History & Culture

Old world charm

The once popular Odeon theatre in Delhi  

Delhi is a city built and re-built over time, a city with myriad influences spanning centuries and culture. Lutyens Delhi has been much documented and written about. It is however the building of modern Delhi, a change from the British Era to the Indian one, which gave it a distinct character, symbolising growth and development. Modern Delhi, 1950s onwards, saw the influence of a number of renowned architects, each leaving an unmistakeable imprint on its buildings. Several iconic structures emerged. INTACH has come out with a list of 62 buildings, which deserve the modern heritage status and needs to be preserved. It includes office complexes, cooperative group housing societies, cinema halls, shopping complexes, all designed post-1950s, each a study in itself with its own charm. What makes the INTACH list more interesting for me is that our residence (Yamuna Apartments) is part of it as the first cooperative group housing society in Delhi.

A common factor or thread in all the buildings mentioned is that a majority of them were shot by one man — the legendary photographer Madan Mahatta. Working in an era when there were curbs on importing equipment, doing with the little infrastructure in place, he worked with some of the finest architects involved in the design and building of modern Delhi. Documenting their work and at the same time documenting the growth of the city. He understood architecture and was able to compose his shots showing off the buildings splendidly.

As leading architect, Kuldip Singh, says, “My association with Madan Mahatta started in the 1960s, He was highly dedicated. He would go to a great extent to get the right shades, colour and textures, show the composition to us before shooting. At times if the ambience was not right, a second visit was arranged. The distortions were corrected through his Linhoff camera.” The architects with whom Mahatta worked reads like a who’s who — Raj Rewal, Kuldip Singh, Charles Correa, Habib Rahman, Ranjit Sabikhi and Ajoy Choudhury (Design Group), J.K. Choudhry, J.A. Stein and Achyut Kanvinde.

Madan Mahatta, the legendary photographer

Madan Mahatta, the legendary photographer  

Mad passion

The sheer volume of work is mind boggling. Mahatta single-handedly shot almost over a lakh images of modern Delhi. Mahatta’s closed their retail (at Connaught Place) last year, but continue with their commercial work and studio above their showroom, which used to be their darkroom. What comes through is a mad passion to photograph the growth of a city. It might have taken hours, days or months to document. The cameras he used from childhood to his professional life included baby brownie by Kodak, Zeiss Super Ikonta, Rolleifex, Nikon (35mm ) the F, F2 , F3 , Linhoff (medium format), Hassalblad (Medium format). The photographs are still being documented and digitised.

Pavan Mahatta, who now takes care of the company with his brother Pankaj and son Arjun says, “There have been several outstanding buildings in Delhi even in the recent past but the finest of them were built between the 1950s and the 1980s. It is not to say that architects today are not good, but those who created the buildings then had vision, they used a wide spectrum of materials and each design philosophy was different from the other. The sheer vibrancy and depth of work were amazing.

“It was an exciting phase. This was a period of better patronage from the Government, where they tried to involve private architects to raise the standard and add a new dimension to buildings. Once the actual construction of a building started, one did have the feeling that he or she is part of an evolving city,” adds Singh.

The famous Nirula’s in Delhi

The famous Nirula’s in Delhi  

And did the city evolve? Yes, it certainly did, the pictures are proof. They speak a thousand incredible words. There is an aerial shot of the Jantar Mantar, Park Hotel area, all lush with just a few buildings; the NDMC building was yet to be built. There are shots of the American Embassy designed by Edward D Stone.

There is a black and yellow ambassador parked right at the entrance; it must have been possible to drive so close to the embassy. There is a shot of a plane landing at night, when the first night landing commenced at the Palam Airport, the runway lit by a plethora of lights . It must have taken some determination to document the changing face of the city so methodically.

Super Bazaar, destination once for shopoholics

Super Bazaar, destination once for shopoholics  

Reflected in water

There are shots of the Safdarjung Tomb beautifully reflected in the water surrounding it. A shot which made me nostalgic — of bunking school for movies and ice-cream — was that of the inside of the famous Nirula’s restaurant next to Chanakya cinema. There is also a picture of the once happening mall of Delhi — Super Bazaar, where everyone shopped before the mall explosion. Then the Bahai Temple, an architectural marvel. Says Pavan, “My father was involved with it from the time the model was built.”

There are shots of the Centaur, Akbar, Maurya, Oberoi and Ashoka Hotels. Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations is well documented as are Kuldip Singh’s NDMC building and Palika Kendra. There is Charles Correa’s Jeevan Bharati and Stein’s Habitat Centre and India International Centre. “My father was partial to Stein’s work,” smiles Pavan.

There is a beautiful shot of January 19, 1961 — an open cavalcade in which Queen Elizabeth rode with Dr. Rajendra Prasad around Connaught Place. There are crowds lining the streets and the aerial shot captures the tranquillity of the place. He recalls how when Palika Bazaar was being built, they would shoot every month, so that the growth of the bazaar and the entire area could be recorded. The Odeon cinema, Supreme Court… the collection is a picture-perfect slice of the past.

“Even when my father became unwell (he had cancer), he would insist on being driven around. He would mentally register the progress of the Metro through its pillars.”

Wonder how he would have reacted to the demolishing of Raj Rewal’s architectural beauties at Pragati Maidan?

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 9:15:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/vignettes-of-old-delhi/article19174632.ece

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