,25,672 (roughly ₹1 crore).
Doshi, who had worked with Corbusier on many projects in Ahmedabad — Villa Sarabhai, Villa Shodhan, Mill Owners’ Association Building and Sanskar Kendra to name a few, says, “Hearing about the furniture pieces that I had the great honour of designing with my Guru Le Corbusier all I feel is deep reverence. So for me they are not objects but priceless memories and I am filled with gratitude for my Guru - Le Corbusier.”
One of the oldest auction houses Christie’s auctioned 25 of Corbusier’s works, including paintings, manhole covers, models, sculptures, tapestries and furniture in London and 26 in New York between January 2012 and October 18, 2022. The most expensive of these was his oil painting Nature morte et figure dated between 1927 and 1944, sold for 3,301,000 pounds.
Even Corbusier’s Chandigarh manhole cover, moulded in cast iron with the city’s map embossed on it, was auctioned last year by Sotheby’s in the UK for nearly ₹10.15 lakh? The city’s roads, pavements, parking lots and even residential areas are dotted with about 2,000 such manhole covers, which the Municipal Corporation now plans to replace with concrete ones.
Advocate Ajay Jagga, a member of Chandigarh Administration’s Heritage Items Protection Cell, has been tracking auctions of items created and designed by Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, with whom the architect collaborated with on the Chandigarh project. “I have been recording the auctions of the city’s heritage items since 2006,” says Ajay.
He views the works of Corbusier as the city’s modern heritage and cites The Indian Easements Act, 1882, for the need to protect it. “Heritage includes monuments ie architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements or structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, cave dwellings and combinations of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science,” he says. The Corbusier-designed Capitol Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This year, out of nearly 10 items designed by Corbusier that made it to auction houses, across the world, five were sold for ₹1.5 crore (approx.), reveals data provided by Ajay. The items include mundane objects, from furniture and lamps to light fixtures. What makes them special? Ajay says Chandigarh, a project nurtured by first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was of outstanding universal value. “To my mind, there’s none. That’s what makes his work here so valuable,” he says.
The Indian city’s heritage items have found their way into the homes of the rich and the famous. A concrete lamp fixture designed by Corbusier for Chandigarh’s manmade lake, Sukhna, inspired Kanye West’s 2013 album Yeezus. “When I look at that Corbusier lamp and think, ‘he made this and he put this lamp in zoos so everyone could have it.’ It was about everyone having the opportunity to have beauty, to be inspired,” Kanye said in a talk at School of the Art Institute of Chicago on May 10, 2015. Kanye added that artworks like Corbusier’s lamp, which he bought for $1,10,000, were free when first made, but now cost a lot because they were a statement of class for French galleries.
To protect the modern heritage of Chandigarh, the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2011 issued an order that prohibited the sale, disposal, removal and export of the Union Territory’s heritage objects.
Lithographs and letters
MN Sharma, Chandigarh’s first chief architect who had worked with Corbusier in designing the city, owned 11 lithographs and one wool-and-plaster sculpture designed by the Swiss-French architect. While some had been gifted to him by Corbusier, he acquired others from Heidi Webber, who owns The Pavillon Le Corbusier, a museum in Zurich.
Yojana Rawat, general secretary of the MN Sharma Architectural Society, inherited one lithograph owned by Sharma. “Six of the lithographs were donated to the Chandigarh Museum when Sharma was alive. He wanted Corbusier’s works to be showcased at the museum which he had designed for the city. Four are with the society and one lithograph was passed down to me by Sharma,” she says.
Yojana also owns a hand-written letter by Corbusier which is addressed to MN Sharma, in which he shared with him the news of the death of his wife. It has a sketch of two hands holding each other. “This lithograph came to me unexpectedly. Sharma gave it in writing that he is gifting his artworks to the society. It was only after his death, when his will was read, that I got to know he left a lithograph for me.”
If past auctions are taken into account, Yojana and her society’s possessions are worth crores. But, Yojana would rather donate them: “In future, I would like to give my artwork to the Chandigarh Administration, so that it is open to the public, I want a secure place where these heritage objects are valued.”