Architecture has always been intrinsically linked with politics. The built environment through its physical and symbolic presence forms the background of civilization. It is used as such by those in the positions of power to orient the zeitgeist as per their priorities. Therefore you find that the pattern of development in most developing nations is a constant work in progress with the shifting priorities of every political regime. Every political authority intends to assert its supremacy in evaluating a unique and infallible trajectory of development for its country. Through this assertion they try to leave an indelible mark on the country’s landscape, frozen in time to commemorate their contribution to building the nation.
A nation is a fixed geographical territory having a common language of communication. These are said to be the critical minimum markers of identifying a nation. The state is a legal authority establishing the political criterion to rule over a demarcated territory. The nation-state as such can be described as a shared territory of a linguistic collective ruled by a commonly agreed-upon political authority. Political leaders often try to define the aspects most crucial to the identity of the nation. They try to control the narrative of nationalism to consolidate their ideology and to gain popular support thereof. The spirit of nationalism grows out of the desire to establish a strong identity of the nation.
‘Nationalism is a function of the nation. Conceptually, it consolidates the aspects of the nation such as democracy, territory, and power and endorses the value systems that ensure equal rights and justice.’ (On Nationalism, Thapar Romila)
Architecture being a key factor in building the identity of the nation becomes a potent tool for embracing and translating the spirit of nationalism in tangible form. One can map the shifts in the political agendas through careful observation of the built environment produced over time in a country. Looking at a country like India, we can certainly see the nationalist ideals percolating in architectural production in the country. From the first decade of post-Independence where the spirit of nationalism that fuelled the freedom struggle echoed values of equality and secularism, to the more recent times where religious polarity seems to have become the mainstay of the political power, architecture has always been utilized to strengthen the political ideology of those in power.
In the form of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the new nation got a leader, a voice that tried to etch a plan of development that endorsed the virtues of democracy at its core. He was carefully considerate of the ideals that focused on promoting the traditional systems upheld by leaders such as Gandhi and Tagore but also recognized the universal significance of the western trajectory of modernity. He identified the most crucial task of the nation would be to protect the ideals of democracy and to promote a model of development based on equality, extending social opportunities, and economic development. Science and technology were the two pillars on which he envisioned the new nation to be built. These aspects reflect in the architectural articulation of several projects built at the time.
The Gandhi Ghat Memorial in Barrackpore, West Bengal built-in 1949 for example visibly demonstrates the search for a new language of design. The design tried to represent the values that Gandhi, the father of the nation stood for such as his belief in the possibility of a secular India, the peaceful co-existence of different communities, and the fine balance between tradition and modernity that he encouraged. Architect Habib Rahman tried to incorporate these aspects in his design by using the traditional Shikhar of the Hindu temples and placing the Islamic dome on top of it, while the cross formed by the projecting cantilever canopy with the rising Shikhar was meant to represent the Christian cross. This pluralistic symbol was made in reinforced concrete with no embellishments and represented the restrained modern sensibility of the new India through its design. It was an expression symbolizing the modern India that strived to establish its own unique identity in the world.
There were consistent efforts taken to search for a language that would represent the ideals of the nation as established during the freedom struggle. It was important to focus on a path of progress that was based on science and technology to display the way forward for democracy. A nation where people from diverse religious, caste, linguistic backgrounds could reside in harmony was the message propagated. These efforts were taken to restrict regional identities from grabbing popular attention. The government was at the helm of building operations and it made sure to continue building in a manner that would be closely attuned to the pulse of the nation. The planning of Chandigarh by Le Corbusier was the mega-project conceived to inspire the first generation of architects in India and give them a reference point for new thinking in design. Chandigarh symbolized modern India’s aspirations to undertake bold and massive challenges to build the nation based on its values.
Since then, with every radical shift in political ideology, one can see the difference in the built form associated with its time. Be it the times of Indira Gandhi, the liberalization of the economy in the ’90s, or the more recent times under the leadership of Mr. Narendra Modi. The current decade especially is a stark contrast from the earlier ideas of nationalism in India. The recent political agenda is hinged on communal segregation and has effectively made bold strides to erase other voices and their legacy and establish political supremacy through a strictly singular narrative. This is also fairly reflected in the policy initiatives or the motives behind the development of some significant public buildings. The Kashi Vishwanath Dham Project is an apt example echoing the new paradigm of nationalism in India. It has strategically undermined the historic presence of cultural and religious plurality by focusing solely on the Vishwanath temple precinct via its design.
There is a clear preference that is highlighted and the debates are reoriented towards the facilities provided and the design interventions implemented to distract the audience from the under riding intentions. The Government is unabashed in its approach and makes decisive moves time and again to polarise the diverse population of the country based on strict religious and caste lines. This outlook of development where regional or religious identities are given a central place in the national identity is quite clearly an antithesis to the founding idea of nationalism in the country. However, what is apparent here is how intricately architecture gets woven into the larger political discourse. The search for an architecture that would symbolize the values of the nation and represent its identity is an act of nationalism itself.