International trade fairs and such occasions are landmark opportunities that occur infrequently and almost always have a global history of breaking new ground.
Pragati Maidan in New Delhi is one such arena. It dates back to when it was just a ‘Maidan, a big 150 acre open space, big enough to hold an International Agriculture Trade Fair in 1959. The event was truly international in the sense that the most popular pavilions of the time were those of the US, USSR, and China. Among the high profile visitors were President Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR and President Dwight Eisenhower of the USA, who graced the occasion.
I, as a curious schoolboy at the time, have enduring memories of a couple of events. The first one of the US pavilions was the ‘circurama’, a cinema hall of round shape projecting 360 degrees, and it was my first taste of a real-life sensation in a cinema hall. The second is that of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru coming as a visitor, surrounded by cheering crowds within a handshake distance.
The second chapter in the history of the Pragati Maidan begins in 1972, when Mrs. Indira Gandhi inaugurated it to commemorate the Asian Games to be held in India. We all became familiar with this exhibition ground years later.
By this time, I was a young architect, freshly out of college, seeking to build my career in an Architectural office. Having had the good fortune to be working on a small pavilion for the historic occasion, working late the last few nights to meet the inauguration deadline was a thrilling and unforgettable experience. There was a buzz in the air. Some of my colleagues working with other firms would often get together late at night and gossip, exchanging details of their own creations coming up to meet the inaugural deadline.
We were in awe of not only the three massive pyramid-like structures that dominated the skyline, the work of Raj Rewal and Kuldeep Singh, and the structural engineer Mahendra Raj, but also an all-round 24×7 feverish activity in the Maidan.
The halls enclosing massive space, with ramps leading up to the 1st floor level and the intricate web of the RCC space truss holding the structure up, were a welcome introduction to unique buildings and seemed to be a fitting tribute to the state of the art of the profession that was till then so heavily reliant on the Mughal and later British buildings to project its place in the sun. There was a promise of the state of the art and an exciting future for the profession here.
But the full range of varied structures and designs taking shape all over the complex also held their own importance. The main three halls, the Hall of Nations, the Hall of States, and the Hall of Industries, were flanked by a number of smaller halls and state pavilions arranged around a water body with an open air theatre elegantly built into it designed by Ram Sharma. Adjoining it was the restaurant Phulkari by Jasbir Sachdev, and on the other end of the lake was the beautiful cinema cum OAT called Shakuntalam, the work of Design Group. Some of these smaller structures were to last long enough to become an integral part of the life style of Delhi. Just the knowledge that the Maidan was the joint work of practically all the known names of the time—CSH Jhabvala, Habib Rehman, Charles Correa—the list was endless—was a matter of great pride.
The larger message delivered was that it was a truly democratic space open for equal opportunity provided annually to all aspiring and established professions to showcase their talents, as the trade fair had become an annual affair and all young architects looked towards the schedule of the year to be able to display their works on 14th November. Many non-state pavilions were given on the condition that they would be dismantled on the expiration of the exhibition date, so one had to be creative enough to be able to deliver on those conditions. The demolition of the Hall of Nations and the entire complex to announce the rebuilding of the Conference Centre put an end to that lifestyle forever.
The third act in the life of the Maidan came on July 26, 2023, when it was reincarnated as a ‘world class’ International Exhibition and Conference Centre (IECC), Bharat Mandapam, to cement the emerging image of India as a ‘global power’. Almost all the TV channels beamed the formal inauguration of the new complex. The scene was reminiscent of an intense Bollywood setting, showing a heavenly figure proudly walking the red carpet to the applause of nearly 7,000 (the full seating capacity of the new hall), kept at a safe distance by a posse of menacing-looking men in black. The carpet seemed to disappear into infinity under an object resembling the nearest vaahan that transports one to and from the galaxy. This crown jewel of the new complex, the announcer clarifies, is indeed the ‘world-class’ conference hall, one of the biggest in the world!
The bureaucratically controlled architecture in India seems to have ‘discovered’ itself in the form of a couple of qualifying markers for it to be proclaimed Indian. Even if the body of the structure is inspired by the most unimaginative and tacky brick and glass structure of the mid-seventies of the middle American town, it must be clad in red sandstone, and secondly, the completed interiors must have the Indian themes of scriptures as paintings or sculptures on the walls and ceiling. Including the omnipresent ‘mayur pankh. This is noticeable in the new Parliament building, the Pragati Tunnel, and other Bhavans.
Architecture does not have a religion, caste, or category. It is something that must touch your finer senses and leave a lingering impression. This is taught in the school of architecture and practised by most professionals around the world. The Hall of Nations and the entire complex in its earlier avatar were an attempt to find a new identity for India and Indian architecture. Rather than build upon that quest and further develop a unique category of thought-provoking architectural solutions, the political mainstream ideology has turned the profession back by 25 years in the year of Amrit Mahotsav, giving it a strong religious slant.
We are the proud inheritors of the Taj Mahal, the Ellora Caves, the Stupa at Sanchi, and the Cathedral of Bom Jesus. Even the ruins of our heritage buildings have the potential to move us. India is and always has been a land of diversity, making us proud of our past and our present.
Now it can be argued that the Hall of Nations had aged and outlived its life, but the option of retrofitting the existing structures would have given a suitable challenge to our architects and engineers to refurbish and modify the structures to modern-day needs. And create much more needed floor space out of it. Also, there were many other structures that would have come to life with a little creative intervention. Indian architects and conservation specialists would have been proud to decline this opportunity if offered.
All over the world, large investments are made with the larger good of society at stake. A whole new conference centre, if at all necessary, could have been located outside the city limits to meet the needs of a new or strengthen an existing small town. This is not only done all over the world but is also in keeping with the NCR proposal to shift major Offices out of Delhi, which would have been a graceful compromise. But then, such a surgical intervention would have created problems and required planning, time, and above all, political will.
With all respect to our professional colleagues who designed the complex, they must have been asked to deliver this project in record time—just like a pizza. The soulless collection of boxes with plastic finishes certainly does not inspire confidence.
Way removed from the simple definition of architecture by master architect Tadao Ando: ”The box that provokes.”
When the architecture juries, selection committees, even design committees, and academic and executive committees in the schools of architecture are headed and scrutinised by bureaucrats, it begins to show. They tell us what is ‘world-class’ and what is the next big project. Good is confused with big. The biggest statue in the world, the biggest stadium in the world, and the promise of bigger things to come with zero intervention of specialists and experts.
Some comment somewhere has said that the meeting hall is larger than the Sydney Opera House, a building that has become a trademark not only for the harbour that it overlooks and that inspired its architectural form from the sails of boats but indeed the modern-day symbol of the country. Does the Mandapam have the potential to celebrate the unity , diversity, and hope that today’s dynamic India evokes in every Indian heart? And become an architectural symbol of the new India?
This is happening despite a handful of architects in the field operating against all odds and continuing to make a mark for themselves in India and abroad.
Only time will decide the fate of the IECC, but just because our heritage goes back thousands of years, is it fair to wait for the next 25 years to revert to the common man’s perception of pride in our Pragati Maidan.
Featured Image: Sketch by Kavas Kapadia