Cityscapes

Seventy years on, Chandigarh hasn’t lived up to Corbusier’s expectations or Nehru’s boasts

Chandigarh stands today as a warning to those who aspire to build smart cities in India.

In the immediate aftermath of Partition, between resettling refugees, drafting a Constitution, and grappling with military challenges from Hyderabad to Kashmir, India would inaugurate a new tradition of urban planning to complement this dizzying mix. In 1948, the government of (East) Punjab – administratively disoriented with the loss of Lahore to Pakistan – announced its intention to build a new provincial capital. With Jawaharlal Nehru’s blessing, by 1964, this proclamation amounted to the construction of Chandigarh, a full-fledged city the size of Paris designed by leading architects of the day, and inaugurated to widespread acclaim.

In Norma Evenson and Ravi Kalia’s retellings, Chandigarh by chance fell into the hands of the Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. An initial search by PN Thapar and PL Varma, the two bureaucrats deputed to lead the project, turned up few Indians, compelling them to look to Europe. Centuries of colonial urban planning, the bureaucrats reasoned, had hollowed out Indian traditions. Le Corbusier, then perhaps the most famous architect in the world and widely acknowledged as a founding father of modernist architecture, only came into the picture when his name was suggested by the British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, his colleagues at CIAM, the European modernist architecture collective. The addition of Le Corbusier to the Chandigarh project would only add “honour and glory”, Fry promised, and elevate its status from a provincial capital to one of the great cities of the world.

To Thapar and Varma’s surprise, Le Corbusier, spurred by the promise of constructing a grand capital city of his own, signed on to the project, accepting an annual retainer fee of £3,000, ten times below his usual price. That Le Corbusier and his team would do much of the planning for Chandigarh in Simla, where Sir Cyril Radcliffe had three years before partitioned Punjab into two, could only have come as sweet solace for Thapar and Varma. The two bureaucrats were among the thousands uprooted from Lahore in 1947. Their conception of a capital city demanded more than a mere administrative centre. Chandigarh would amount to panacea and recompense for the loss of Lahore.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court. Photo credit: Paul Lechevallier/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons BY 2.5]
The Punjab and Haryana High Court. Photo credit: Paul Lechevallier/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons BY 2.5]

To Nehru, it would testify to his constitutional and cultural vision: “Free from the existing encumbrances of old towns and old traditions”, the prime minister remarked, and in concert with the movement of world history, “let this new town symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past… [be] an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.”

A model city

Chandigarh – perhaps India’s first ever “smart city” – would be organised according to a grid plan, divided roughly into 60 square-shaped sectors, each 960,000 square-metres in size, with the farthest points of a sector a 10-minute walk away from the other. The city’s functions – administrative, commercial, educational, and residential – would operate independent of one another in specifically designated sectors. Roadways were classified into seven categories, from V1 (principal avenues and thoroughfares for vehicles) to V7 (pedestrian-only parkland paths).

With Nehru’s backing, Le Corbusier saw through legislation that froze land use in the city according to the vision outlined in the original grid plan, with most of the city reserved for the bureaucracy. There would be no room for industrial or military activity in Chandigarh, both of which Le Corbusier saw as noisy aberrations taking away from the serene administrative aesthetic being developed.

An undated photo of Le Corbusier standing before the plan of Chandigarh. Photo credit: AFP
An undated photo of Le Corbusier standing before the plan of Chandigarh. Photo credit: AFP

The city’s centerpiece was its administrative nucleus – the Capitol Complex, consisting of the state assembly, secretariat and high court buildings. Set before a picturesque backdrop of the Himalayan foothills, all were built with raw concrete to monumental scale, rivalling only the herculean dimensions that Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker had conceived for New Delhi four decades earlier. The buildings, grid plan and “Open Hand” symbol meant to symbolise the new city, came out of decades of experimentation in Le Corbusier’s native Europe. To Thapar and Varma’s delight, one could spot the hallmarks of Le Corbusier’s work in Marseilles, Paris and Ronchamp in the buildings of the Capitol Complex. The grid plan and the “Open Hand” contained ideas originally developed for urban plans in Moscow and Amsterdam.

Part of Le Corbusier’s immediate acceptance of the commission to design Chandigarh lay in his frustration at not being able to do the same in Europe. Fascists and Communists alike had rejected his plans for monumental cities between the two World Wars. By supreme irony, Le Corbusier’s most enthusiastic client would come in the form of a prison-tested postcolonial democrat, Nehru. “It is the biggest example in India of experimental architecture,” Nehru would say of the Capitol Complex. “It hits you on the head and makes you think. I like the creative approach, not being tied down by what has been done by our forefathers but thinking in new terms… In the ultimate analysis, a thing which fits in with the social functions is beautiful.”

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The future by design

Seven decades after Chandigarh was first mooted, this ambition appears to have been optimistic at best. Beyond a handful of Corbusier-inspired Indian architects, Chandigarh does not hold the popular imagination of India the way a pop-culture metropolis like Mumbai, or a pilgrimage centre like Tirupati, does. The city mostly serves bureaucrats and ministries for whom Le Corbusier had deliberately cordoned off most of the grid plan. The grid plan’s strict emphasis on separating city functions meant that, outside career bureaucrats with no particular attachment to Le Corbusier’s ideas, few would be allowed into the city to live, work, and imagine a place for themselves within it.

To complicate matters further, in 1966, the city was enveloped by long-simmering Hindu-Sikh antagonisms that created Haryana out of Punjab. Forced to host two state governments with competing priorities and competing claims to its territory, Chandigarh’s prospects periodically came under strain and rendered the city administratively impotent. To most outsiders, Chandigarh appears a modern-day monumental fossil around which squatter settlements and the satellite towns of Mohali and Panchkula have arisen. In these places, people have built as they please and loudly disregarded Le Corbusier’s land use restrictions. Only urban planners planning similarly rigid, regimented grid plans for capital cities in Gandhinagar and Islamabad have cited Chandigarh’s example, and organised their cities in similar fashion. Neighbourhoods here are known not by historical or cultural markers but by numbers and letters.

The Open Hand monument in Chandigarh. Photo credit: Ravjot Singh/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]
The Open Hand monument in Chandigarh. Photo credit: Ravjot Singh/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

In a contemporary Indian landscape awash with ambitious smart city schemes and the Amaravati capital city project in Andhra Pradesh, Chandigarh’s example is particularly useful when assessing just how far a well-planned and well-intended urban project by renowned architects, can go in breaking with the past, anticipating how design strictures will affect a city’s future growth, and developing an urban consciousness. In Chandigarh’s case, plan and monument alone could not guarantee a city in full.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.