Modern Indian Architecture: A Tryst with Timelessness

Modern Architecture

A discussion on what course Modern Indian Architecture must possibly take. Because Tradition and Modernity might not even be rivals at all.

The British fashion designer Alexander McQueen beautifully sums up the tradition versus modernity debate with these words.

“I like things to be modern and still have a bit of tradition. I believe in history”. 

Alexander McQueen

For the many years since India awoke “to life and freedom”, there has been a continuous urge to define its identity with a label of ‘modernity’. Whether in terms of reinforcing education, organizing bureaucracy or building cities, we usually interpret advancement and innovation as ‘gradual un-Indian-ness’. Perhaps it is intrinsic in us to believe that stepping out of the shackles of the past essentially means we need to shirk off all of it. Does the same not apply to our perception of modern Indian architecture?

Down the Pages of History

The Harappan Saga

If one is to look with a cursory glance at India’s glorious architectural history, a conglomerate of rich cultural evolution stands out. The Harappan grid-iron urban morphology and mud-brick houses evolved due to emergence of a strong administrative order and social hierarchy. Citadels and lower towns spoke of definite social distinctions, while large public buildings talked of grand rituals of the city. Comfortable, welcoming houses, with rooms and wells for outsiders denoted how dwellers felt about travelers, merchants and neighbors. Absence of monarchy and the significance of the commoner resounds in the ruins of the civilization to this day.

Of Temples and Palaces

A few centuries down the line, the subcontinent was home to several kingdoms, often warring with each other. Power, prestige and fame mattered. However, the obscure life of the common man did not. The tradition of the times saw its manifestation in colossal regal dwellings and landscapes. Religion had undergone a massive transformation from just a belief to a conglomerate of rituals and legends. Forms and functions were then a clear artefact of the domination of religion. The brilliant temples of the Nagara and Dravidian styles saw developments spanning multiple centuries. Besides, behind the grandeur was the king’s urge to outdo his ancestors and contemporaries. Basically, it was a show of wealth and prowess.

The Era of Invasions

What followed was a period of invasions, capture and consolidation that took shape over the next many years. The subcontinent played host to a variety of foreigners who were here for power, resources, shelter, or all of these. Bactrians, Scythians, Greeks, Sakas and Kushanas formed the earlier half of the brigade. The latter included the Turks, Afghans and the Mughals. India witnessed both forced and organic cultural amalgamations in all fields. From music to literature, language, cuisine and also the visual arts, the process culminated in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. Marvels of a culture new to the land sprang up, yet molded out of the hands of its local artisans.

At the same time, the sons of the soil were also etching legacies of a thousand years in different parts of the subcontinent. The grand wadas of the Marathas, the dreamy mahals of the Rajputs, the innumerable viharas of the Jains and Buddhists as well as several other big and small emblems of native Indian aristocracies were springing up in the subcontinent. In their own right, they spoke of the beautiful cultures these groups wished to preserve. For them, their buildings and surroundings were to bear testimony to their undying reluctance to give up. Their architecture was at times grand and sturdy, while at others it was serene and aloof.

Colonial Times

After centuries of this phase of acclimatization and a new identity came the colonial period. The British resolved to exploit India’s resources for their burgeoning economy. At the same time, they had to shoulder the burden of the “uncivilized” natives. The need to establish multiple centers to support the ‘modern’ and ‘superior’ administration that had taken over ‘uncultured’ Hindustan came to life in the form of multiple offices, courts, churches and halls. 

Huge markets with their share of ornamental columns, capitals and cornices sprang up to sell the processed goods of Britain. Small, simple churches came up in obscure corners of the town. Some grand ones occupied center stage in cities. Gradually, military establishments, forts and garrisons and capitol complexes adorned India’s skylines.

Currency Building
The Currency Building, Kolkata | ArchIndia

A Simple Takeaway

Whatever be the era, whoever be at the throne, the expression of architecture of the time has always rested on the contemporary context. Architectural styles and types have not emerged due to a few exclusive factors, but by taking into consideration multiple ones in togetherness. These factors are what have comprised the ‘tradition’ of the times. And yes, they have evolved over years, decades and centuries. 

If change is the only constant, tradition is prone to change too. And it can still retain some of its constancy. This is what has, and must define Indian architecture.

India’s independence ushered in an era of placing it on the global pedestal. The country had to make a mark on the rest of the world as not merely an independent nation, but as a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic. 

Some Food for Thought

But is a kaleidoscope of concrete, that shuns every inch of traditionalist expression, sufficient to describe modern, empowered India? This is where modernity, in the way that it has been perceived by many, poses real challenges to Indian architecture today. So, what really should modern Indian architecture look and feel like?

Sakshi Singh
Sakshi Singh

Sakshi is an Architect and Content Consultant, working towards bridging the gap between the AEC Industry and their need for strategic Digital Communications. She offers Content & Communications services for Architects, Designers and others in the Construction Industry as a freelancer.

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