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Exhibition Detail
PHOTOGRAPHING DELHI’S ARCHITECTURE
Curated by: Ram Rahman
11 Aurangzeb Road
110011 New Delhi
India


April 26th, 2012 - August 11th, 2012
Opening: 
April 26th, 2012 11:00 AM - 7:00 PM
 
IIT-Delhi (staircase to the first floor of the building), Madan MahattaMadan Mahatta,
IIT-Delhi (staircase to the first floor of the building),
c.1968
© Courtesy of the artist and PhotoInk
, Madan MahattaMadan Mahatta
© Courtesy of the artist & Photoink
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Echoing Le Corbusier’s famous dictum that “architecture is the masterly, correct, and
magnificent play of masses brought together in light”, the influential architectural
photographer Eric de Mare described photography as “building with light”, thus underlining
the close and symbiotic relationship that has existed between the two disciplines ever since
the invention of photography. In addition to their visual kinship, photography has exerted a
profound influence on both the study and the practice of architecture. Our first, sometimes
only, impression of a building is often formed by a photograph, and the skilled photographer
can help us see even the most seemingly familiar structures with a fresh eye. The persuasive
images of past photographers have not only shaped the way their contemporaries viewed the
architecture of their period, but also continue to influence the way we perceive it today.
A new look at the history of architectural photography is therefore timely, as H.S. Goodhart-
Rendel’s ironically perceptive observation made in the 1930s about the power of images as
substitutes for reality has even greater relevance today: “The modern architectural drawing is
interesting, the photograph is magnificent, the building is an unfortunate but necessary stage
between the two.”
These two excerpts from the introduction to Robert Elwall’s masterly work, Building with
Light: The International History of Architectural Photography, elucidate the best reasons
for this exhibition of architectural photographs by Madan Mahatta, made in Delhi
between the late 1950s and the mid-1980s. One of the first exhibitions of contemporary
architectural photography in India, this is a display of remarkable works done by
Mahatta, which were known to very few at the time they were made and have never
ever shown together before. They are not only a landmark in our photographic history,
but also possibly the best document of an extremely important and fertile period in our
architectural history.
Some of the earliest known photographs of the city of Delhi were made by Felice Beato in
the nineteenth century, in the months after the British had retaken the city following the
1857 Revolt. Massive destruction to Shahjahan’s city was visible after the city’s population
had been evicted. Beato was however able to make a famous panorama from the north
minar of the Jama Masjid, showing the city between the mosque and the Red Fort, before
most of it was flattened by the British in brutal retribution for the revolt. The bazaar in front
of the mosque was also photographed by the Tytlers before it too was demolished. The
Revolt, the biggest challenge to colonial rule anywhere in the world, remained embedded
in the memory of Delhi and its citizens. Many of the events of that time, like the murder of
Bahadur Shah’s sons, became associated with architectural structures (Khooni Darwaza).
The historian Jim Masselos has published an album of these photographs along with his
own photographs of the same sites made in 1997.
Even before the 1857 Revolt the East India Company had already promoted the use of
photography to document buildings in areas under its control, replacing the draughtsmen
whose painstaking work took much longer. Many officers in their army were trained in
the new technology, although other photographers, like John Murray who was a medical
doctor in Agra, were civilian amateurs who became professionals.
Between 1835 and 1842 Fergusson amassed a fortune in his Calcutta indigo factory before
retiring to London and devoting much of his time to the study of Indian architecture. His
concern to provide accurate illustrations saw him employ first the camera lucida and
then, from the late 1850s, photography. By 1876, when his History of Indian and Eastern
Architecture appeared, Fergusson possessed over three thousand photographs of Indian
buildings, “with which constant use has made me as familiar as with any other object that is
perpetually before my eyes”.
The new medium of photography, which developed out of the camera lucida, immediately
provided a major challenge to the tradition of drawing and lithography as a means of
documenting buildings in their precise details. Architectural documentation became
one of the prime focuses of the new medium almost at its inception. The Architectural
Photographic Association was founded by a group of architects in London in 1857, with
the aim to provide photographic records of buildings around the world tosubscribers.
It held four exhibitions between 1858 and 1861 whichincluded works by Beato and
Robertson, both of whom had photographed Delhi.
