Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Reincarnations: Modernity and Modern Architecture in South Asia

October, 1997

Published in Constructing New Worlds, Proceedings of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture International Conference at Rio de Janeiro, 1998. Originally published in An Architecture of Independence: The Making of Modern South Asia, eds. Kazi K Ashraf and James Belluardo, The Architectural League of New York and Princeton Architectural Press, 1997.


India’s tryst with modernity has been a complex one. While architectural modernism might have begun in the Indian subcontinent in the late 1940s, the roots of modernity are much older. Although modernity is intimately tied to the colonial experience, there is a fundamental difference between the two. While colonialism flourished on maintaining a categoric difference between the East and the West, modernism was articulated about an ideal of blurring boundaries, and creating a universal civilization and history. The galvanizing call was for the commonality of the human tribes, a single trajectory for mankind.


But the fundamental character of modernism, its monolithic nature and its premise that a single international mode is not only possible but imperative, turned out to be its biggest enigma. Scepticism would emerge around the function of flattening those cultural topographies that bestowed identity and character. Paul Ricouer saw this project as a subtle destruction of the “creative nucleus of great cultures.” Other interpretations would indicate a dubious relationship between modernity and globalization, and between the enchanting image of a universal civilization and the ominous reality of a single global economy.


There is a further complexity about the east-west conundrum. In the transaction between the two, it is not quite clear what transpires: who sees, who lends, and who borrows. When Edmund Husserl, the leading German philosopher, announced sometime in the late 1930s the historical inevitability of “the Europeanization of all foreign parts of mankind,” he was restating an earlier perception: that Europe alone can provide other traditions with a universal framework of meaning and understanding, and the context and the categories for the exploration of all traditions of thought. These other traditions, Husserl pronounced, will have to Europeanize themselves, whereas “we, if we understand ourselves properly, will never, for example, Indianize ourselves.”


Is the Europeanization of the planet the true telos of mankind? Wilhelm Halbfass, who introduced this poignant discussion in India and Europe (1988), thinks that in fact Europe itself has been superseded and left behind by the modern Westernized world; as he puts it, it is not the master and protagonist of the process of Europeanization anymore. Curiously, European culture has remained restrictive, seeing the world only through its own eyes and denying other possibilities, while the “others” appear to be in a more dynamic situation, where seeing the world is not exhausted by European categories.


In recent studies, Ashis Nandy brings up this critical theme observing that the West does not incorporate India in its battleground, whereas “in the East the battle has involved the West ... India has tried to capture the differentia of the West within its own cultural domain, not merely on the basis of a view of the West as politically intrusive or as culturally inferior, but as a subculture, meaningful in itself and important, though not all-important, in the Indian context.”


The noted Indian thinker Jarava Lal Mehta responded earlier to the notion of the “Europeanization of the Earth” by accepting the challenge of “belonging, irretrievably and inescapably to this ‘one world’,” to the global presence of Western science and technology. He insisted that “...there is no other way open, to us in the East, but to go along with this Europeanization and to go through it. Only through this voyage into the foreign and the strange can we win back our own self-hood; here as elsewhere, the way to do what is closest to us is the longest way back.”


An Indian Modernity

Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) inaugurated the journey into the foreign that would lead to the idea of selfhood – the basis of the “modern project” in India. Learning from Arab philosophy, Unitarianism and Vedic scriptures, Rammohun, in his various writings and reformist enterprises, unambiguously proposed the primacy of rationality and inquiry over habitual slavishness, and opened a modern quest of the self through the world of reason and comparison. Although his teachings influenced contending groups, it nonetheless became the basis of establishing a humanist world-view and rational dimension to modern India, Rammohun Roy’s immediate influence was on the major movement that came to be known as the “Bengal Renaissance.” Although generated by an elite class in Calcutta, the movement encompassed a whole array of creative activities in the social and religious realm, in literature, theater and art, that began in the mid-nineteenth century and continued into the first half of this one. Bankim Chandra Chaterji, RabindranathTagore, Aurobindo Ghosh, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Stella Kramrisch, and later Satyajit Ray, in one way or another, belonged to this movement. The Bengal Renaissance did not prescribe a single coherent objective; in fact, there was much ideological conflicts among various groups. But by the turn of the century, however, a modern ideal was strongly propounded through a diverse set of concepts and aspirations: from rationalism and scientific objectivity to liberal humanism and internationalism, and from Upanisadic spiritualism and Vedic metaphysics to Indian nationalism and social realism.


