In December 1994, the late NT Rama Rao returned to power as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh for the third time. His coalition had won an overwhelming victory in the state’s election, taking 250 seats out of 294, with the share of his Telugu Desam Party being 226. The erstwhile ruling party, the Congress, was reduced to a mere 26 seats in the Assembly. Despite the scale of the triumph, NTR was insecure. To ensure he stayed in power, he turned to vaastu shastra. Informed by his vaastu advisor that he was entering the Assembly from the wrong direction, NTR built a new gateway, having a group of shanties demolished and constructing in their place a wide road that approached the premises from the optimum angle. Within weeks, he was ousted by his son-in-law in a palace coup. Within months, he was dead.

NTR’s example did nothing to diminish Hyderabad’s vaastu obsession. K Chandrashekhar Rao, the chief minister of what is now Telangana state, is notoriously vaastu-obsessed. His plan for ensuring a long reign goes much farther than shifting an entranceway or demolishing a small slum: he wants to move the entire Legislative Assembly and Secretariat to a more vaastu-compliant location in Secunderabad known as the Bison Polo Ground. Citizens have protested the boondoggle, but KCR is utterly set on the shift.

The other half of the formerly united Andhra Pradesh has a bigger task at hand than merely moving a couple of buildings. With Hyderabad going to Telangana, Andhra Pradesh has been left without a capital. The man in charge of the rump state is Chandrababu Naidu, the son-in-law who usurped NTR’s throne back in 1995. During his first stint in power, Naidu came to be known as a dynamic, pro-business leader, a forerunner of Narendra Modi without Modi’s bigotry or charisma. His wooing of technology companies induced journalists to rename Hyderabad Cyberabad.

The name of his new capital reaches to the past rather than the future, invoking the ancient Buddhist site of Amaravati. But Naidu has not given up on his commitment to technology. He briefly considered building a city without fuel pumps, where only electric vehicles would ply. He hired a Singapore-based consortium to develop the city’s master-plan. For the government complex, which will house the legislature, High Court and Secretariat, he announced an open competition in which quality rather than budget would be paramount. An unimpeachable committee of experts was tasked with choosing the winners. From a distinguished shortlist, which had the firms of two Pritzker Prize winners and one of India’s greatest living architects BV Doshi, the jury chose the proposal of the Fumihiko Maki-led Maki & Associates. So far, so great. If a new capital was to be built, this was the way to go about it.

For the government complex in Amaravati that would house the Assembly, High Court and Secretariat, Chandrababu Naidu announced an open competition in which quality rather than budget would be paramount. (Credit: Reuters)
For the government complex in Amaravati that would house the Assembly, High Court and Secretariat, Chandrababu Naidu announced an open competition in which quality rather than budget would be paramount. (Credit: Reuters)

Vaastu complications

Then came the hiccups. After the Singapore consortium handed over its plan, it was asked to rework everything based on vaastu principles. The reasoning was that home buyers were likely to have vaastu on their minds, so why not make the buildings east- or north-facing to begin with? It would have helped, of course, to have informed the planners about this detail before they produced their design.

By May 2016, Naidu and his advisors had cooled to Fumihiko Maki’s concept. They wanted a more Indian feel. Indian architects were invited to propose designs for the main buildings, without considering that these might not cohere with the overall plan. Maki & Associates were taken aback, but, as narrated in a scathing letter sent to India’s Council of Architecture and signed by Fumihiko Maki, the firm agreed to taking an Indian collaborator on board. It chose an associate, only to be commanded to work with Hafeez Contractor, though his proposal had apparently been placed last among the Indian entries in the official report, which has not been made public.

In December, Maki & Associates were summarily removed and replaced by Foster and Partners, headed by Lord Foster of Thames Bank, without open tendering or a fresh competition. The new designers of Amaravati were also instructed to work with the Naidu government’s favourite architect, Hafeez Contractor. Contractor is to architecture what paneer manchurian is to cuisine. A love of paneer manchurian or of Hafeez Contractor’s buildings is an unmistakable sign of terrible taste. Even those who dismiss this view as elitist or snobbish will agree that people who adore paneer manchurian ought not to consult the Michelin guide, book a table at Sukiyabashi Jiro, and then complain the food is bland.

That is basically what Naidu and friends did. Then, having left Jiro’s restaurant in Tokyo without paying the bill, they headed to the Ivy in London, and were disappointed it did not serve anything close to paneer manchurian either. The designs produced by Norman Foster’s firm lacked the spice and fusion Naidu sought. Even the forced cohabitation with Hafeez Contractor did not appear to be doing the trick.

Virtual reality?

To help the project get on track, the government of Andhra Pradesh has now brought in the biggest gun of them all, a man who built a capital city that puts in the shade all the work of Pritzker Prize winners like Maki and Foster. I speak, of course, of the incomparable SS Rajamouli, designer of Mahishmati, from where King Baahubali reigned.

All right, I exaggerated a bit. Mahishmati is a CGI fantasy and Rajamouli has never constructed anything in his life. But that does not mean he cannot give Foster and Partners tips on the Indian spirit, does it? I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that London meeting. I’d love to have seen the expressions on the faces of staff at Foster and Partners when they first viewed the virtual mishmash of Khajuraho, Fatehpur Sikri, Chichen Itza and St Peter’s Square that is Mahishmati.

The Amaravati website still shows Maki & Associates as the firm tasked with building the government complex. Not only has it been replaced, its replacement is looking shaky. I would not be surprised if all international input on Amaravati’s government complex is suspended and the entire thing handed over to Contractor and Rajamouli. A grand project that started on the firm ground of transparency, a commitment to instituting the best practices and seeking the best talent, has slid into a morass of superstition, bad taste, the favouring of special interests, and the employment of public funds to further all of these. No surprise, there, it’s all as Indian as paneer manchurian.