Delhi has an old and distinguished history of photography. Initially,right after the 1857
Revolt, it was the British – Beato, Murray, Harriet and Robert Tytler, Charles Sheperd –
who made photographs. Later, Bourne and Shepherd and Lala Deen Dayal added their
firms and photographers to this list. The Archaeological Survey of India, founded in 1861
under Alexander Cunningham, became a major repository and sponsor of photographic
documentation of historic buildings across India. The firm of H.A. Mirza and Sons, based in
Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, were known for their postcards of Delhi’s architecture printed in
Germany (many of them printed in 1911 for the Imperial Durbar).
The architectural history of Delhi is much older, spanning millennia. Although, in the last
few decades, rampant and badly planned development has obscured the great buildings
scattered across the seven cities that make up modern Delhi, very few cities in India have
such a range of buildings. These buildings, which include many individual masterpieces,
represent the civilizational traditions of several historical periods:the Tughlaqs, Sher
Shah Suri, the Lodhis, the Mughals, the British, down to the Moderns – the subject of this
exhibition.
With the staging of the Imperial Durbars in Delhi and the announcement of the shifting of
the capital from Calcutta, the huge project of building the new Imperial capital naturally
involved photography. It was this phase of the building of the city that was extensively
photographed by British photographers. India being the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British
empire, the new Imperial capital was a hugely ambitious project, and was meant to create
an architecture that could compete with the earlier masterworks of the Tughlaqs and the
Mughals. The style chosen was ‘Anglo-Indian’, which was based on classicism and made
stylistic gestures to earlier Indian architecture.
New Delhi is much more than the concentration of government buildings, domed and
splendid – Lutyens’ Viceroy’s House andBaker’s Secretariats – which lie at the focus of its
spacious geometrical plan; it was designed as a complete city, with houses,shops, churches,
courts and hospitals.E nough had been built by 1931 – the year the new capital of British India
was inaugurated– for Robert Byron to remark, in his eloquent number of the Architectural
Review devoted to New Delhi, that “The potency of Lutyens’s influence is everywhere visible.
And it seems probable that New Delhi is already nurturing a specifically Indo-British school
of architecture.” This “Indo-British school”, inspired by Lutyens, was a product of the revival of
a monumental classicism which occurred in both Europe and America in the early twentieth
century and, adapted to Indian conditions and traditions, was one of the last healthy
flowerings of European classic is many where in the world. But it was short lived, as much
owing to changes in architectural fashion as to political events.
In 1938A.G. Shoosmith, Lutyens’s brilliant assistant in Delhi, could write of “the quickening of
the change in direction of architectural aim in Europe, ”which“ undermined New Delhi as a
future influence. Bereft now of the support of imported architectural thought for the classical
spirit which informed it, and stigmatized, however unreasonably, as expensive, it is in danger
of appearing as a splendid culmination to the old epoch instead of inaugurating a new. What
architecture in India has thereby lost it is useless to speculate; that it is robbed of much of
the effect for good of by far the most important and probably the only first-class work in the
European contribution up to date it is hardly possible to doubt. The lesson it offers is missed,
and the aimless uncertainty continues.” While Walter George, one architect in the Lutyens orbit
to stay on in independent India, was sure that by 1951 the tradition was dead.
“For the last 500 years, what is known as the Renaissance has dominated most of the so-called
civilized world and even only 50 years ago, seemed well on the way to becoming a world-wide
architectural language. It began in Florence in 1430 with the Pazzi Chapel, it ended in New
Delhi, in 1931, with Government House.”
Walter George’s perspective defines the design ambition of the British in Delhi, which
was not just competing with Delhi’s own design history, but attempting to place British
architecture on the world stage at a time when the modern movement in other parts
of Europe was on the ascendant. The British were competing against the great building
traditions of Delhi, and assuming that the Empire would last forever, sought to create an
architectural style specific to Delhi. We must not forget that even Timur was so dazzled
by the architectural genius of the Tughlaqs in Delhi that after laying waste to the city in
1398, he is reputed to have taken back the stonemasons and mistris to help him create a
new Samarqand in Uzbekistan. It was from this same Samarqand that Babur later returned,
and his descendants embarked on the great building programme of the Mughals which
culminated in the building of Shahjahanabad and the palaces of Shah Jahan in the Red
Fort. The new British building project in New Delhi was extensively documented in great
architectural photographs by uncredited photographers for the PWD (Public Works
Department).