The movement, in essence, was a complex dynamic of acceptance and resistance. Indian intellectuals resisted both the trauma of colonialism and the tyranny of tradition. It involved a rejection of the alien intruder/dominator who is however to be imitated and surpassed by his own standards, and a disavowal of certain ancestral ways that did not conform to newer notions of humanism. Simultaneously, acceptance involved embracing, from a global repository, anything that assured a new degree of social and intellectual liberation. It also involved an inward journey, a rediscovery of the “self,” a conscious archaeological excavation of one’s own assumed cultural strata in order to find a mooring in the turmoil engendered by colonialism.

This inward journey, the awareness and understanding of “self,” was however double-edged. While it was a moment of self-discovery, it was also a moment of distancing oneself from the familiar and the habitual. Self-discovery presupposed a sense of alienation and remoteness from tradition, as Jarava Lal Mehta remarked; it does not happen so long as “we unreflectively live under its domination, or fail to see the novel present as it actually is and claims It is from this condition, where tradition is no longer available unreflectively, that the idea of cultural identity, be it national or architectural, ultimately emerges.”


The Swadeshi Ideology

Art was one of the earliest sites of the fabrication of a modern Indian identity. Engendered by the movement around the Partition of Bengal, the rise of Swadeshi (pro-indigenous) ideology would generate a strong feeling for the idea of a nation, and in turn create a search for “national” elements in literature, music, theater, and above all in the realm of art and painting. It was through the ideas and activities of E.B. Havell, the famous educator at the Calcutta Art School, and the paintings of Abanindranath Tagore, that art became a site for nationalist discourse. Abanindranath’s work was projected as the rediscovery of the aesthetic ideal of India. The implication was broader; it was no less than the political project of national rediscovery. Through the Havell-Abanindranath discourse, art – lndian art as well as Indian ethos – came to be regarded as “essentially idealistic, mystic, symbolic and transcendental.”


The longing for a spiritualized Indian art was, however, sharply criticized from various directions: from the historian Akshay Maitreya, who commented that one does not produce Indian painting just by painting in India, to Benoy Sarkar who, writing from Paris in 1922, extolled the necessity if not the inevitability of a “truly International modem style of art.” It was also argued that, in their attempt to confront the colonizer, the Swadeshi traditionalists took refuge in a fabricated pre-colonial past, never questioning which or whose past was being recovered, whose past suppressed. This invariably led to eulogizing “a pre-capitalist social order” while ignoring “the grim realities of a people striving under sub-human conditions.”


Rabindranath Tagore, the poet-philosopher, also moved away from the agitational ideology of Swadeshism to seek more “universal” values. Although, he appears disengaged from social realities, and actually comes close to the idea of the spiritual-artistic figure, he remained sharply critical of what he saw as a contrived lndian art. “When in the name of Indian art,” Tagore wrote, “we cultivate with a deliberate aggressiveness a certain bigotry born of habit of a past generation, we smother our souls under idiosyncrasies unearthed from buried centuries ... I strongly urge our artists vehemently to deny their obligation carefully to produce something that can be labelled Indian Art according to some old world mannerism.” Tagore was quite categorical about the universality of human creativity, in “the truth of the deep unity of human psychology” which would urge the breaking down of caste restriction in human cultures and the capacity to combine and produce new variations.


All these would mean a sharp criticism of Swadeshi ideology. What appeared to be a return to an Indian ethos could also be contested as a selective and exclusive cultural formulation. In the end, it seemed that Swadeshism was tragically Janus-faced: It formed a virile articulation of the nation and was the first aggressive intellectual search for independent genres, but, ironically, it also consolidated the religious divide and the partition process.


An Indian Architecture

The project of aesthetic and national recovery also laid claim to the idea of an Indian architecture. Predominantly practised and professed by English architects until Independence, architecture was either in the romantic-domestic or the archaeological-monumental mode. The architect Claude Batley in Bombay and the art educator Havell in Calcutta were instrumental in the early part of this century in installing different ideas of tradition in education and practice.


