Comment | The Central Vista project exemplifies the anti-democratic vision colonising India’s public spaces

We are witnessing the wholescale hijacking of public space by an interdependent oligarchy of corporate and political special interests

May 29, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated July 06, 2022 12:35 pm IST

A heavily barricaded Rajpath, as work on the Central Vista project progresses steadily.

A heavily barricaded Rajpath, as work on the Central Vista project progresses steadily.

There’s a sucker born every minute, and the latest is the Mayor of London.

On May 11, Sadiq Khan heralded “the first of a series of major art projects we’ve commissioned as part of our brand new #LetsDoLondon campaign” with what he called a “brilliant work by David Hockney”. But the attached doodle was manifestly slapdash, making it clear the 83-year-old artist was — in the language of London’s streets — “taking the piss” out of his client. After much derision, Khan responded that “the great thing about art is that it’s a conversation starter. This piece has got people talking.”

Is that enough? Responding to my query, art historian Dr. Rupert Arrowsmith of Oxford University Press says, “I offer you a line from an Ernest Hemingway poem, And in the end the age was handed / The sort of shit that it demanded . What the current age demands is not art that makes you ask questions that count, but brand names. David Hockney has basically become a brand name in the same way Calvin Klein is a brand name, and when was the last time you bought a pair of Calvin Klein underpants that were any good?”

Arrowsmith reminds me that “in 2004, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) — a urinal jokily signed with a false name under the influence of the Dada movement — was voted by 500 representatives of the British art world to be the most influential artwork of the 20th century, and so, in the history of art, taking the piss is actually no laughing matter. But Duchamp was doing it on purpose and Fountain is in fact a highly complex artwork embodying numerous sly observations about gallery culture and the art world. Does Hockney’s work embody any sly observations?”

The contretemps about Hockney is charged with global implications far beyond London, especially after last year’s global Black Lives Matter protests irrevocably recast our relationships with public art and architecture. Now, we are bound to ask: who is being memorialised and for what? What message is telegraphed?

Room for imagination

“First, I think it is important for artists to question the need for an artwork in a given location,” says artist Sudarshan Shetty. His 2012 The Flying Bus — which whimsically endowed wings on an iconic Mumbai “double-decker” while converting its interiors into intimate gallery space — is a masterpiece of public art that memorialises with great beauty while allowing room for the imagination to soar.

Artist Sudarshan Shetty’s 2012 public art project, ‘The Flying Bus’ in Mumbai.

Artist Sudarshan Shetty’s 2012 public art project, ‘The Flying Bus’ in Mumbai.

Shetty roots his argument in Indian aesthetic traditions to say that absence can speak more eloquently than superfluity: “Our overly industrialised urban set-up produces a constant barrage of objects, ideas and images that are imposed upon us without respite. It’s an artist’s responsibility to exercise more of an erasure before adding another object into an already overcrowded realm. [We must] go back to the wisdom that comes from our own past, and find ways to re-assimilate it into contemporary life, making space for an active and meaningful engagement that is essentially democratic in nature.”

These are crucial insights for India in the 21st century, because all over the country, from the heart of New Delhi to my seaside neighbourhood of Miramar in Goa, we are witnessing the wholescale hijacking of public space by an interdependent oligarchy of corporate and political special interests. Already rampant over the past decade, the damage has increased exponentially during the COVID-19 crisis, as citizens have become distracted by more urgent exigencies of simply staying alive.

Empathy vs. opacity

“Public space is not a blank, unmarked space — it carries on its skin all the stories a society tells itself about itself,” says poet, critic and culture theorist Ranjit Hoskote. “Countries that get their public spaces right are usually those where a liberal public sphere of discussion is prized, where institutional changes are attended by public consultations.” Hoskote calls these “Theory Y polities,” which see the public space as a domain of empathy. On the other hand, he says “Theory X polities” get it wrong because opacity veils public decision-making, and a colonial-imperial distrust of the citizenry prevails. “They distrust the individual, discourage dissent, and see public space as a domain to be controlled through punishment and overblown monumentalism.”

Related questions have crowded my mind since visiting Khajuraho earlier this year, where the famous temples celebrate life with sublime grace. That 1,000-year-old architecture constantly uplifted my spirit, but flying back into the thick of Mumbai’s new glass-and-steel monstrosities had the opposite effect: they left me feeling helpless, squashed, short of breath.

The oft-romanticised Mumbai skyline, dotted with skyscrapers and slum tenements alike.

The oft-romanticised Mumbai skyline, dotted with skyscrapers and slum tenements alike.

Most suffocating of all is Antilla, “the world’s most expensive home”, which is nominally private — it’s owned by Mukesh Ambani — but expresses very public alienation. This veritable Guantanamo Bay of skyscrapers subjects the entire landscape to extraordinary rendition beneath its obliterating cowl, from which there is no escape. “Antilla is all wounded feelings,” says Professor Sarover Zaidi, who teaches at the Jindal School of Art and Architecture. A scholar of Mumbai neighbourhoods, she says, “It wants to be noticed, and acts on an idea of individuation. Like most modernist architecture, it performs aspiration. The building wants to say that we are not from here. We want you to know we think we’re better than you.”