The Mahatta studio opened in architect Robert Tor Russell’s shopping complex of
Connaught Place soon after Indian independence, in 1948. It soon achieved fame as one
of the reputed photographic studios of its time. Madan Mahatta returned from his studies
in England and started work here in 1954. The timing of his return and the fact that he
started photographing architecture seriously were fortuitous. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first
Prime Minister, was embarking on a massive building project in the capital which was in
dire need of new infrastructure. The organs of the independent state needed more space
than that provided by the grandiose Imperial structures of North and South Blocks. A wall
of the Old City was torn down along Asaf Ali road to make space for the new business
district – the Delhi stock exchange and Delite Cinema came up here. The newspaper
district, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, was zoned right where the last Mughal emperor’s sons
had been killed, at Khooni Darwaza. The old Patriot building sign can be seen in Mahatta’s
photograph of Kanvinde’s Pearey Lal Bhavan under construction. This was also where the
income tax offices, the University Grants Commission (both designed by Habib Rahman),
the School of Architecture and Planning and other institutions were being built.
Many architects relocated to Delhi in the early 1950s. Habib Rahman was shifted from
the West Bengal PWD to the Central PWD by Nehru. Joseph Allen Stein set up a private
practice on Asaf Ali Road after moving from his teaching assignment at Calcutta’s Bengal
Engineering College. Achyut Kanvinde worked with the CSIR (Council for Scientific and
Industrial Research) between 1948 and 1955 after his return from Harvard, and in 1955
he started a private practice with Shaukat Rai, with offices in Connaught Place. These
three architects were all US-trained and brought with them the influence of the European
Modernist movement via their American education. Rahman and Kanvinde had studied
under the Bauhaus master Walter Gropius at Harvard and MIT. Joseph Stein had influences
of Richard Neutra and The Saarinens. They arrived in Delhi when Sapru Houseand Ashoka
Hotel (by the architect Doctor) were being built. Both buildingsacknowledged traditional
Indian architectural styles – Buddhist chaitya hall details, chhatris and chhajjas–very
different to what Baker and Lutyens had evolved as the Delhi idiom two decades earlier.
Rahman and Stein made jokesabout the new Supreme Court building coming up in a neo-
Lutyens style. Fun was also poked at Edward Durrell Stone’s US Embassy building, dubbed
locally as the ‘Taj Maria’ (Stone’s wife was named Maria) as his use of jalis and the Imperial
emphasis of his design stood in sharp contrast to his earlier modernist designs (famously,
a new wing of the Museum of Modern Art in New York). Jugal Kishore Chowdhury, who
opened his practice in Delhi in 1957 after working with Le Courbusier and Pierre Jeanneret
in Chandigarh, brought the Chandigarh style with him with its extensive use of cast
concrete and bold, dramatic form. What thisgeneration of architects did was to develop
a vocabulary of modernist practice suited to Indian conditions and connected to the
ethos of the time. Stein has commented on how the spirit of Gandhi was still prevalent,
especially in the 1950s, and how that spirit meshed perfectly with the ‘less-is-more’ slogan
of Modernism.
In 1960s Delhi, this design philosophy reached out much beyond architecture and
complemented it. Mini Boga began her line of teakwood furniture, Taaru. Her woodframed
chairs had woven rope, jute and newar seats and backs, inspired by craft traditions,
yet structured on a functional, minimalist, modern vocabulary. Santiniketan-trained Riten
Mozumdar came to Delhi after a stint with Marimekko in Europe, to start designing his
line of rugs, bedcovers, textiles and fabric hangings. He became famous for his graphic
use of silk-screened and woodblock-printed hangings and bedcovers using Indian scripts
and calligraphy – Bengali, Brahmi, Devanagari. Many of these were for Fabindia, which
had just been started by John Bissell. Bissell’s inspiration was similar – reaching out to
handloom weavers and block printers, he structured Fabindia along cooperative lines and
promoted the use of traditional materials in modern design. Some of the photographs by
Mahatta are iconic markers of those moments – John Bissell posing in Mini Boga chairs
with Riten wall-hangings behind. Almost every Delhi home in those days was outfitted
by these three designers – complemented by moorahs from the government emporia.
