To understand traditions, one must understand history. The traditions of art and architecture can be understood with the study of our complex history and analysing the impact it has had on our culture and in turn the built spaces we inhabit.
‘Only when lions have historians, will hunters cease to be heroes’–Wendell Phillips
In other words, while history is written by the majority, it is often shaped by the minority and marginalized. The colonization by the British, and the caste system have had a major impact on the marginalized sections of the society. This thus has a direct influence on India’s contemporary architecture. From the question of what tradition in India is we come to what is modern in India and how they are interlinked.
Caste system and its impact on architecture
First mentioned in the Rig Veda, the caste system was the classification of individuals into groups, based on their profession. The Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. According to historians, these divisions were fluid and interchangeable between generations in the early ages. The Atharva Veda depicts the various settlement patterns which exhibit a division in housing between the castes. At the time, the division was done for utilitarian purposes. Given the limited mobility and communication, it was easier for people doing similar tasks to live in a community. Through the ages, this caste classification later developed into a rigid system with Shudras and untouchables being treated with complete disregard. This cultural discrimination had a direct impact on the architecture of the time, with the upper class of society having cleaner homes with basic facilities while the lower caste individuals being outcast and having to live in the city outskirts with little to no amenities. The injustices in their living conditions and their economic conditions go hand in hand. Often living in ‘katchha’ houses, the low cast individuals were deprived of the technological developments occurring in housing. While legally the caste system has been long eradicated, its ripples in architecture are visible in the twenty-first century/till date.
In the modern scenario, the caste system has moulded itself into the economic divide that exists today. The low-income groups comprising of scheduled castes or other backward classes have little to no formal houses, with many still being squatters and forming informal dwellings. This has resulted in a housing crisis.
Using traditional styles of ornamentation and architecture for solving the present housing crisis, seems redundant as traditional architecture such as Mughal architecture or Indo-Saracenic architecture is tainted with oppression, power and autocracy. It is also economically unviable as it is labour intensive. In such a scenario, modern styles of architecture akin to the styles of Charles Correa and B V Doshi seem more democratic and provides a clean slate. At a rural level, vernacular architecture, the concept of constructing one’s own house, can be another approach in solving the housing crisis. Keeping the present urban landscape in mind, scaling contemporary styles with vernacular principles of architecture for solving the urban crisis is an ideal solution, though an extremely difficult one to accomplish. An example of such a blend can be seen in the works of Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who solved the same issue by building half side of a house and leaving the rest for the owner to build themselves.
Colonization and its impact on architecture
The colonization of the Indian subcontinent had the most impact on our ideology of modernism and contemporary architecture. The East India Company presented a picturesque view of the unexplored and mysterious India to entice further exploration. James Fergusson’s ‘History of Indian and Eastern Architecture’ degrades Dravidian architecture that lacked aim, creativity, or direction. The generation of architects that Fergusson belonged to believed that everything beautiful in architecture has already been done by the Romans and Greek and viewed Indian architecture through the lens of bias. This notion of completely degrading Indian architecture stuck till the late 19th century and became the filter through which the outside world saw our art and architecture.
The common British sentiment was to rebuild or recreate Indian architecture. The Public Works Department (PWD) was formed as a colonial body to assert power. It was at this time that classical structures were built. But in 1857 after the first revolt of independence, the British realised the importance of loosening their grip on classicism and adopting a hybrid style of architecture now called the Indo-Saracenic style which merged Indian and European traditions. The Indo-Saracenic style came into physical form in the way of public buildings. It was also widely accepted by the Indian elite caste as a mark of status symbol. Anthony King’s ‘Colonial Urban Development’ shows us how the colonizers used our cities as the ‘ideal laboratory’ for experimenting with their city plans and principles. Norma Evenson’s ‘The Indian Metropolis’ mentions her growing concerns about the ‘Indianness’ of these Indian cities. For her, these cities have been “a theatre for the demonstration of European architectural planning concepts”.
Post-colonial times during the late 19th and early 20th century saw an important debate between the revival of pure Indian architecture and the continuation of the European contemporary. For instance, Partha Mitter’s ‘Much maligned monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art’ talks about how Bengal art school scholars, were encouraged to discard hybridity and embrace Indian art. Both the European art historians and the cultural nationalists, with differing ideological stances, desired an art (and architecture) that rejected any Western or colonial influence.
Two buildings during this time show the dichotomy the Indian architects faced during this time. One being the Ashok Hotel (1952) and the other was the Headquarters of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) (1953). The Ashok Hotel represented the Revivalist position, where architects sought motifs from the past to embellish buildings being built with contemporary materials, technology and addressing contemporary functional requirements. The architect of the CSIR building, on the other hand, followed the tenets of the International Modern Style. Charles Correa, B V Doshi and Rewal also identify as a generation of contemporary Indian architects who were negotiating either the difference or synthesis in their architectural works through the objective division of tradition and modernity.
The events of the 200 years of colonisation left an everlasting impact on our country. The rationalisation, standardisation and appropriation of Indian architecture lead our culture to be marginalised and has put our identity in question. Even after independence, the search for a common national identity without any traces of colonialism existed. To put a common national identity in a country as diverse as ours would be ignorant of the various regional traditions, forms and techniques of architecture. to understand a puzzle-like India, we need to understand its numerous pieces of regionalism which make it a whole.
Jyoti Hosagrahar, in her writings, articulates her anxieties about the identity of Indian architecture and the role of contemporary architectural education in South Asia. The first generation of architects studying in these British established colleges in India, found themselves searching for their architecture in the curriculum.
Today, walking around any major city in India feels like walking in a time capsule. From traditional Hindu styles to Mughal architecture, Indo-Saracenic and later into and contemporary architecture, one discovers snippets of history in every corner. India’s modern looks just like its cities. It is an amalgamation of centuries of knowledge, developments, cultures, and invasions. Our cities show us that these different styles can co-exist. We must in turn imbibe the good practices of our culture and architecture from the past as well as learn from its mistakes and shape our cities today.
- “Indian Architecture’ and the Production of a Postcolonial Discourse: A Study of Architecture + Design (1984-1992);Shaji K. Panicker
- “Decolonization and the Struggle for Liberation in India” (1909-1971); Thierry Di Costanzo and Guillaume Ducœur
- “The Contemporary Architecture of Delhi: a Critical History.” New Delhi, India: TVB School of Habitat Studies, 2003; Menon, AG Krishna.
- “Beyond postcolonialism: New directions for the history of non-western architecture” ; Kathleen James-Chakraborty
- “Architecture and Independence” ; Miki Desai