Is this any way to treat the country’s most valued public space?
The assertion of bureaucracy along the Central Vista can hardly be considered proof of Indian democracy. However adept the new architecture, more than ever now, we need a parallel public response that gives visible expression to cultural institutions.
The current stalemate between the government’s plan for the vista and the citizen’s right to a cohesive public cultural space can best be resolved by two critical intrusions.
First, there’s a need for a clear-eyed assessment of the history of the Central Vista, and an examination of the 90-year-old plan itself. Meant to be colonialism’s grand showpiece for the next 100 years, the empire folded within a decade, thus transforming the place quickly and conveniently into a parade ground for the new Indian republic.
Seventy years on we in India continue to celebrate our Republic Day – like North Korea, China and Russia – with a parade of military and cultural power. Meanwhile democracies like Germany, Brazil and the US have long since converted their public arenas into pedestrian cultural zones. Surrounded by the Capitol and government offices, the Washington Mall, to this day, continues to sprout museums, galleries and theatres, adding barely five years earlier, the new Museum of African American History. Public space along the Seine in Paris similarly aligns with museums and gardens.
What should happen to the Central Vista a century after Lutyens? Should it remain frozen in a colonial time or be altered to 21st century demands? Should the entire stretch be pedestrianised, and its Russian parade ground aspect erased altogether? Could in fact the Republic Day celebrations permanently move to the Red Fort?
Second, and more crucial is the cultural aspect of the Vista itself. Artists, historians, architects and many concerned citizens have expressed their apprehensions on a scheme that atomises culture into indistinct and disjointed buildings to be set in far-flung ends of the India Gate grounds.
Some argue that so damaging is the current plan to move India’s cultural relics, it is hard to believe that a government could wantonly neglect and disparage its own invaluable history. Rare artifacts and manuscripts, ancient sculpture and precious jewellery – currently with the National Museum, the National Archives, the Archaeological Survey and the IGNCA – will be moved to separate temporary locations in the city and to Noida. These include fragile items like leaf and papyrus manuscripts requiring special casings and temperature control; others, like heavy Pallava stone sculptures, need special hoists.
How such complex material is handled is a matter of serious concern. Institutional dismemberment is catastrophic for any form of ancient history that is already poorly catalogued, stored and displayed, and could now even be lost or damaged in transit.
Again, let’s note that the Central Vista plan is a given. A new parliament house will be built, along with a new prime minister’s home. For two years or more, trees will be cut, dust will rise, and a new cityscape will appear on parallel roads on far sides of the Vista.
But the central flank remains an unresolved question. What should happen in the wide stretch between Rashtrapati Bhavan and around India Gate? As national museums, archives and arts centres are erased from the bureaucratic map a new place needs to be found for them. A place that does not alter the original Lutyens plan, nor displaces the government’s current proposal.
The more productive approach now demands that we stop harping on what the Central Vista once was, nor bemoan what it soon will be – both are known – but rather, dwell on what it could become. The place requires paradoxically both, historic conservation, as well as a contemporary vision.
A reinvention that moves beyond the political debates and creates a comprehensive cultural track containing contiguous galleries, museums, theatres, music halls, archival and library structures. The possibilities are endless, and must be open to examination and architectural challenge.
After all the hectoring, the recriminations and uncertainty – there must be a cause for optimism and perhaps even a happy ending.
(The writer is an architect)