Friday, November 20, 2009

Naipaul on British-Indian and Modern Indian Architecture

I don't know that Naipaul is a great writer from personal experience, having read little of his work. He must be, the world says so and the high priests of the Swedish Academy agree.

It was most agreeable therefore to come across this absolute gem while dipping randomly through his book 'India A Million Mutinies Now'. I don't know if he thinks a lot about architecture, but there is no way you can improve this analysis/discourse/rant one whit. Even I couldn't have put it better ;)

In India in 1962, I took much of the British Architecture for granted. After what i had known in Trinidad and England, British building in India seemed familiar, not a cause for wonder. Perhaps, too, in 1962, just 15 years after independence, I didn't allow myself to see British Indian architecture except as background. I was saving my wonder for the creations of the Indian past. Even Lutyen's great achievement in New Delhi I saw in a grudging way, finding the scale too grand, looking in his ceremonial buildings for the motifs he had got from Mogul builders, and finding in his adaptions further evidence of vainglory.

I looked in this partial way even at the lesser architecture of the British, the bungalows and houses built for officials in the country districts. They were pleasant to stay in; with their porticoes and verandahs, thick walls, high ceilings, and sometimes additional upper windows or wall openings, they were well suited to the climate. But they seemed too grand for the poverty of the Indian countryside. They seemed also to exaggerate the hardships of the Indian climate. So that, although absolutely of India, these British buildings, by their exaggeration, seemed to keep India at a distance.

But the years race on; new ways of feeling and looking can come to one. Indians have been building in free India for 40 years,and what has been put up in that time makes it easier to look at what went before. In free India Indians have built like a people without a tradition; they have for the most part done mechanical, surface imitations of the international style. What is not easy to understand is that, unlike the British, Indians have not really built for the Indian climate. They have been too obsessed with imitating the modern; and much of what has been done in this way - the dull, four-square towers of Bombay, packed far too close together; the concrete non-entity of Lucknow and Madras and the residential colonies of New Delhi - can only make hard tropical lives harder and hotter.

Far from extending the people's ideas of beauty and grandeur and human possibility - uplifting ideas which very poor people may need more than rich people - much of the architecture of free India has become part of the ugliness and crowd and the increasing physical oppression of India. Bad architecture in a poor tropical city is more than an aesthetic matter. It spoils people's day-to-day lives; it wears down their nerves; it generates rages that can flow into many different channels.

This Indian architecture, more disdainful of the people it serves than British Indian architecture ever was, now makes the most matter-of-fact Public Works Department bungalow of the British time seem like a complete architectural thought. And if one goes on from there, and considers the range of British building in India, the time span, the varied styles of these two centuries, the developing functions (railways stations, the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, the Gateway of India in Bombay, the legislative buildings of Lucknow and New Delhi), it becomes obvious that British Indian architecture - which can so easily be taken for granted - is the finest secular architecture in the sub-continent.

1 comment:

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