Ruling trends, all the raj

Architecture in Victorian and Edwardian India - The Royal Palaces of India
January 13, 1995

Although Indian royal architecture has exercised an understandable fascination on the western mind ever since the first European travellers visited the Mughal court, scholarly research has focused particularly on Mughal and Rajput architecture and the only comprehensive survey on the subject has long been out of print. The appearance of this new volume by George Michell and Antonio Martinelli, which brings extensive experience of the wide range of India's architectural traditions to the subject and combines an architectural training and background with an anthropological approach to the analysis of buildings, will be welcomed by all those with interests in Indian cultural traditions.

The volume is clearly divided into two sections. The first places the study of Indian royal architecture in a broad cultural context and introduces the different aspects of the beliefs and activities that underpin the spatial arrangements of Indian royal palaces -- the theories of kingship and the divine basis of royal power at both Hindu and Muslim royal courts, the physical measures taken to transform the courts into fortified citadels, the relationships between spaces in the complexes designated for formal receptions (durbars), for religious structures, for the accommodation of kings, courtiers and female members of the royal family -- the guarded private apartments, terraces and inner courtyards -- and last but not least, the service arrangements for the considerable populations that these palace complexes frequently housed.

The second part examines the major historical and regional traditions of Indian royal architecture -- a history spanning some 700 years. The well-known imperial Mughal complexes of Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and Delhi take their place in a broad historical context as the author discusses the evidence of royal architecture before the arrival of the Muslims at the end of the 12th century and the earliest royal buildings that still stand in India, erected by Muslim conquerors at their newly established capital at Delhi in the 13th and 14th centuries and those of their 15th-century and 16th-century successors, the Muslim rulers of Central India and the Deccan. An appropriately rich selection of examples of the Rajput palaces contemporary with both the early Muslims and the Mughals is balanced by a section on the distinctive shapes of the palaces of South India that developed under the Vijayanagar empire and its successor states between the 14th and 17th centuries, which take their rightful place for the first time in a general survey. The last section surveys the variety of ways in which Indian princes responded to the pressures and the new possibilities of the colonial situation -- building palaces in a variety of European-derived and composite styles that have been the subject of vigorous debate ever since.

For those planning a first visit to India this season, the book is an essential pre-departure reference work; for those unable to escape the long nights of the northern winter Michell's lively text along with the colour and freshness of perspective of Martinelli's splendid photographs will serve either as a happy reminder of sights seen or as a spur to visit sites as yet unseen. For those whose appetite is whetted, particularly by the last sections of the volume and who wish to explore further the architectural effects of British colonial power in India, the recent Marg publication edited by Christopher London, Architecture in Victorian and Edwardian India, will also be of great interest. Questions about British intentions and local reactions, still the subject of intense debate, have no simple answers, but this volume of essays adds usefully to recent studies, notably by Philip Davies, Thomas Metcalf, Gavin Stamp and Giles Tillotson, on the development of architecture in colonial India, its political significance and its worth in architectural terms. The reader with little background in the subject would do well to take first the essay by Catherine Asher on the architecture of the late Mughal emperors and their regional successors. The architecture of the declining late Mughal emperors in Delhi found solace in tradition and expressed a clear predilection for the past of the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, in contrast to that of the rulers of the regional states of Murshidabad and Awadh (Oudh), both within the British sphere of infuence by the mid-18th century and both of which constructed palaces that adopted or played with European forms. The story, however, is far from simple. At the heart of the Murshidabad Nawab's neo-classical residence a Mughal-influenced pavilion served as a throne room or audience hall; the Kaisarbagh palace, the last major edifice to be built by a ruler of Awadh reverts to strict Islamic palace design; and in both states a range of new religious buildings constructed in the first half of the 19th century retained the indigenous vocabulary associated with mosque architecture.