On May 21, Zaidi made the case on Twitter that contemporary public architecture in India — especially the controversial multi-billion-dollar Central Vista project in New Delhi — has to be seen in the context of the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Speaking to me, she elaborates, “1992 changed everything structurally, socially, in every possible way. It was an extremely symbolic moment when religion came to the fore in the subcontinent in a way it hadn’t since Pakistan was born in 1947. This time around, it was the first nail in the construction of Hindu India. So, while everyone is seeing the Central Vista as an attack on beauty and nostalgia, that’s just a piece. You have to recognise the continuum. This is actually a moment of ideological repetition.”

Colonial fetish

In Hoskote’s view, the Central Vista redevelopment “ is an attack on the legacy of New Delhi and on India’s epic experiment with democracy. Some observers have been tempted to compare it to Baron Haussmann’s modernisation of Paris. I think this is a complete mistake. The real and only point of comparison is Albert Speer’s absurd scheme to rebuild Berlin’s axial vista as the symbol of a new world capital for Hitler, called Germania.”

People who support the project contend that the existing vista fetishises colonialism, but according to Hoskote, this reveals ignorance of India’s architectural history. “Only the National Archives building is a Lutyens design. The National Museum was designed by G.B. Deolalikar, the first Indian head of the CPWD. The IGNCA was designed by Ralph Lerner, an American architect who won an international competition in the late 1980s. The Central Vista project will actually destroy the sense of a vista, of expanse, crowding it in with buildings that — from the projections — seem utterly banal and undistinguished.”

Back in 1994, architect Gautam Bhatia wrote the fantastically entertaining classic, Punjabi Baroque and Other Memories of Architecture , which contains this perceptive analysis: “The public is given to understand that the designated building or artistic object has little to do with its actual use but is only a medium that presents a picture of India that he wishes were true.” It seems highly relevant to what’s underway in India.

Elaborating via email, Bhatia agreed that Antilla typifies what has gone wrong in India, saying “it is less a statement about expressing the owner’s lifestyle than a picture of the state of architecture itself. The industrial, half-baked, modernistic aesthetic — seemingly so naturally expressed, yet so self-consciously cultivated — is an unfortunate reminder that domesticity no longer needs to be expressed in private houses. Antilla could be an office building, a compressed mall, an airport control tower or a shoe factory. It doesn’t matter. As long as it hides the living rooms, the car garages, the snow-making room, the helipads. When it is a ruin, archaeologists will have trouble carbon dating it.”

About the Central Vista, Bhatia says “I don’t think anyone has ever revered Nirman Bhavan or Udyog Bhavan or any of the other post-colonial structures. But they are certainly part of an important legacy of that time. No central government should be in a position to dictate what is bad architecture, what should be saved or demolished. Democratic elected governments are custodians for a short, specified time. Parents don’t let the babysitter decide the course of their child’s life.”

People from far and wide flock to the iconic Gateway of India in Mumbai.

People from far and wide flock to the iconic Gateway of India in Mumbai.

Architecture for the people

There are also compelling moral dimensions. Bhatia asks, “Can a poor country afford to demolish valuable construction on a whim? Even the most affluent societies are careful not to rebuild and alter without reason. The White House and the U.S. Capitol have remained externally unchanged for centuries. Only in India does a mere increase in the accommodation of MPs in Parliament become the logic to demolish and rebuild miles of public buildings on the most visible and public concourse of the city.”

In recent weeks, as the Central Vista project has advanced inexorably, Ram Rahman, the photographer and veteran cultural activist — he co-founded the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust — has been a prominent mourner for what is being bulldozed. His father, Habib Rahman, was an important New Delhi architect in its most intense phase of building from the early 1950s up until 1977, and was instrumental in the construction of several city landmarks.

Rahman says, “There is a huge difference between Nehru’s vision of public architecture and what is happening under Modi. Nehru was a democrat. When when he did not like the design of a government building, he deferred to the architects and engineers if informed that the buildings were too far in progress to make major changes. His vision gelled with the ideals of the European Modern Movement and Bauhaus — of a modern architecture that was for the people, simple but aesthetically striking and practical.”

By contrast, he says, “Modi’s grand projects are classically fascist: the concreting of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad, which has made a section of it into a static tank. The wholesale destruction of a large swathe of Benaras to create an open vista to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. These are projects without public consultation, which override all by-laws, and physically remove people and houses to proceed.”

Rahman says, “The public art and architecture being created now is wholly anti-people.” But it is also anti-artist and anti-architect, with a single-minded focus on brand identity at the cost of everything that characterises the greatness of India’s built heritage from ancient times through the heady days of modernist breakthrough.

The writer-photographer-columnist is the co-founder/ curator of Goa Arts and Literature Festival.

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