Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Lutyens: The man behind the myth

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In his remorseless climb up the greasy pole he was like Thackeray’s manipulative, social-climbing heroine Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.

Column in Business Standard, June 16, 2020

Were Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect credited with creating New Delhi, alive today, he would have relished the vilification of his name. He would have loved nothing more than the “elitist” label — all his life, he yearned to belong to Britain’s moneyed and titled class. In his remorseless climb up the greasy pole he was like Thackeray’s manipulative, social-climbing heroine Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.

For the same reasons, would have scorned Narendra Modi’s desire to irrevocably alter the Central Vista. In 2019, Mr Modi declared: “I could neither make the Lutyens’s world a part of me nor me a part of them…I am a representative of the non-elite world. For me, everything is about the people of India.” Coming from a leader sequestered in grand garden bungalows would have gleefully pounced upon the prime minister’s false egalitarian pretence.

In many respects, the phrase “Delhi” is a misnomer. Though he helped choose the site and create a blueprint for the imperial capital, Lutyens only designed select buildings — Rashtrapati Bhavan, India Gate, a few princely palaces such as Hyderabad House and less than a handful of bungalows. North and South Block and Parliament House are the work of his close friend from their pupillage days Herbert Baker, with whom he later fell out bitterly. Several others who designed important buildings in the 26 sq. km. Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ) have faded into footnotes — Robert Tor Russell (Connaught Place, Teen Murti House, Gymkhana Club), the brothers Charles and Francis Blomfield (Jaipur House) and Walter George (Modern School, Regal Cinema, Ambassador hotel) to name a few.

What kind of buildings, who for, and what they might look like, were questions fiercely debated in Parliament and the media, once imperial firman in 1911 decreed the capital’s move from Calcutta to Delhi (Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi by Robert Grant Irving, OUP 1981). The prestige then — as now — of occupying a Lutyens-era dwelling was seen as the glittering prize for a hard-won career, the calling card of having arrived. To this day, it carries the indelible imprimatur of power.

Lutyens reserved contempt for Indian architecture though he used some of its elements. He dismissed Mughal architecture as “piffle” and pilloried “pointy” Islamic arches. Humayun’s Tomb, he scoffed, was “veneered joinery” and “chhatris are stupid, useless things.” Of his 1921 War Memorial (India Gate), the architectural historian Giles Tillotson in Delhi Darshan: The History and Monuments of India’s Capital (Penguin; 2019) writes: “Modelled on the triumphal arches of Rome (and later European derivatives like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris), it was meant to appear, above all, imperial.”

By today’s definition Lutyens was an unapologetic White supremacist: “The very low intellect of the natives spoils much, I do not think it is possible for Indians and Whites to mix freely; mixed marriage is filthy and beastly and they ought to get the sanitary office to interfere.” His prejudice deepened the rift in his marriage when his wife fell headlong for cranky Indian spirituality.

Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944) was born the tenth of 14 children of an impecunious artist who struggled to feed and clothe his brood. All his life “Ned” (as he was called) sought to erase “the squalor and social humiliation” of his pa­st, according to his great-granddaughter, the historian Jane Ridley, in her biography Edwin Lutyens: His Life, His Wife, His Work (Pimlico; 2003). Deeply ashamed of his relations, Ned’s driving ambition was shaped by well-connected women as stepping stones in his meteoric rise.

The first was the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll with whom he forged a long, lucrative partnership to design cou­n­try houses in a consummate new style. The second was Lady Emily Lytton, the left-on-the-shelf daughter of former viceroy Lord Lytton whom he married in 1897. He shamelessly milked her family for its connections. “Ha! Hee! What can we get out of her?” he wrote to Emily when she described a rich widow. Soon he was designing innovative mansions for weal­thy clients and cultivating political connections for government jobs. Unques­ti­onably a polymath, from his head sprang a stream of original ideas and designs, not just for buildings but for furniture, lighting fixtures, even a magnificent doll’s house. As draughtsman, his pen was in ceaseless motion — producing plans, caricatures, puns and acid putdowns.

Curiously, India was the pivot that precariously balanced the couple’s opposing trajectories and collapsing marriage. As Lutyens’s fame grew, Emily’s immersion in Theosophy and the occult became obsessively focused on the teenage Krishnamurti, launched in Britain by Annie Besant in 1911, as the “World Teacher”. By the 1920s, the earl’s daughter was “travelling third class, serving Marmite and sleeping in Indian railway stations” while the impoverished pain­ter’s son, now elevated to “Sir Edwin”, fo­u­nd solace in the arms of Lady Sackville, the spoilt mother of writer Vita Sackville-West. Despite their long estrangement, Ned and Emily exchanged 5,000 letters that are the core of Prof. Ridley’s biography.

Lutyens adroitly worked the levers of power to gain the New Delhi commission and trampled any objection underfoot during its completion (1912-31). He was an implacable foe. Herbert Baker and he quarrelled but the final breakdown came over the slope to the apex of Raisina Hill -— the two had signed a memo finalising a gradient of 22.5 degrees. But when completed, Lutyens found, to his horror, that it obscured the portico and dome of his masterpiece from the base. He moved heaven and earth to get it changed but failed. Calling it his “Bakerloo” he railed against his erstwhile friend for the rest of his days.

This tireless, irascible, remarkable man with provocative opinions and prodigious output would have found much to dislike about the occupants of the city that bears his name today. Most of all he would have loathed their mangled pronunciation of his name (which is of German origin). It is not “Loot-yuns”, or “Lath-yanes” or “Lew-tins”. Jane Ridley clarifies: Lut (to rhyme with hut)-chens.

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