History, Architecture and Identity
In July this year, the Honourable Prime Minister of India inaugurated the new convention hall at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi and christened it ‘The Bharat Mandapam’. The elaborate traditional ritual performed during the inaugural ceremony and the choice of this name, which confers the new structure an identity, are meant to create a narrative that subtly extends this identity to the nation and the people of this nation. Important architectural icons tell us about the people who made it, especially the patron and etch a civilisational identity. At the end of the last century, between 1980 and 2000, France, under President François Mitterrand, undertook the Grandes Opérations d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme, of eight grand projects that came to be regarded as a “testament to political symbolism and process” of modern France – the architecture of these projects bestowed on the nation the identity as a modern nation.
The new convention hall is a swanky new showpiece for India’s global aspirations. These global aspirations must be viewed through the lens of how the country perceives itself and its self-image today and what the new narrative seems to direct us towards – an alternative sense of what we are. Identifying a people as an independent nation is far more consequential to the people’s psyche than we realise. Apart from the initial euphoria and excited pride, the subsequent cultural productions tell the stories of how the people perceive their new sense of selfhood. Literature, theatre (including films), music and painting are the vanguards in this process, but the role of architecture cannot be underestimated. For such large projects of national significance, architects often internalise the popular perception, which, in turn, informs the design. When asked what was the inspiration and vision behind the structure? The architect, Mr. Sanjay Singh, a partner in M/S Arcop Associates, said this;
“The aim was to build an iconic landmark, but we wanted it to go beyond that. We wanted to design something that shows India’s arrival, especially in terms of the architectural industry. At the same time, we wanted the project to be connected to its roots. If you look at the Mandapam, it is elliptical and has a very fluid form that is inspired by the way Yamuna is. It can take any form and doesn’t have rough edges. The site is located right next to Lutyen’s Delhi, the Kartavya Path. So, we wanted to pay respects to that. That is why the project has been lifted up, to create a window to Delhi, where you can see the canopy of India Gate, the Kartavya Path, and the domes of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. That is our inspiration, and that’s the vision with which we proceeded.”
Deconstructing the above suggests two interesting inferences: One, the reference to India’s arrival reflects the architects responding to the general will of the people to be contemporary and modern yet still rooted in the traditional ethos. A work of art is often seen as a reflection of the people’s general will and aspirations, which the artist is expected to have internalised. The artist’s interpretation and form of her expression may be a matter of debate. Still, we must accept that an architect will not present his work in the public domain unless he is convinced about receiving a nod of approval from the general public. This architect has either sensed the collective pulse of the people or he is playing to the gallery. In either case, it is the window to what the society expects. And he may be right.
And two, justifying the formal choices with respect to the physical contextualities of Yamuna and Lutyen’s Delhi suggests architects’ seeking to validate their formal choices from the surrounding context – an accepted contemporary practice (though in this case, the visual correspondences are tenuous, at best; the building is a self-referential object in space). Anyway, the new building is supposed to represent modern India with a significant historical past, at least in the perception of the architects, and maybe for a substantial segment of the society.
But then, we realise there is a disconnect between this perception and what the patron has in mind. The architect desires to locate his work in the present modernist aspirational India, but by naming it ‘Mandapam’, the patron evokes not only the past but a past. The patron seeks to represent, metaphorically, something more profound and politically significant. Reflecting on the name, ‘Bharat Mandapam’ makes it apparent. Mandapam is a stylised and Sanskritised variant of the word mandapa (मण्डप), which most of us easily relate to. Historically, It referred to a general gathering area in an Indian temple, usually in front of the Garbhagraha, comparable to a Western church’s narthex. Today, however, in popular culture and through continuous usage over the centuries, it has been transformed into a temporary structure, tent, or marquee for mass gatherings, for religious or secular purposes, and is covered with translucent fabric. In most of the Hindi-speaking North India, it is called shamiyana, derived from the Persian šâmiyâne.
The choice of the Sanskrit version is not accidental. As one of the oldest and most sophisticated languages, Sanskrit’s status, function, and place in India’s cultural heritage are beyond contest. Its origin dates back to the Vedic era. It is the repository of one of the most sophisticated thought systems, having evolved parallel to and in active diffusion with Greek thought. However, Sanskrit was never the language of the commoner. It was never the language of the bazaars; its use was limited to the upper-class elites and the ruling class. As such, it was always a language of exclusion. The rest, the ordinary people, relied on the local dialects to carry out their day-to-day communication. These dialects were not developed enough for expressive cultural constructs like literature, poetry, music, and arts until after the 10th century when they began to emerge as Bhashas (provincial languages). Today, these languages are thriving while Sanskrit has ceased to be a living language for more than a millennium; in the 1961 census, it was claimed by only 2212 persons, out of a population of close to a billion, as their mother tongue. Since then, the number and the ratio have steadily dwindled.
But Sanskrit represents and evokes the glorious past. What India is now, it was Bharat then. There is more than a millennium of history in between, which is no less magnificent. In this interregnum, the Indian civilisation has continued to evolve via the communication medium of Bhashas. We, as people, have acquired attributes and characters that cumulatively make us what we are today, warts and all. Through the medium of these bhashas, and by embracing English too, we have produced great philosophy, science, literature, arts, architecture, music, dance, etc. This India today is worth being proud of.
