An Indian wins the Nobel Prize of world architecture and a 90-acre garden with Mughal monuments becomes the new pride of Delhi—it’s a proud moment for India’s built heritage.
Business Standard, March 10, 2018
Were an Indian to have won the Nobel Prize this week media coverage would have gone into meltdown mode. In fact something nearly as momentous happened without the news headlines going into much of a spin. The 90-year-old, Pune-born, Ahmedabad-based Indian architect, town planner and educator B V (“Balkrishna”) Doshi became the first Indian to win the Pritzker Prize — widely regarded as the Nobel of world architecture — in the award’s 49-year history.
In May the venerable Mr Doshi will fly to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum to receive the $100,000 prize and a medallion, inscribed in Latin and English, that sums up the greatest building practice as humankind’s finest achievement in three words: “Firmness” (longevity and sustainability), “Commodity” (functional usefulness) and “Delight” (aesthetic pleasure). In its citation the 10-member international jury, including Britain’s Richard Rogers and India’s trained architect-turned-industrialist Ratan Tata, said Balkrishna Doshi “has always created an architecture that is serious, never flashy or a follower of trends. With a deep sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute to his country and its people through high quality… he has created projects for public administrations and utilities, educational and cultural institutions… His solutions take into account the social, environmental and economic dimensions, and therefore his architecture is totally engaged with sustainability”.
Trained in Mumbai and in Paris under Le Corbusier — with whom he later collaborated in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad — Mr Doshi said, “I owe this prestigious prize to my guru, Le Corbusier.” His own trajectory and vast oeuvre of more than a hundred iconic buildings (from low-cost housing projects in Indore and Ahmedabad to townships in Hyderabad and Kalol to cultural centres in Varanasi and Pune) demonstrate two elemental truths that inform India’s magnificent built heritage over many millennia.
One is India’s ability to imbibe the best of foreign influences; the other to fuse the traditional with the contemporary in a holistic and uniquely Indian expression. What, for instance, would the Taj Mahal be without the contribution of Persian master builders and Italian pietra dura inlay? More recently, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s (AKTC) mammoth restoration of Humayun’s Tomb and its environs, spearheaded by the 44-year-old conservation architect Ratish Nanda, invited master artisans from Uzbekistan to train Indians in the art of ceramic glazed tiles that originally adorned many of the monuments in this World Heritage Site. In their time the creation of soaring Mughal domes, of the scale and perfection of Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj, were considered unparalleled engineering and artistic marvels.
On February 21 the Aga Khan himself came to Delhi to inaugurate the latest phase of the ongoing Humayun’s Tomb and Nizamuddin area’s revitalisation project. This was the clearing, redesign and restoration of the 90-acre Sunder Nursery garden site that has been carried out over the last 10 years, with 20,000 new saplings planted and 15 monuments restored.
The entire Humayun’s Tomb precinct is of course much larger and now covers some 300 acres and 50 monuments, including the urban renewal of the dense Nizamuddin basti centred on the shrine of the revered Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya and the austere but jewel-like grave of the poet Mirza Ghalib. It is now considered one of the most ambitious public-private initiatives of its kind, with restoration work seamlessly allied to social sector interventions in health, education, sanitation and income generation. (Visitors to Humayun’s Tomb alone have leapt from 150,000 a year 20 twenty years ago to 2 million at present.)
Coincidentally, over Holi weekend I spent three days visiting the caves at Ajanta-Ellora after a hiatus of many years, and came away pleasantly surprised. What used to be a chaotic, even arduous, excursion to one of the greatest sites of Indian antiquity is now an extremely organised, orderly and well-managed enterprise, with pleasant gardens, easy transportation and reasonable amenities. The hotels of Aurangabad were full to capacity, including hordes of Japanese for whom the Buddhist viharas, rock-cut sculpture and glowing frescoes are an important spiritual journey. Limited groups were allowed inside in rotation; neat barriers were in place before the dim but beautifully-lit paintings; there was no pushing, jostling or loutish behaviour. Our bilingual guide, recommended in advance by the hotel, was one of the best-informed, eloquent and well-mannered I have encountered in my travels.
Ajanta-Ellora is but one of the nearly 4,000 sites managed by the centrally-funded Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), an organisation often reviled for being overly bureaucratic and burdened. Its remit is spread over 27 geographic circles and costs the taxpayer Rs 9.4 billion. But judging by the Ajanta-Ellora experience alone some of this money is well spent.
In its eulogy to Mr Doshi’s architecture the Pritzer jury referred to his “childhood recollections, from the rhythms of the weather to the ringing of temple bells [that] inform his designs… through a response to Modernism.” And the Aga Khan, in his New Delhi speech last month, emphasised that without honouring the past the future cannot be served.
For all that is grossly misguided and mismanaged in Indian habitats, it is a good moment to applaud the continuum of its built heritage.