Before the concept of ‘modernism’, the face of Indian architecture and its development were difficult to grasp, as numerous styles were implemented within the name of development. If one wants to draw the timeline of the architecture in India before Independence, it can be broadly stated as: colonial architecture, neoclassical architecture, and Indo Saracenic architecture. 

The never-ending British Raj in India constructed some magnificent buildings that still stand strong and are well-equipped today. These buildings represent the vision of the Britishers as rulers of the nation. 

Pre-independence architecture in India - Sheet1
Colonial India_getty images

Late 19th century (second half)

Colonizing most of India, the British Empire attained its peak in the late 19th century. At that time, Calcutta (present-day Kolkata) was announced as the capital, also known as the FIRST PHASE of colonialism. The city was embellished with new buildings, suiting the taste of the English men. Calcutta was ornamented with edifices in European neoclassicism, a tendency to design new buildings in ancient Greco-Roman style.

Elaborating with an example, great Palladian classical style influences like a dome, two-dimensional walls, reticent decor, symmetrical form, and massive pillars arranged linearly can be noticed in the facade elements of the residence of the Viceroy of India, the Rashtrapati Bhawan.

Pre-independence architecture in India - Sheet2
Rashtrapati Bhavan_Wikipedia

Another example of Raj Bhawan of Kolkata, where an ornamented pediment rests upon a series of pillars, following asymmetry can be seen. 

Pre-independence architecture in India - Sheet3
Raj Bhavan Kolkata_telegraphindia.com.

The foreign design reeked of the corinthian columns, portico facade, ornamented pediments, and pantheonic domes. Design during British rule was almost the idea of British architects only. As for colonial architecture, Indians were not trusted. Moreover, no institutions were supporting the course to bring up architects from colonial India. 

To establish British rule visually, government buildings and public buildings became the highlight of the colonial era. In Bombay (present-day Mumbai), the Gothic revival was in order. The focus shifted from Calcutta to Mumbai, announcing the SECOND PHASE of British rule. The Programme was to drive the architecture towards ambitious buildings with a gothic aesthetic. Buildings started to grow vertically, standing tall and majestic. 

Pre-independence architecture in India - Sheet4
The Mumbai harbour in the mid-19th century_columbia.edu

The ahead of time construction of railway lines, the Suez canal, which made the accessibility to India closer to Bombay rather than Calcutta or Madras, presented Bombay as a Utopia, the most advanced city of the time. 

Gateway to the worldVictoria Terminus Railway Station (1887)is the best example of gothic colonial architecture. Highly embellished with edifices, gargoyles, centrally located massive dome, towers and spires, and a series of arches maintains the gothic look of the structure. 

Pre-independence architecture in India - Sheet5
Victoria Terminus Mumbai_dailsahab.com

The library and the convocation hall of Bombay University (1870), designed by George Gilbert Scott and Victoria Memorial (1906) in Calcutta, are also considered suitable representatives. Moreover, the colonial government turned cultural policy in the direction of adopting Indian traditional factors into colonial buildings, which resulted in the birth of Indo Saracenic architecture of the 1880s.

End of the colonial Architecture

This was captured as the turning point in the history of the British empire as they shifted the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. This is also remarked as the THIRD PHASE in the story of colonial architecture. 

Delhi was the centre of focus as the entire empire was to be moved to the capital. Eminent architects like Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker were commissioned to replan Shahjahanabad as per the Indo Saracenic reforms. They designed the monumental urban street complex, an impressive layout of avenues, and realized the governmental buildings like Viceroy’s House and The Secretariat.

Pre-independence architecture in India - Sheet6
Main facade of Viceroy House, Delhi_wiki.org
Pre-independence architecture in India - Sheet7
The Secretariat Building, New Delhi_wiki.org

The architectural style represented features like open verandahs, tall, slender windows, lavish colonnades, chajjas, cornice jaalis, simple and elegant facades with a balanced proportion. On a broader scale, wide avenues were planned with a radial and diagonal running road network. The main axis formed triangles and hexagons, taking into account the visual hierarchy of the built form. 

Beyond the 1930s, no Neo-classical style was observed, but new thinking of International Style came into existence. It can be seen in A.G. Shoesmiths St. Martin’s Garrison Church (1931) in New Delhi. This style can be considered a slight shift in the pattern of design and architecture as it somewhat fostered the modern approach. The change in perspective can be seen as a plain facade, monochromatic material, and minimalism was praised.

The Garrison Church, Delhi Cantonment_Riba Collection

Parallelly running Dutch movement had very little influence in India. Forward to the early 1940s, classical modernism was taking shape and was amalgamating with expressionism. The period welcomed the highly influential Art Deco Movement in the story of pre-independence architecture. The fundamentals of Art Deco style were that of a streamlined architecture as geometric patterns, clean and simple shapes, vibrant colours, decorative motifs, and stylized facade elements were appreciated. This particular style can be observed in monuments and cinema buildings of that time.

Into Freedom

The golden period of the late 1940s exempted India from the colonial rule of Britishers. Freedom came with a new mindset and battle of contradicting ideologies: The hot topic of the debate revolved around the varying styles of architecture that would paint the picture of an independent nation. 

In the air of a newly independent nation was one question. The question of ‘how much style dyspepsia could a newly independent nation render to establish itself in front of the world and its own eyes?’ 

Reference (figures)

  1. Vadukut, S. (2017). Complex truths about colonial India’s economy. [online] mint. Available at: https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/JFl9w4ydmFuc2Ih3pMKHvJ/Complex-truths-about-colonial-Indias-economy.html
  2. Re-thinkingthefuture.com. (2021). [online] Available at: https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/A1538-Spotting-cultural-expressions-in-Indian-architectural-marvels-Casting-Colonial-Image-3.jpg.
  3. ‌Telegraphindia.com. (2021). [online] Available at: https://assets.telegraphindia.com/telegraph/34b7c4af-e45f-4594-af91-81d36e4fcc31.jpg 
  4. ‌Columbia.edu. (2021). [online] Available at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00routesdata/1500_1599/bombay/drawings/iln1865.jpg
  5. Tmgrup.com.tr. (2021). [online] Available at: https://idsb.tmgrup.com.tr/ly/uploads/images/2021/03/18/thumbs/871×871/101134.jpg
  6. ‌Wikipedia. (2021). Rashtrapati Bhavan. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashtrapati_Bhavan#/media/File:Rashtrapati_Bhavan_flank_perspective1.jpg 
  7. Wikipedia. (2019). Secretariat Building. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secretariat_Building.
  8. ‌Imgix.net. (2021). [online] Available at: https://apollo.imgix.net/content/uploads/2016/05/RIBA30256.jpg?auto=compress 
Author

Vanshika was born and raised in Delhi. She is an aesthete, loves to explore the field of art, design, architecture, and everything in between. When it comes to writing, she has always been that kid confiding into diaries and penning down her thoughts. She strongly believes in learning and re-learning

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