Jagan Shar


Revised on 27 Jan 2009

The word “modern” is described in various ways in India. The most common understanding is socio-cultural, where modern means anything that is different from, and presumably opposed to, the traditional. In a political sense, India’s modernity commenced with independence, on 15th August, 1947, which also marked the beginning of the Nehruvian era, during which the Indian nation developed its technological, industrial, infrastructural and urban dimensions. Thirdly, the scientific and technological establishment allies itself with the classic definition of the modern, as an era that began with industrialization and the accompanying social changes of the 19th century.

Each description indicates a point of beginning, but in the first two, we find a relation of confrontation rather than continuity. The modern becomes removed from its matrix, which is always the past. In a former colony like India, this opposition may be obvious in a political sense, but it is untenable in the socio-cultural sense. The widespread misconception that the modern is opposed to the traditional way of life has created the hostility that most Indians feel towards modern architecture. If mAAN’s agenda has to bear fruit in India, this misunderstanding must urgently be corrected.

Architectural culture in India continues to suffer from confusion: is modern architecture a socio-cultural, political or technological fact? Dominant discourses about Indian architecture have taken the political tack,mainly because since 1947, the nation-state has been the primary(in some regions, the only (client of the Indian architect and planner. Most of the prominent Indian practices of today have been beneficiaries of sizeable and numerous government contracts. It is natural, then, that histories of “modern” architecture in India are replete with Nehru’s legacy. Their master narratives are as if inspired entirely by his heroic brief to the architect Le Corbusier in Chandigarh: to build an architecture “unfettered by the past.” It was politically and culturally expedient for Nehru to celebrate modern architecture as heralding a new India, as the built manifestation of a new society. But his heroism has borne a bitter fruit.

The political and the socio-cultural understanding of the modern are both tainted with cynicism. As a result, the modern has been confused with the novel, the whimsical and the arbitrary. The architect as visionary, as the fountainhead of the new, as the creator of “frozen music” has replaced the architect as the master of art as well as science, of geology as well as alchemy, of sculpture as well as brick-laying. As a creation of such a one-dimensional character, modern architecture is reduced to a mere adjective.

When modern architecture is understood as a manifestation of the fundamental changes effected by science and technology, when we understand the holistic nature of the built environment, then we free it from artistic arbitrariness and render it historical. Technology encompasses the socio-cultural as well as the political, the material and the metaphysical, and it is the only clue in unraveling the puzzle we call modern architecture.

Technological modernity is indispensable to any agenda for preserving modern architecture in India, as it places architecture squarely within the lives of people and their creative expression. It also saves history from over-simplification, thereby discouraging easy distinctions between what is Indian and what is foreign/Western. Thus, modern architecture in India needs preservation not because of the novelty of its stylistic devices but because it represents a vital link with the ideas, aspirations, dreams and innovations that created a modern democracy. Modern architecture is invaluable as a living tribute to the modern ideals that energize our present and guide our approach to the future.