Revealing fabrics

Paradigms of Indian Architecture - Architecture and Independence

January 8, 1999

These two books - a collaboration between three academics specialising in architecture, and a collection of articles by six art and architectural historians and two practising architects - explore Indian architecture from its extant beginnings in the Indus Valley some 4,000 years ago up to the present day. Both books are preoccupied with the enormous and unavoidable impact of colonialism and western scholarship in understanding the buildings and decorative styles of the subcontinent.

India's capital city Delhi (or rather the contiguous cities of Old Delhi and New Delhi) epitomises the central difficulty. Are the grand, fundamentally western-style buildings, wide boulevards and spacious bungalows laid out by the British in Delhi after 1911 to be regarded as a model to which Indian architects should defer, or should they be seen as aberrations in much older traditions that created the glories of the Buddhist stupas and sculptures at Sanchi, the Hindu temple of the sun at Konarak and the Taj Mahal of the Mughal emperor Shahjahan, not to mention the humbler but no less delightful "vernacular" architecture in cities, towns and villages that has no monumental significance?

As Architecture and Independence tellingly points out: "The 'Indian' patterns used by John Nash in the Brighton Pavilion (1815-20) I carry meanings very different from those they would have if the pavilion was in India or built today or designed by an Indian architect. The meaning would also differ if the building was located in a residential area rather than a commercial one. Its associations would change if the client had been a maharaja rather than the Prince Regent."

Giles Tillotson, editor of Paradigms of Indian Architecture , defines it as a book "about ways in which India's historical architecture has been - and ways in which it might be - thought about". It is therefore a little surprising to find a chapter by Vidia Dehejia concerned purely with how to read visual narratives in sculpture and painting - though it happens to be the most interesting and original of all the articles, with some fine complementing illustrations.

Other chapters do chiefly concern architecture, however, and its depiction in art. Tillotson himself compares miniature paintings of buildings by "native" Indian artists, paintings by "Company" artists - that is Indian artists working for British clients - and paintings by British artists such as the celebrated Thomas and William Daniell. The first group typically depicted a building in plan, elevation and perspective - all in one and the same image - which is most off-putting to the untrained western eye; the second employed what appears to be single-point perspective, with intricate detail but without shadows or surrounding context, thus making the image almost two-dimensional; and the third group strove to capture reality with all the familiar techniques of 18th-century western art.

While the comparison is certainly illuminating and the analysis generally convincing, the conclusion is dubious. Tillotson suggests that "the Indian artists are more concerned to reveal the building to us (even if, in the case of the Company artists, revealing chiefly its visible aspects) while the English artists record an act of seeing". Paraphrasing, he adds: "The English artists address the viewer while the Indian artists address the object." This seems perilously close to turning on its head the usual notion (however sweeping) that western art is objective, clinical, scientific, in contrast with Indian art, which is subjective, requiring emotional involvement from the viewer and uninterested in mimicking physical reality.

Most of the other scholarly chapters are in places rewarding (notably Anna Dallapiccola's on the lively, insufficiently known architecture and art of Vijayanagar), and the two architects make a good, fresh contrast. Khulbushan Jain zooms in on the traditional, highly decorative desert houses of Rajasthan - a magnet for tourists - with their instinctive solutions for keeping cooler on burning days and warmer on cold nights than many modern buildings. Sunand Prasad compares Old and New Delhi, drawing on his detailed study of the havelis (large courtyard houses) in the congested old city, also found across northern India - though not known as havelis in Bengal ( pace Prasad). From about 1960, the Old Delhi havelis were progressively abandoned by the wealthy classes in favour of bungalows (a word that derives from Bengal) in the "colonies" (suburbs) of south Delhi. Ever since, planners and architects have paid lip-service to the supposed traditional communitarian virtues of the havelis but, as Prasad honestly says, "the reality is that (the traditional paradigm) has a vanishingly small status in determining the shape of the rapid urbanisation currently in progress". Like the British who regarded the "native" city as insanitary, claustrophobic and insecure, those Indians who can afford to have joined the flight to the suburbs.

Architecture and Independence , though much larger and lengthier than the edited collection and copiously illustrated with black-and-white photographs - is a far less readable book. Its value lies more as a reference source to the chief buildings of the colonial and post-colonial period in India. The authors have drawn on a wide range of sources and created a kind of who's who of the subject. But they have failed, inexcusably, to list individual buildings in the index (something omitted from the Tillotson book); and the captions of the photographs do not give the date of construction or the name of the architect - leaving one to search for this information in the text.

The style is acceptable when describing the physical attributes of buildings but pedestrian in every other respect. It also suffers from an urge to be politically correct ("Gandhi's life still serves as a guide to every human being who aspires to rise above the average to lead a meaningful life"). This might not matter if the book's politics and history were factually correct, but they are frequently erroneous or misleading. Colonial India's first Indian reformer, Rammohan Roy, is described as advocating the writings of Max Mueller and Sir Edwin Arnold, who both worked much after Roy's death. The first "major" Hindu-Muslim riots are dated 1918, overlooking the pivotal riots in East Bengal of 1906-07 when the Muslim League was founded. And Rabindranath Tagore's widely known role as India's first "modernist" painter is usurped, ludicrously, by his disciple Nandalal Bose. Furthermore, misspellings and wrong names are common, the most egregious being the painter Sir William "Rothstein", instead of Rothenstein, an extremely well-known advocate of Indian art in the West. The standard of accuracy in the sections on architects and their buildings seems considerably better, but the mistakes in the rest of the book make one wonder about those too. Many errors could have been avoided with proper editing.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES .

Paradigms of Indian Architecture: Space and Time in Representation and Design

Editor - G. H. R. Tillotson
ISBN - 0 7007 0628 3 and 1038 8
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £35.00 and £14.99
Pages - 199

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