Rosie Llewellyn-Jones's essay on Lucknow provides more detail on the organisation of the Awadh Nawabs' capital and the architectural styles that dominated its different areas, before describing British large-scale destruction in the city after the 1857 "Sepoy Mutiny". As the The Times journalist William Russell so aptly stated, "Lucknow has been fairly improved off the face of the earth". Linking closely with this material in time-scale is the account of the cantonment town of Cawnpore (Kanpur) by Zoe Yalland, which details its steady development by the British in the third quarter of the 19th century, the sculpture and screen and gardens and the Indo-Gothic church constructed in memory of those massacred in 1857 and the arrival of its first trained architect in the 1880s.

Some of the most fascinating architectural developments took place in the British coastal centres of power, Madras and Bombay, from the 1860s onwards as British Indian architecture, following the mother country, developed firstly its own forms of Gothic and then the inappropriately named Indo-Saracenic style. Sadly this collection lacks an essay focusing directly on the famous Indo-Gothic buildings of Bombay, but several articles deal with questions relating to the distinctive Indo-Saracenic style that incorporated ideas from Indian and Islamic traditions. Was official British development of these architectural forms that included Indian elements a gesture of concession to the subject country, an instrument by which the British tried to present themselves as the natural successors of the Mughals and a legitimate power, or a boast of Britain's mastery over India's cultural past?

Is it adequate to state simply that Indian rulers' adoption of mixed styles for their palace and secular structures was a reflection of their ambivalent relationship with the colonial power? Do we really understand the relationship between overt British intentions in relation to the future of Indian traditional artisan, design and building skills and the effects of their actions? Giles Tillotson's article sets the overall scene, outlining the history of the style's emergence, and the differences between the work done for the British and that done by British architects for Indian princes. S. Mutthiah provides a more detailed picture of Madras, claiming for Paul Benfield, the architect of the Nawab of the Carnatic's Chepauk Palace, the original creation of the style. Rather better known for their Indo-Saracenic buildings in Madras are the architects Robert Fellowes Chisholm and Henry Irwin, whose individual and collaborative work gave Madras its quite distinctive skyline. For Bombay Christopher London gives us splendid detail of the personal and professional backgrounds of George Wittet and John Begg, who were responsible for some of the major public buildings in Bombay at the turn of the century, notably the General Post Office, the Prince's Dock Custom House at Ballard Estate, the Prince of Wales Museum, the Royal Institute of Science and the Gateway of India.

The three remaining essays add further dimensions to the discussion. Whereas official and princely architectural patronage is now receiving attention, the buildings created by or for India's emerging commercial leaders have been largely ignored, as has smaller scale domestic architecture of the period. Andrew Robinson's discussion of the domestic buildings of the wealthy Tagore family on their Bengal estates and at Shantiniketan raises a number of fascinating questions about the patron's intention and the development of his commission. There are no prepared designs for these buildings and few written comments. And to our surprise the writings of the most famous member of the family, the poet, philosopher and artist Rabindranath Tagore, while reflecting his emotional reactions to the houses he inhabited and had built, show no interest in the description of either buildings or spaces. Mary Ann Steggles's essay on public commemorative statues overturns the assumptions that these imported works of art immortalised only the British, were entirely funded by the British community or were the focus of sustained iconoclasm after independence. In fact, many such statues were largely and sometimes wholly funded by local rulers and local communities and the majority remain in India, many still in public spaces. Partha Mitter's article on Bombay's J. J. School of Art points once again to the discrepancy between avowed British intentions in relation to the arts and the actual effect of their actions. The J. J. School, established to train artisans and maintain traditional skills became finally the leading centre for the study of western academic art.

Those interested in the history of the British colonial presence in India, particularly those wishing to explore further the interaction between Indian traditional thought and practices and the British concerns with correctness, utility and modernity, will find much of interest in this volume.

Deborah Swallow is keeper of Indian art, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Architecture in Victorian and Edwardian India

Editor - Christopher London
ISBN - 81 85026 26 2
Publisher - Marg Publications
Price - Rs.1200, £35.00, $53.00
Pages - 148pp

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