There are photographs of interiors of homes here which are classics of that time: Ram
Sharma (a Riten cushion cover is prominently visible on his sofa), Raj Rewal, Riten’s own
home (designed by Charles Correa)and Kanvinde’s. All these developments were written
about, debated and critiqued in Design magazine, edited by Patwant Singh, which boasted
an editorial board which included Richard Neutra, Isamu Noguchi, Marcel Breuer, Walter
Gropius, Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde, Piloo Mody, Charles Fabri and Eero Saarinen,
amongst others. The covers of Design and the journal Seminar were letterpress-printed and
many of them were designed by the famous graphic designer Dilip Chowdhury. Much of
this design development in Delhi long preceded the coming of Charles and Ray Eames, or
the setting up of the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. This was a moment
when India’s design confidence and ambition was truly internationalist.
Nehru supported the new architecture in Delhi being conceived by this generation, and,as
in the case of Rahman, sometimes actively intervened in the design process (Rabindra
Bhavan, 1961).Madan Mahatta was the only photographer in Delhi then who worked with
a Linhof camera on medium format film, using an extremely wide angle lens. Exploiting
all the tilts and shifts of the camera, he was able to make his pictures with undistorted
perspective; and the wide lens enabled him to shoot in tight areas and capture the
sense of space within these structures. He also understood the importance of light as it
shifted over volume and form. As the photographs on display reveal, his clean and clear
modernist vision perfectly matched the modernist architecture these architects were
evolving in Delhi. The city’s buildings of the 1950swere simple, cheaply constructed and
functional. In the early 1960s they started getting more expressive through the use of
cement and ceramic jalis, and rough granite stone (Stein’s India International Centre,
Rahman’s Rabindra Bhavan). While Madan was working in all the areas required by a job
photographer in a studio, his natural instinct and understanding of architectural form is
evident in these photographs. Very often present on site with the architects, he learnt from
them the time of day or year when the light was just right for photographing certain parts
of the buildings. He happened to be the right photographer present in the right place at
the right time.
An entire exhibit could be made of the pictures of staircases made by Madan Mahatta.
The ensemble of stairs in J.K. Chowdhury’s Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi
areespecially beautifully captured in all their graphic vitality by Madan’s lens. Madan
makes each into the sculptural object it is. Architecturally, the staircases allowedeach of
the architects to push his structural vision to its limits, and also display the philosophy
that practical design can go beyond the mundane into an artistically uplifting realm.
See, for instance, the stairs in Kuldip Singh’s NDMC headquarters, Rewal’s Hall of Nations,
Chowdhury’s IIT buildings, Stein’s Ford Foundation and Rahman’s WHO building. Indeed
Rewal’s Nehru Pavilion with its pyramid structure is almost all stairs, an integral part of its
spatial configuration.
The interior photographs of the India International Centre and the Ford Foundation by
Stein show the careful attention to detail Stein was famous for. Every piece of furniture,
light fixture, fabric, wall hanging (Riten again) and carpets were chosen by Stein and
his wife Margaret, who helped him on many of his interiors and landscaping. They
show the original design intention of the architect. While many are familiar with Joseph
Stein’s India International Centre building, fewer among the younger generation have
seen his Ford Foundation buildings, the American School (most of this masterwork has
been demolished) or the series of factories he designed for Escorts through the 1960s.
In both the American School and the Escorts factories, Stein evolved a lightweight and
geometrically complex series of roof trusses spanning stone and concrete support walls.
These were a precursor to the similar structural solutions evolved by Raj Rewal of the
next generation, especially his stunningly audacious Hall of Nations building for the
International Trade Fair in 1972. For this, Rewal used cast concrete in a highly unusual
manner with engineering support from Mahendra Raj, who engineered many of the
buildings presented here. Rewal’s Nehru Pavilion in the same complex is a pyramidal, semiunderground
structure designed to house the iconic memorial exhibition on Nehru, based
on his Discovery of India, designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1965. Madan Mahatta has
made iconic images of both these structures, capturing their graphic geometries and their
complex interplay of light and shadow which were an integral part of the experience of
these buildings.
