Delhi’s architecture is typically described as a polarisation of old-world Mughal heritage and Edwin Lutyens’ imperial capital city. But there is another architectural legacy that noted photographer Ram Rahman believes Delhi should be better known for, perhaps now more than ever: the Nehruvian-era modern architecture increasingly under threat today.

While cities like Mumbai and Kolkata were largely built during colonial times, a lot of Delhi’s public buildings, institutions and affordable housing were built in the years after Independence. These structures were informed by the vision of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and designed by a set of young Indian architects.

“Delhi has a heritage of fine modern architecture that is quite remarkable on an international scale, but people don’t often realise that this is heritage,” said Rahman, whose father Habib Rahman was the architect behind several public buildings built under Nehru’s leadership.

Habib Rahman’s contribution to Delhi’s cityscape includes the Lalit Kala Akademi building, the University Grants Commission office, and several low-cost housing blocks under the Public Works Department.

At a public lecture on “Nehru and the Delhi Modern Moment” in Mumbai last month, Ram Rahman spoke of this iconic Delhi architecture – built between the 1950s and 1980s – with a sense of immense nostalgia for an era that no longer seems to be valued.

“Today there is a concerted effort to demolish the legacy of Nehru, not just conceptually, but also physically,” said Rahman.

Symbols of modern India

In September, the Lalit Kala Akademi figured on the Union culture ministry’s list of 39 institutions – including the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library – slated for a “revamp” to make them function more smoothly. Plans for the Nehru library include completely renovating the building and auditorium.

In November, the Indian Trade Promotion Organisation confirmed its Rs 3,000-crore plan to demolish and rebuild Pragati Maidan – Delhi’s extensive complex of exhibition centres built in the early 1970s – which includes the iconic Hall of Nations and the Nehru Pavilion.

For Rahman, these plans represent direct attempts to target architectural and institutional symbols of Nehru’s modern India.

“The younger generations today don’t realise how so much of modern India was created in those 20 years after Independence, driven not just by the idealism of Nehru but also other visionary people in the bureaucracy and government,” said Rahman. “The vision was to build a new, democratic, egalitarian society after the yoke of colonialism had been lifted.”

The architecture that emerged from this ethos had to make the most of the social and economic conditions of the day, but didn’t compromise on expressing a new, modernist aesthetic. The government, for instance, had limited budgets for a lot of the new constructions in Delhi after Independence. “But as a means of supporting Indian artists, Nehru always allocated 2%-3% of the budget for artwork on the facades of government buildings,” said Rahman.

Commercial interests

According to Rahman, the difference between architecture of the Nehruvian era and that of today is the lack of a conceptual and aesthetic base that defined the experiments of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

“Today’s new buildings have a kind of globalised, corporate, consumer architecture that is characterless – like the many glass structures in Gurgaon,” said Rahman. “Everything today is being driven by commerce and consumerist greed.”

This is perhaps why several senior architects have condemned the government’s plan to demolish the famous, pyramid-like Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan, built as India’s first pillar-less structure using reinforced concrete frames because of the steel the government couldn’t spare enough steel in the 1960s and ‘70s, .

The difference in the ethos of today is also reflected in the freedoms of speech and expression. In his lecture, Rahman pointed to a speech Nehru once made on his views on architecture: the former prime minister spoke of how he found some temples of South India to be “oppressive” despite their beauty because of their dark corridors and the absence of light and openness. “Today we can’t even imagine a leader saying something like that,” said Rahman.

Cultural freedoms

Ram Rahman is known as much for his photography and curation of art as his role as the co-founder of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust – or Sahmat – a cultural organisation founded in memory of communist theatre activist Safdar Hashmi, who was murdered as he performed a street play in 1989.

Sahmat has been an active voice of dissent against attempts to stifle cultural freedoms, a role that Rahman believes has grown even more crucial in the past few years. “We have just finished a year-long series of talks that look back at the Nehruvian era through economics, diplomacy, urbanism, institution-building, architecture and cinema,” he said.

But Sahmat has not been as active in Mumbai as Rahman would like. “People in Bombay do not realise that this city faces the greatest censorship in India,” said Rahman, whose team at Sahmat worked on a project at Mumbai’s Times Litfest earlier this month. “The theme was freedom of expression and we mounted large banners looking back at the history of resistance amongst artistes.”