Batley’s research into the domestic tradition served as a basis for a projected resurgence of an lndian architecture. Otherwise, tradition was primarily defined in the stylistic synthesis known as Anglo-Indian. Although there was some illuminating work, it was confined to palace architecture. Edwin Lutyens’ capitol at Delhi (completed in 1930), remains the most monumental example of this synthetic creation.


A deeper approach was taken by the Austrian-born art historian and theorist Stella Kramrisch. While she introduced modern European art and art theories into the Calcutta circle, Kramrisch made the strongest theoretical interpretation of India’s ancient sastric architecture. In her magnum opus, The Hindu Temple (1946), she argued for a metaphysical substratum to India’s sacred architecture that integrated architectural form, sculptural iconography, symbolic image, myth and metaphysical conceptions, which she substantiated through interpretations of texts, rituals and architectural form. She was one of the earliest interpreters of the mandala, seeing in it simultaneously a ritual diagram, a cosmic model, and the basis of temple construction. This was a very different approach to Indian architecture from the earlier descriptive archaeological methods of James Fergusson, Percy Brown, and John Marshall, and even the romantic model of Batley.


Meanwhile, both Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore made reference to building as part of their larger philosophical and social vision. Gandhi’s consciously simple buildings, particularly his house built in the ashram at Wardha in Central India, embodied his ideology of self-reliance and indigenous craft and ecological principles. Tagore’s “academic village” in Santiniketan was an architectural manifestation of his poetic ideal of harmony with nature. Although laden with moral and ethical lessons, both ideas remained more or less marginalized from the chaotic, vital social conditions of the 1930s and 40s, and from the enthusiastic orientation of an increasingly powerful group towards building a modern industrial state.


A Modern Vision

It was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, who would articulate the spirit of the time, and define a brave new world unfettered by tradition and medievalism. Although Nehru would attempt to describe the “spirit” of India as it had persisted over thousands of years, he would declare that “India must break with much of her past and not allow it to dominate the present. Our lives are encumbered with the dead wood of this past; all that is dead and has served its purpose has to go.” In close proximity to the rational dimension of the Bengal Renaissance, Nehru would pledge his allegiance to what he would see as the two ideals of his age, humanism and the scientific spirit. The orientation unmistakably was towards a secular and democratic order combined with an industrial and scientific spirit. The heroic optimism of the 1950s was concretized in architectural terms by Le Corbusier in Chandigarh (1951-65), the capitol of the Punjab.


In post-Independence India, and in almost all South Asian nations, the name Chandigarh reverberated, despite the controversy it created, as the most powerful Asian version of the modernist vision. In Islamabad, Pakistan also built its future-oriented alternative. Although both Chandigarh and Islamabad originated in the traumatic history of Partition, both remained for a while shining models of a new urban and architectural possibility. The state endorsement of architectural modernism was rooted not only in industrial technology and the new trans-geographic realities, but also in the notions of universal history and free society.


Modernism was then seen not just as an aesthetical device, but as part of an ethical, visionary and conceptual approach to confronting social realities and dealing with the deprivation and discord of humanity in general. By the end of the 1950s, architectural modernism seemed quite established in South Asia, dramatically changing the landscape of the region. The proponents of modernist ideas were making their mark everywhere, from Delhi, Ahmedabad, and Bombay to Dhaka, Karachi and Colombo. Since the 1930s various modernist architectural and urban models were being proposed for South Asia, from the early Pondicherry Ashram by Antonin Raymond (1938) to the intervention of numerous foreign architects, including Otto Koenigsberger, Richard Neutra, Edward Durell Stone, Constantin Doxiadis, Gio Ponti, and Paul Rudolph. However, it was the work of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, in India and Bangladesh, that left the deepest impression on an incipient modern architectural culture.


Achyut Kanvinde, Balkrishna Doshi, Charles Correa, Joseph Allen Stein, Habib Rahman, Jeet Malhotra, Laurie Baker, and, a little later, Ranjit Sabikhi, Raj Rewal, Uttam Jain and quite a few others began to define a contemporary tradition in India. In Sri Lanka, Geoffrey Bawa and Minnette de Silva, and, in Pakistan, Abid Ali Mirza in his brief career, and Muzharul Islam (later in Bangladesh) became the most notable architects to articulate the language and scope of a new architecture.


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