“The photographer is perhaps the best architectural critic, for by felicitous framing and selection, he can communicate direct and powerful comments both in praise and protest. He can also discover and reveal architecture where none was intended by creating abstract compositions of an architectonic quality-perhaps from a ruined wall, an old motor car, or a pile of box lids…”
– Eric de Mare
In the late 1950s, post-colonial India began to see the development of agriculture and industrialisation, outlaid within its Nehruvian development model, it also saw the unraveling of a futurist desire for modernist architecture and cities symbolising the ‘free and democratic spirit’ of a new born nation. ‘Modern/Progressive’ became the key conceptual and political category, and this set the tone for thinking about the nation, education, architecture, industries, identities, the standard of living, and lifestyle.
Delhi as the national capital, went through a huge expansion and was refashioned into various ordered zones/divisions along the lines of the first modern urban planning in the country, (Master Urban Plan, DDA, 1962), under the supervision of US based planner Albert Mayer. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), a single planning and controlling government body established in 1957, conceptualised its master plan to cope with the haphazard growth of the city, following the huge numbers of migrants that had streamed into the city during partition and after Independence. From the 1950s to 1980s, new areas were earmarked to be part of city’s modern plan. The separation of work and industry, the discourse against congestion, and the marking of legal and non-legal habitation in city was the central thrust of the plan.¹ It ensued materialization of neatly charted architectural spaces like multi-storey factories in commercial spaces, housing complexes, skyscrapers, hotels, cultural and public buildings. Examples of these include, Gandhi Memorial Hall (1962), Indian Institute of Delhi (1968), Hall of Nations ( Pragati Maidan, 1972), India International Center (1962), The Escort Factory ( 1964), the Ford Foundation Building (1968) and the Asian Games Village (1984).
As huge public debates engulfed the views of the public around issues of national importance such as the bullock-cart economy vs. modern economy, western modernity vs. non-western society, infrastructure/technology vs. uncouth citizens; a modern architectural plan with cosmopolitan appeal imprinted within the design of cost-effective (steel, cement and glass) high rise public buildings emerged as a visible sign of the nation’s aspiration for modernisation. Free from colonial influences and neo-classical architectural baggage, it was between the 1950s to the 1980s, that the first generation of Indian architects trained under Walter Gropius (Habib Rahman at MIT in Boston) and Frank Llyod Wright (Gautam Sarabhai), along with others like Achyut Kanvinde from Harvard and Charles Correa from MIT, who arrived in Delhi to be part of the challenge of constructing a new architectural language for sovereign India.
Interestingly, Madan Mahatta, the first trained photographer in post-Independent India from the Guilford School of Arts and Crafts, Surrey, England, happened to be commissioned by these architects to capture ‘making’ of their buildings. On his return from England in 1954, Mahatta joined his family studio (located at Connaught place, Delhi) and worked across all genres of photography. He was the first one to work with a Linhof camera and wide angle lenses, which allowed him to develop some of his finest architectural photographs. Shot on medium format monochromatic film, the ‘Delhi Modern Architecture’ series taken over 30 years (1950s -1980s) captures the modernist regularity within Delhi buildings by focusing on the cubic shapes, freely composed facades, flat roofs and neatly charted out horizontal and vertical lines. Flooded in natural light and shot from different angles, Mahatta’s photographic compositions bring forth the architectonic quality and visual clarity, to the modernist order, volume and form of the buildings. Documenting three decades of architectural vision, these images not only capture the interplay of form, function and aesthetics within modern designs of early post independence architects but also narrate the history of India’s struggle to find its own modernist identity.
- Ravi Sundaram, Pirate Modernity (Routledge, 2010)