A square, aerial shot of the Escorts factory at the city’s outskirts opens the photographic narrative of Delhi, chronicling its period of high modernism from the 1950s - 1980s by Madan Mahatta, one of Delhi’s earliest professional photographers. After studying photography in England, Mahatta returned home to join his family-run studio, Mahatta & Co, in New Delhi’s Connaught Place in 1954. His proximity to artists and architects gave him a ringside view of the changes that swept Delhi in the wake of the nation’s independence, including the state-sanctioned drive of modernization, which he captured with his camera.
Curated by photographer Ram Rahman, the exhibit of Mahatta’s photographs features some of Delhi’s modernist landmarks, including iconic public buildings, a university campus and private residences. Informed by a keen sense of history, Rahman articulates how Delhi was built over several centuries by successive political powers, each uniquely adding to Delhi’s spatial arrangement and skyline. He also notes the place of architectural narratives in the larger modernist story of Delhi, of how the ‘new’ came into its name and being.
Madan Mahatta; Courtesy of the artist and PhotoInk
Mahatta’s photographs record Delhi’s best known buildings soon after they were built – the Habitat Centre, India International Centre, British Council, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus, Palika Bazaar, Bahai Temple and Shri Ram Centre, to name a few – giving us a chance to see them as they looked fifty years ago. In the best tradition of architectural photography, these images, many shot for the architects that built them, focus on the form and structure of the buildings, with little or no inclusion of people in the frames. Most buildings are surrounded by clearings or dense greenery, without the later structures we’re used to seeing around them.
The photographs capture the striking forms, clean lines and curves, marked use of geometric designs and the rhythmic pattern of repetitive motifs and design elements that were characteristic of modernist architecture. Functional structures of exposed brick and cement walls, embedded stone chips, and undressed surfaces glorified building materials in an aesthetic inspired by early 20th century revolutionary movements in art and architecture in the West, such as the Bauhaus, and sought to create ‘new’ structures in the post-colonial moment.
From the downward spiralling, loopy staircases set against flat walls of the IIT building, to the elegant straight lines of the spacious and airy Habitat Centre and the IIC, Mahatta’s images capture forms and spaces that are at first startling and yet familiar to Delhi residents, some even beloved. These spaces continue to be part of everyday experience, and are not atrophied images from an unfamiliar past. The architects’ homes featured in the show exhibit the same neat lines and brick walls that we recognise from public spaces, a reflection of how modernity ordered daily lives as seen in the houses built from the 1960s - 80s across India.
Madan Mahatta; Courtesy of the artist and PhotoInk
An interesting juxtaposition is the framing of these modernist buildings against the 18th century astronomical structure, the Jantar Mantar. In its geometric design and straight lines, serrated-edged staircases and irregular, rectangular slits in walls, the Jantar Mantar challenges notions of the ‘modern’, ‘old’ and ‘new’, mirroring the modernist forms that surround it despite predating them by centuries.
Rahman considers these architectural photographs as perhaps Mahatta’s best work, showing a sound understanding of volume and light that came from working closely with the architects. ‘Exploiting all the tilts and shifts [with a wide lens], ...he [Mahatta] was able to make his pictures with undistorted perspective,’ he writes in the curatorial note. The volumes Mahatta creates of the buildings attest to this, along with an eye alert to the dramatic moment amidst the lines and shadows. In a visually arresting image, architect Joseph Allen Stein climbs the stairs of the Ford Foundation, a tiny figure lost in the maze of vertically plunging lines of banisters and suspended bulbs, while light splashes like water droplets on the carpeted stairs and the photographer’s own shiny black shoes edge into the frame. Through the architecture it captures juxtaposed with the figure of Stein, one of the chief builders of modern India, this image crystalises the compelling narrative of Indian modernism.
Mahatta’s images chronicle a period that shaped much of modern Delhi and indeed India as it is today, an oft-neglected era sandwiched between pre-independence and post-liberalisation. They tell other stories, if obliquely, of the city’s industrialisation, buildings now missing, or the haphazard, unplanned building that was to come.
For those of us familiar with the buildings featured here but which we notice only vaguely and viewed from afar, the show grounds them within a narrative of the city’s tryst with modernism, as its markers and witnesses. They are no longer merely just filtered through the fond nostalgia they inspire, but are asserted as important architecture that mark the concerted engagement of a certain time. Perhaps the next time I go past one of these buildings, I will stop, and really look at them.
(Image on top right: Madan Mahatta, IIT-Delhi (staircase to the first floor of the building), c.1968; Courtesy of the artist and PhotoInk)