Bharat Mandapam Sketch by Kavas Kapadia

Yesterday has arrived: The unveiling of Bharat Mandapam at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi.

Architect Kavas Kapadia's take on the newly inaugurated Bharat Mandapam and remembers his association with the Hall of Nations
Bharat Mandapam Sketch by Kavas Kapadia

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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.

Yesterday has arrived: The unveiling of Bharat Mandapam at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. 1

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 late Charles Correa often said that Architecture cannot be taught but can be learned. Have we really learned anything in the last 25 years? Considering the fact that architects all over the world, including in Africa, South America, Japan, China, and the other Asian countries, are producing and building cutting-edge designs, addressing environmental issues, and weaving local ethos into their works.

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.

The Government views the status of the profession as a commodity that must fit into the political calendar. If Norman Foster is to be believed, then “architecture is an expression of values.” And what is the new complex expressing?

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.”

Architecture as a profession has been taken for granted for far too long in India. Not getting its due recognition even after 70 years of independence is due to a lot of reasons, but especially in a society where the official recognition is subject to the bureaucratic whims and fancies of those who know it all, it has been harmful.

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

13 Responses

  1. Kavas, it is the architects problem that he did not know how to build temporary exhibition structures with reusable materials. My favourite structures from 1972 were the ones with steel space frames that could be dismantled quickly. Can you imagine Hall of Nations in steel or in wood? We could have transported and reused it elsewhere.
    Anyway india has reached the hamburger stage and that is what we will get in architecture.

  2. True picture of state of Architecture Profession in India.In last 5-6 decades profession has nose dived to serve political agenda. Redevelopment of central government housing colonies in New Delhi,New Parliament house are lost opportunities.Prof.Kavas Kapadia has rightly quoted Norman Foster “Architecture is expression of values.”

  3. Thank you for this erudite and brilliant critique and overview of what in my humble opinion is the crowning folly of the many architectural horrors that have upturned heritage and aesthetics this past decade..

  4. A compelling piece indeed. Every idea discussed right from the loss of an old Pragati Maidan wala lifestyle to the bureaucracy controlled architecture in the country is on the mark.

    1. I am neither inspired by the new Parliament building not the Mandapam. But in a country where 10 year time and 3X cost overruns were normalised, that delivering between cost and budget is being made a qualifying criteria is commendable.

      Anyone who has seen all the sarkari buildings built in Delhi post independence (the Bhawans and more) knows the reality this glorious, secular, diverse architecture that Mr. Kapadia talks about.

      For now, I will judge it based on how fit for purpose it proves to be – how do exhibitors and conference participants and visitors feel about the functional as aspects of the building. Hong Kong has a trade center which is a huge multi storeyed building where I don’t even remember how the facade looks like. But everything works perfectly. It would be great if Government moves away from try to show glorious past and critics introspect why all their ‘diversity, secularism’ represting architecture not fit for use just within 40-50 years.

  5. This fellows time line starts from 1959. At best he can recall mughals and europeans – does he know that bharat existed before mughals, Europeans and cingressi seculara – does he know that bharat was trading with world before the advent of even christ? Does he know the architecture of hindu temples, angkor wat – please stop showing your ignorant dirty teath – do not play with the identity of bharat in your ecstacy to eulogize upstarts. Let bharat re discover bharat – not just nehrus discovery of india. Identity is the backbone of any society – Hindus have a right for their identity.

  6. We, as a nation, need to develop a culture of conservation of our Architectural legacy, which needs to respect post independence architecture as well as that which is under ASI. It’s sad to see that in a country so large, we could not conserve architecture done by Indian masters, and had to rip them off, for want of space!

  7. As much as we go about blaming bureaucrats and the government for the disappointing situation of architectural practice here in India, we cannot deny the fact that architects themselves are largely responsible for this. Have not come across two doctors under-quoting each other to get more patients. But that is the norm for architects. So when a bunch of professionals do not have that respect for themselves, their work and the profession at large, how can one expect non-architects to value the profession.

  8. This article is scathing, and unnecessarily so.There is nothing wrong in preserving one’s heritage whilst embracing progress.The Mandapam is unique and beautiful. It will stand the test of time, just like the ancient culture it is based on.

    ‘Tomorrow is already here’ …
    let that sink in.

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