From the Viewsroom

The Emperor’s gaze

Poornima Joshi | Updated on December 13, 2020

The Central Vista project carries forward imperialist ideas

India is gearing up for completion of its 75th year of Independence in 2022 with a gigantic new Parliament building, a common central secretariat and revamp of the 3-km-long Rajpath stretch. There have been questions about the timing and rationale behind spending ₹20,000 crore for the redevelopment of an already functional structure in the midst of a pandemic. Simultaneously, architects and rights activists have moved the Supreme Court to question the aesthetics and haste with which the use of the land for children’s playgrounds, open public spaces and parks is being changed to allow construction of government offices.

For each of us Indians, Parliament, Rajpath, Rashtrapati Bhavan hold a significant symbolism as part of our collective consciousness and national identity. The living heritage that is Parliament and more such architectural evidence of our Colonial and Mughal rule have been absorbed in collective consciousness of us as mere “subjects” being gazed down by the various Emperors. Since the 13th century, the architecture encompassed the gaze of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal emperors who stared down at the common folk. Edwin Lutyens imbued the same philosophy through architectural flourishes of European Classicism. But even Lutyens’s Imperial sensibilities were inflicted by Indian influences through a debate in which voices such as that of Lord Hardinge who wanted the new capital to be a confluence of the Oriental and European aesthetics.

Indeed, some of the imperial past reflected in the design, especially landscaping patterns. But post-Independence, there developed a fledgling but sharp philosophical contrast to the “Emperor’s gaze” architecture. It emerged in Mahatma Gandhi’s inclusive, deeply democratic approach to structures like Sabarmati Ashram that architects like Charles Correa propagated through their seminal work. This discourse was carried forward by icons like BV Doshi, who brought communities and sustainability into structures.

But the Gandhian ideas of minimalism, simplicity and inclusive public spaces have once again been shunned. There has been no public debate about the architectural merit of the symbolic structures of democracy. Sadly, in the 75th year of our democracy, the new rulers will once again gaze down at us common folk through their own semi-rationalist architectural magnificence atop the Raisina Hills.

Published on December 13, 2020

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