Kuldip Singh had been a partner of Raj Rewaland both worked on a vocabulary of boldly
dramatic, geometric building forms, but Kuldip’s own work went into a different direction
on his own. His monumental concrete tower for the NDMC right next to Jai Singh’s
Jantar Mantar observatory is a salute to the geometrics of that complex. It led to some
of Mahatta’s most dramatic photographs. Rahman’s multistoreyed flats for government
employees in Ramakrishna Puram (1965) were the first tall apartment buildings built in
Delhi. Their staggered balconies were not just a visual device, but also gave a degree of
open air and privacy to the residents. The next generation – The Design Group (Ranjit
Sabiki, Ajoy Chowdhury), Rewal, Kuldip Singh, among others –designed large residential
complexes of low-rise buildings primarily for the DDA and some societies. This generation
of architects took inspiration from the dense urban design vocabulary of cities like
Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, and developed a typology of courtyard clusters, narrow street
passages and interlocking balconies along with the use of brick, which became Delhi’s
housing style of the 1970s and 1980s. The best document of buildings of this phase too
are the photographs here.The homes Rewal and Ram Sharma designed for themselves and
other clients reveal a very similar philosophy of design and materials. Exposed brick walls,
red exteriors, interiors painted white, rough cast concrete ceilings, multi-layered inner
spaces connected with flying staircases, Kotah stone floors and large framed swinging
glass doors. Mini Boga chairs and tables, Riten cushion covers, and bolsters covered in
Fabindia weaves are visible in both. Similar homes were designed by Rewal for artist Satish
Gujral and his brother Inder Gujral.
In this exhibition, I have chosen to show more of Madan Mahatta’s photographs from
the earlier or the classic modern period primarily because that is much less accessible
to the younger generation of architects and photographers. Madan’s archive is vast, and
many prominent and important architects and buildings have had to be left out of this
exhibition because they would require a much larger show in a larger space to do full
justice to the archive. These building projects and the photographs are a vivid reminder of
a time when the government (many of these were commissioned by state agencies, one
of the biggest builders at that time) and the political class still believed that architecture
had a symbolic and extremely important part in creating and physically embodying the
visionary dreams of a new nation aspiring to build a democracy with Indian roots. This is
in stark contrast to our recent past, where not a single structure built for the enormously
expensive Commonwealth Games was designed by an Indian architect. The architecture
of Gurgaon– the newest of the Delhis – is probably the crassest example of the physical
manifestation of corporate greed and its globalized multinational ambition, so clearly
visible in its buildings.
9
Notes
1 Robert Elwall, ‘Introduction’, in Building with Light: The International History of
Architectural Photography, pp. 8–9.
2 Jim Masselos and Narayani Gupta, Beato’s Delhi: 1857 and Beyond, Delhi: Ravi Dayal
and Viking, 2011.
3 Robert Elwall, Building with Light: The International History of Architectural
Photography, p. 82.
4 Gavin Stamp, ‘India: End of the Classical Tradition. Role of the Anglo-Indian school
in the construction of Delhi’, in Lotus International issue 34,Quarterly Architectural
Review, p. 67
Bibliography
Elwall, Robert (2004), Building with Light: The International History of Architectural ,
London: Merrell.
Falconer, John (2001), India: Pioneering Photographers 1850–1900, London: The British
Library.
Lang, Jon, Madhavi Desai and Miki Desai (1997), Architecture and Independence: The
Search for Identity – India 1880 to 1980, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Lotus International issue 34, Quarterly Architectural Review (1982), Milan: Gruppo
Editoriale Electa Divisione Periodici.
Masselos, Jim and Narayani Gupta (2011), Beato’s Delhi: 1857 and Beyond, Delhi: Ravi
Dayal and Viking.
Rewal, Raj, Jean Louis Veret and Ram Sharma (1985), Architecture in India, Paris: Electa
Moniteur.
White, Stephen (1993), Building in the Garden: The Architecture of Joseph Allen Stein in
India and California, Delhi: Oxford University Press.


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