DECODING ICONIC BUILDINGS

A fascinating account of the history and architecture of the power corridors on Raisina Hill

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

Lord hardinge’s role has been completely ignored,” points out Dhirendra Singh, the former Home Secretary and the co-author of Sentinels of Raisina Hill, a delightful book that takes one literally through the power corridors of New Delhi. “We continue to only talk about Edward Lutyens, but forget that without Hardinge, New Delhi would have been impossible,” says Mohan Joseph, a senior IAS officer who co-authored the book with Singh. The then Viceroy, despite a series of tragedies which included a bomb attack and the death of his son, was instrumental in making New Delhi.

Meanwhile, Lutyen’s hatred for all things Indian is duly recorded. “It is all quite ironic. He didn’t even like the bungalows in what is famously known as the Lutyens Bungalow Zone and called them bungle-ohs,” says Singh, pointing to the fact that the architect is credited for all the magnificent buildings when it was the collective effort of so many others, including Herbert Baker, once Lutyens’ good friend before the two fell apart over an argument on the site of the erstwhile Government House and the Secretariat Buildings. Lutyens wanted to give precedence to Government House (now Rashtrapati Bhawan) while Baker wanted the Secretariat buildings (North and South Blocks) to stand out. This is what ultimately happened. “It was really important to make a distinction between the Government and the Viceroy,” says Singh. “You can’t have the Government of India downhill and the Viceroy sitting on top,” he adds. “He said the power is going to shift from the North and the South Blocks.” And that is what eventually happened.

Sentinels of Raisina Hill,  interestingly, came out of an accidental discovery of the foundation stones laid by King George V and Queen Mary  when the British decided to move the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. “They were in a really bad shape, lying in a state of neglect,” says Joseph, who discovered the foundation stones locked up in a chamber. “It was Singh who ordered them to be restored,” he adds. The duo wanted the chambers to be kept open for the public. However, a couple of years later, after the intervention of Delhi Police, they were shut due to security reasons. There were other interesting instances too. Like how the authors, for a long time, believed that the Persian inscription in front of South Block is just a translation of the famous words written on the entrance of  North Block: ‘Liberty will not descend to a people. A people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.’ “However, when we got the Persian translated, it turned out to be something totally different,” says Joseph.

“There was no standalone book on the history and architecture of these magnificent buildings,” points out Joseph. “None of us were historians or architects. But we did have a fair knowledge of the evolution of the architectural style and the history,” he says, narrating how they decided to bring out a book. “We have traced the evolution of the Secretariat buildings during the Raj from the Writers’ Building in Kolkata to the Secretariat in Shimla. And to make it more interesting we engaged a graphic artist, Virendra Kalra, who did the sketches instead of the photos that are used,” Singh says. “That was a really tumultuous time in the history of the country and especially the rule of the Raj. Bengal had just been partitioned when the decision to move the capital was taken. It was in sync with keeping the federal structure intact,” says Singh. “That is the reason one sees a lot of elements from all parts of the country that have been brought in. The emblems, the motifs, that was the view,” adds Joseph. 

Through the architecture and history of the two buildings, the book deals with the lofty ideals of governance. “It is essentially about governance,” Singh says. “Look at the protruded terraces outside both North and South Blocks. If one goes through Baker’s memoirs, they were essentially designed so that the high and the mighty who inhabited the buildings may come out from time to time and take a look at the vast expanse of the city and think of the challenges and responsibilities lying ahead,” Joseph points out. “In that sense this book has been written keeping in mind the civil servants as well, who don’t know much about the rich history. We also have a chapter on the history of the civil services,” says Singh. 

Meanwhile, both Singh and Joseph are unhappy at the way the government and bureaucracy are completely ignorant of the history and the thought process that went into the making of these iconic buildings. “Take, for example, the War Room. It has all the emblems of the various states, depicting the federal structure. The government of the day should try to hold conferences and all state meetings in this chamber instead of Vigyan Bhawan,” Singh suggests, adding that such public buildings should be open to the public. “I have been to the House of Lords, the parliament in New Zealand, Australia et al. Nowhere in the First World you see them out of bounds,” he says. “We, on the other hand never opened them up,” he concludes.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2014