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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 25, New Delhi, June 6, 2020

Central Vista enshrines the history of the nation’s most central institutions | Swapna Liddle

Saturday 6 June 2020

A Place in our History

by Swapna Liddle, MAY 24 2020

When the British government first considered transferring the capital of their Raj from Calcutta to Delhi, they knew that it would be an unpopular decision among powerful British commercial and political interests, most of whom were connected with Calcutta. In the minds of the decision-makers – the Viceroy, Hardinge, and the Secretary of State, Crewe, however, there were considerations that outweighed this.

Hardinge had first justified the proposal to Crewe in these words – “Delhi is still a name to conjure with. It is intimately associated in the minds of the Hindus with sacred legends which go back even beyond the dawn of history (a reference to the belief that ancient Indraprastha, the capital of the legendary Pandavas, was located in Delhi)...To the Mohammedans, it would be a source of unbounded gratification to see the ancient capital of the Moguls restored to its proud position as the seat of the Empire...and among the masses of the people, it is still viewed as the seat of the former empire.” The argument appealed to Crewe, who agreed as to the importance of Delhi in the popular mind and felt that the transfer would end up “satisfying the historic sense of millions.”
Parallels have o en been drawn between New Delhi and other capital cities it no doubt drew inspiration from. The centerpiece of New Delhi is the Central Vista, a grand avenue edged with green and bounded by monumental buildings, which remind one of the Washington Mall as also the Champs Elysees in Paris. The impulses, however, were di fferent. Washington was a capital built to fulfil the aspirations of a new nation. Though Paris was an old city, Hausmann’s redesign in the second half of the 19th century, consciously sought to modernise it through broad avenues, parks and squares, cutting through its medieval neighbourhoods.

In contrast, the purported aim of the British in Delhi was to go back to history, in a manner of speaking. This underlying theme was reiterated time and again. The announcement of the intention to transfer the capital had been made by the British monarch, George V, during the Delhi Durbar on December 12, 1911. Three days later, foundation stones of the new capital were laid in the vicinity of the Durbar site. The invitations that were sent out to attendees at the ceremony described the event as “inaugurating the restoration of Delhi as the Capital of India by laying foundation-stones.” (emphasis added)

This was a strategy by a colonial state which was facing a crisis. The rising national movement was posing a challenge to its legitimacy, and repressive measures such as the partition of Bengal in 1905, had not only failed to quell the opposition, but had intensified the national movement. Going back to Delhi was meant to be a reassurance to the people of India that their sentiments would be accommodated. This imperative was reflected in the site, town plan and architecture of the city, too. A major point that was made in favour of the site that was chosen – Raisina Hill, and the land to the east of it, was that it overlooked many of Delhi’s older cities

And finally, the architecture of the important government buildings too, in particular Viceroy’s House and the Secretariats, needed to reflect the traditions of Delhi and India. It was again Hardinge who sent out his chief architects, Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, on tours to key sites in North and Central India, to gain inspiration from the best of Indian tradition. The result was the use of red and beige sandstone, which had been used for the monumental architecture of Delhi since the 13th century; the modelling of the dome of Viceroy’s House on the Great Stupa at Sanchi; ancient Indian bell capitals for the Pillars of Dominion placed between the Secretariat Blocks; and countless features of Indian architecture – jalis (pierced stone screens), chhajas (projecting overhangs), chhatris (pillared cupolas), and more.

The Delhi project did not, after all, stem the tide of nationalist demands, mainly because gestures alone, however attractive, could not hide the reality of a government that ruled over a nation for the benefit of another. The New Delhi project held the promise of a greater participation in the government by the Indian people, but this promise could only be realised a er Independence was achieved on August 15, 1947. The buildings that had given the illusion of a new India now realised their true promise, re-inscribed by the history of the newly-independent nation. It was under the Stupa-shaped dome of Viceroy’s House (now called Rashtrapati Bhavan) that the first government of Independent India was sworn in. In Parliament House, the Constituent Assembly debated and brought into being the Indian Constitution. The Secretariat blocks came to be occupied by ministers and bureaucrats of a democratic state. The grand avenue, or Kingsway, rechristened Rajpath, came to be used for the annual celebration of the anniversary of the inauguration of the Republic.

New Delhi was formally inaugurated in 1931, and the British ruled India for a mere 16 years a er that. For the greater part of its existence, more than 70 years, the history of the Central Vista has been the history of Indian governments and Indian people. Its buildings enshrine the history of the most central institutions of the nation.

(The writer is a historian and author of ‘Connaught Place and the making of New Delhi’)

(Courtesy: Deccan Herald, 24 May 2020)

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