As I write this, questions are being raised about the relevance of teaching history in high schools. In architecture schools, history is taught only grudgingly, and that too, by teachers who have no passion for history. Ominous signs point towards a growing uneasiness about the supposed objectivity of History and the role architecture plays as traces in reconstructing an image of the past. The Hall of Nations in New Delhi by architect Raj Rewal and structural designer Mahendra Raj is already demolished. The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, contemplates demolishing 18 dormitories designed by Louis I. Kahn. Prof. Director of IIM-A justified the institute’s decision thus; “We have grappled with questions as to why we should presume that the past is not changeable and why we should assume that future generations will value things in exactly the same way that past generations have. We wondered if it is appropriate for us to colonize future perceptions of living spaces. As we try to preserve the past to prevent loss, how much are we creating our own imagination of the past?”
Apparently, the present, as the immediate past of the future generation, is presumed to be an obstacle and impediment in the future generation’s imagination of the past.
One is reminded that Bauhaus indeed proscribed teaching history in its pedagogy ostensibly to prevent the young students from being overwhelmed by past examples inhibiting their ability to explore new and uncharted paths. History is seen as an enemy of objectivity. But we expect history to make human societies and their material representations attain the dignity of objectivity. However, this objectivity, proper to history, differs from that of the natural sciences.
It has been seventy-five years since the birth of modern India. During this time, in many ways, the notions of what constitutes both ‘modern’ as well as ‘India’ have undergone significant transformations.
Still, it will be wrong to say that there existed unanimity on these ideas in the middle of the last century; these were defined almost exclusively by the Western-educated elites and were accepted unconsciously by the masses.
Though there did exist a small political minority, among the educated elite class itself, who questioned the ‘idea of India’ enshrined in the constitution, it was just that, a minority, without much significant impact in the face of the euphoria of the new freedom and the possibilities it promised. It is not a surprise, then, that this seemingly monolithic self-image of the society found an affinity with the Modern Movement in architecture, with its preference for isolated, self-referential and also, on occasions, grandiose buildings as representation.
But such unanimity and agreement about the idea of India, however elusive it may have been, is not obtainable today. Indian society is far more self-conscious of its diversity and internal tensions.
The very ‘idea of India’ is on trial today.
This social tension has become a ready instrument in the hands of what was once the political minority, but is now in authority, to question the secular premises on which the edifice of the nation was built. The question of articulating a vision of future India has paradoxically landed us in the mythical past.
But the roots of the problem, I believe, go much deeper, and the issue is far more complex than merely articulating the identity of a nation or the state of her modernity. How are we to revive, retain and perpetuate our cultural heritage and identities in this new milieu while humankind as a whole is on the brink of a single world-civilization, based on the power of science and technology to solve all our problems and unite the whole of humanity as a gigantic global technological civilization? This notion that the cultural contours of the world, which is distinguished today by the peaks and valleys of multiple civilizations, is fast being flattened out to a singular global technical culture is predicated on the premise that the one attribute that humankind as a whole share is the rational scientific spirit.
This rational scientific spirit is assumed to be Greek in its origin and has reached its zenith through European scientists and philosophers like Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Diderot, Kant, etc. Its laws are supposed to be universal and thus have the power to unify humankind. With the ascendency of this Cartesian and Kantian worldview, it has become received wisdom that reality is measurable. Therefore, anything that cannot be measured or cannot be described in quantifiable terms is not real. With this, all knowledge had to be subjected to strict scrutiny for its verifiability against reason. Science and technology embody this measurable reality and are the guiding beacons of this age.
Architecture, too, should be aligned with science and technology in this age of reason and industrialization. If history is not as objective as natural sciences, out with it.
Interestingly, the narrative has been shifting since the turn of the century.
It manifests at two levels. First, India, as a nation and a people, is far more confident today about itself as a sustainable political and cultural entity. Seventy years ago, this was not the case; few believed in the nation’s ability to resist the centrifugal secession forces. As a result, after independence, the assumed antinomy and polarity of tradition and modernity have occupied a central position in the yet-not-settled issue of nationhood. The psyche of every thinking Indian had shades of traditionalism and modernism co-existing yet struggling for supremacy and occasionally reaching for a negotiated truce. And second, unfortunately, while the question of nationhood is now more or less resolved, nationalism has occupied the psyche of a significant segment of society, rejecting any negotiated truce and demanding a politically convenient interpretation of history. It means pomposity and grandiosity, as in the proposed Central Vista project in the heart of Delhi while demolishing the Hall of Nations of Raj Rewal and the dormitories of Louis Kahn. It is in this context that the seemingly innocent concern about ‘colonizing the future perceptions of living spaces’ may be read.
Walter Benjamin observed that during radical cultural transformations, people tend to look at not the immediate past but the distant ancient past to harvest images of a stable and unified society as a counter to the one they are experiencing. In India, this rear-view-mirror approach sees the history of the last one thousand years, beginning with the arrival of the Arabs and Muslims and including the modernist era, as an uninvited imposition on India to be viewed with suspicions. This project of ‘Make India Great Again’ ignores not only the creative diffusion of ideas, art and architecture between the Indic and Islamic civilizations but also the modernist sensibilities of Tagore and Gandhi, not to mention the whole bunch of visionaries who founded India.
The onset of the universal technological civilization was also supposed to herald the utopia that the linear march of time has promised, so much so that even the “End of History” was proclaimed. Humankind seemed to have won a victory against time and history. It was also a distorted sense of modernity and tradition. It is necessary to make a distinction between tradition and orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is born when traditions are focalized on lifeless unchanging ideas without contemporary relevance. Tradition, on the other hand, is the creation and preservation of significance and can remain contemporaneous with us and are open to critical review. At the same time, as conceived by Descartes, Kant, et al., modernity is the essential modernity of spirit and not the aesthetic modernity of appearances. This modern spirit continuously interacts with living traditions in a dialectic process in which both traditions and modernity redefine each other.
There are two ways of constructing a narrative of nationhood; by myth or by history.
The way of myth is centred around the perception of the self, us and people like us; how we were pure and innocent once. It leads us to imagine the chosen ancient history as the trustworthy repository of our identity. Architecture, being the most visible trace of the past, is often seized as a weapon in this cultural war of identity. Unfortunately, this national myth prevails everywhere, and it is tempting to fall back on it. The way of history, on the other hand, allows you to remember and add to it what others remember, added to other sources and other perspectives, constantly and critically, so that you see what you have made and that which, in turn, also has made you, warts and all. What you are responsible for. This sense of responsibility can, at times, be fearsome but is also a mark of adulthood.
Featured Image: Hall of Nations, by Tashi Tobgyal