Making horizons, making cities: reading a moment through three languages

milieu: road, traffic, trees, NDMC building and Hanuman Mandir

Buildings are languages spoken at the intersections of space and time in the making of the city. Weathering languages, stealth blue concrete high-rises, sometimes speaking in Russian in the NDMC rashtra bhasha corridors. There is babble on the street, incremental refugee colonies, with Punjabi baroque and Arya Samaj façades, Bengali Victorian art deco balconies and the waltzing circles of Queen’s English in Connaught Place. All speaking simultaneously. The ball is over, and we are still trying to inhabit the circle, standing at E.D Galgotia and Sons, buying out the last copy of Roget’s Thesaurus or Rapidex English Speaking Course. We go back to our Euclidean heteronormative DDA flats, eating roti–sabzi, with garam masala and sambar powder smells wafting by, and arguing about this rumour called ‘Indian modernism’. Also, where do we put the microwave?

This piece is an interjection on the architectural horizons provided by the city of Delhi, which speak many languages of built form. Speaking sometimes alone or in tandem, these horizons function much like the manners in which languages are present in this city settled through innumerable migrations. Looking specifically at modernist architecture, I explore the contexts of its imagery and human and non-human relationships. Modernist architecture, constantly attempts to assert itself, both in form and image, through difference, disregarding the aspects of a shared terrain and horizon of human life, as it emerges in the city. Its dense, dull, high-rise concrete façades beckon normativity, resonating a near-bureaucratic singularity and power over a terrain. The shared cosmologies with people, other built forms and the everyday lives of these buildings then gets removed from our imaginations.

It is three thirty on a summer afternoon of May.

We are walking along the state emporia complex, set up in the 1950s by the national government at the Baba Kharak Singh Marg. My friend adorns a plain grey t-shirt, a staid dull design, image and colour free. His chromophobia and design repulsion is contentedly drawing him to plain daris or with those with simple straight lines on them. His aesthetic universe is devoid of images, shapes, motifs, colours, much like the Calvinist disdain for images. Imagining the reception of innumerable craft forms at the state emporia, we are hoping one of them hits the mark of Bauhaus aesthetics.

horizon: interlacing landscapes of the NDMC building, state emporia and Masjid Irwin

The state emporia complex, set up nearly as a census of the material and ethnic aura of each province of India, promises us diversity and hence the hope that we may find what we are looking for. As we swirl in and out of different emporiums, the excess of things and objects, aromas and languages, aesthetics and designs, crafts and materials starts slipping off the pages of the original classification. There are sandalwood figurines in the Karnataka emporium but also in the Haryana emporium. The Nagaland emporium has what could be Rajasthani cloth pieces, while the Maharashtra one holds some Bengal tant saris. The ubiquitous Kashmiri shawl is turning up in every corner, and we are wondering if the classification is really working or everyone is everything and every language contains a piece from the other. Each emporium is different, but it bears resemblances of the others—of aesthetics, aromas, handwork and weaves—repeating itself through the many languages of making.

As we step out to the main foyer of the emporia, a moment presents itself to us—a landscape in three layers of seeing and speaking.

motif: red sandstone façade of Masjid Irwin

Masjid Irwin provides the first layer to the landscape, standing as a struggling square structure with red sandstone façades and blue dot ornamentation. The mosque is named after Lord Irwin, as was the road it is located on. Today, the road is called Baba Kharak Singh Marg, and the mosque faces it at an awkward angle, preceding the creation of Lutyen’s Delhi. The mosque garbed in the ubiquitous red sandstone façade of Delhi monumental architecture, and repeated in Raj Rewal’s modernist buildings, presents to us an interesting dual moment. Like Benjamin’s Angelus Novus, it holds together a moment of Indian architecture, looking backward and forward at the same time. Today the mosque’s façade is also about blending into the architectural frames of central Delhi, for its survival and continuity.

transcend: the NDMC building rises vertically, posturing to transcend the local habitus

Across the road, one can see a second language—that of the withdrawing orange of the Hanuman Mandir and some trees. Looking utterly subdued today, it seems like the temple is a little miffed and is going to speak only when spoken to, possibly on a Tuesday when the devotees of Hanuman come here. Today, a Wednesday, it sits there sullenly. There is a fast receding habitus of the temple, which normally used to extend both above and below the road to the other side of Baba Kharak Singh Marg. Things seems to have been cleared out. Our central Delhi city does not wish to speak to the temple or to the mosque, making adjustments and changes in the road plans to fit them in.

modernism: the dusty grey-scaled lines of the NDMC building forming a singular horizon

The third language that appears at this point of the horizon is one of Indian modernism. The NDMC building completed in 1983, by architect Kuldip Singh, casts itself towards the sky as a transcendental concrete façade. Synchronizing with my friend’s plain grey t-shirt’s Bauhaus aesthetic, the building affords to the horizon a disjuncture in the history of the city. Washing itself clear of all motifs, colours and patterns, the building’s symmetric grey-scaled lines provide a hegemonic singularity of design, alienated from the milieu of built forms in its surroundings. Jawaharlal Nehru first introduced this language of architecture to the landscape by inviting Le Corbusier and many others in the making of the modern nation state of India. Devoid of all the reluctance and incrementality of the vernacular, this form cleared the babble of other built forms, replacing it with the categorical languages of modernism, engineering brutalism and concrete English. Its modernist horizon stands aloof, pretending it has left behind the habitus of the temples, trees, beggars, tea shops, mosques and footpaths.

The NDMC clerk enters his corner in the morning and says ‘Namaste’ to his fellow cubicle mate, puts his lunch box down (assembled at the DDA-flat kitchen concrete slab) and gets down to work, filling out the forms in Hindi.

—Sarover Zaidi

All photographs by the author. The author wishes to thank Sabih Ahmed and his collection of grey t-shirts for triggering the conversation on Bauhaus aesthetics.

Sarover Zaidi is an anthropologist who curates  a transdisciplinary forum ‘Elementary forms and the city’. She works on architecture, art and urbanism.



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