To name the new convention hall in the capital ‘Bharat Mandapam’, then, is an act of representation. Both ‘Bharat’ and “Mandapam’ have historical meanings which are politically loaded. They position the new structure and the self-image of the nation in the distant and Sanskritic past by leapfrogging backwards over the recent history of their popular associations. The arrow of time, which connects this selective distant past with the present, also points towards an implied future radically different from that envisioned by the founders. There is a concerted effort to rewrite the story of India.
How does a nation, as a social formation, come into existence on a date before which it was not? The sense of history has a lot to do with this question. Once a nation comes into existence, it invariably lays claims to a past; it tells a story about its history, confirming its existence and making everyone comfortable about its inevitability. The nation is new and modern but claims to have a past that makes everyone secure with an old and historically inevitable national identity. Under normal circumstances, this story and the claims of historical inevitability get etched in the national consciousness as self-evident through the regular education system. The founders of modern India had imagined such a story. Jawaharlal Nehru had narrated this story in his “Discovery of India”, and for almost half a century, we all were happy. This story is now being contested.
By their very nature, all such stories have to be some part of the whole of the past and, thus, susceptible to contestation. In India, even though the founders had imagined a story wherein all the diversity and plurality of India were accounted for, it is in the nature of such narratives to be subjective to the narrator’s perspective, and some events or personalities had to be foregrounded more than others. So, there were other counterstories, too. One such counterstory going around among nations that have emerged from the imperial past or those with a history of considerable immigrant populations, such as India or the United States, tend to imagine a distant past of ‘innocence’ and how that innocence was lost during the relatively recent history either with colonisation or immigration. The ‘story’, which really is a myth, is meant to validate the present political position promising to resurrect the innocent and righteous past. The recent campaign in the USA to “Make America Great Again” is an example of this phenomenon. Also, in India, it is felt that both the arrival of Arabs and Islam, and European colonisation had polluted the ancient classical past, which needs to be purified by ejecting these polluting parts of history. This rich and glorious past, minus the last thousand years, we are told, should be the fountainhead of our new national identity.
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 upon 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 and what you are responsible for. The past is contained in the present.
One is reminded of the English poet T.S. Eliot’s inciteful observation of this linked relationship between the past and the present:
Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it, you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.
The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. The past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.
The poet wrote the above referring to literature. It applies equally to architecture. Either way, it tells us to think not only of the pastness of the past but also of its presence. The idea of ‘Mandapam’ has a past in the classical India. It also has its presence in the forms of ‘mandap’ and ‘shamiyana’ in our daily life today. Their simultaneous existence in our collective memories makes us what we are today. It all boils down to finding a way to integrate our history, the whole history, in our perception of modernity, a way of thinking about being modern without negating the past, wherein the precedents and innovations, traditions and modernity, past and the present, co-exist. Is it possible to conceive of architecture that co-populates these binaries? How may our work be authentically modern (not just fashionably new) yet traditional, a la T.S. Eliot?
Ironically and tragically, a work of such authenticity did exist at the same spot at Pragati Maidan in Delhi. Still, we demolished it to make way for the present convention hall. The present structure requires an extraneous identity, a name – Mandapam – to establish its authenticity, which really is a myth. The earlier structure called itself, unselfconsciously, the Hall of Nations, evoking a gathering place for people of all origins, which is what shamiyanas do. In reality, though, it was a shamiyana in concrete. Born of the happy marriage between the imagination of architect Raj Rewal and the ingenuity of the structural designer Mahendra Raj, it was a re-interpretation of the traditional shamiyana in the contemporary context of India’s arrival as second to none in the global order. As if following the advice of T.S. Eliot, it altered the past (the traditional form of shamiyana) by the present (need for large gatherings, availability of modern technology) as much as directed the present (technology) to innovate an appropriate architectural re-interpretation of the past (shamiyana); a ‘tent’ large enough to accommodate many gatherings and uses. It was iconic and confident in its bold use of concrete for a technology more suited to steel. Looking at it, one cannot but be proud of being an Indian. But we demolished the shamiyana to build a mandapam.
Could it be that the enigma of its identity pre-ordained its destruction and replacement by something with an uncertain identity before we can comprehend the true nature of the original?
I recall an ancient Greek paradox known as Theseus’s paradox or the ‘Ship of Theseus’ first recorded, most likely by Plutarch in the first century. The story goes something like this: King Theseus of Athens built a beautiful ship with which he went far and wide on many adventures and battles, during which time the ship needed many repairs, and, in the process, many parts had to be replaced. Upon his return, the ship was anchored at the bay of Athens, where it was initially built. The Athenians preserved the ship for many generations as a memorial to their victorious king. But over the years, all the original wooden parts had to be replaced again as they decayed. The paradox is that when none of the parts was initially built by Theseus, is the ship still the ‘Ship of Theseus’ as it was always identified? At its core, this story raises questions of identity: how does an object acquire its identity when its materiality is disassociated from its origin? What remains with the origin? In other words, what is the source of its identity?
We look to Aristotle, who provides a clue to resolve the paradox. According to Aristotle, the ‘what-it-is’ of anything – its identity – comes from its formal cause, i.e., the design, the way its materiality is chosen and assembled together. Thus, it is inseparably connected with the materiality but is not the material body itself. The material parts can be changed or replaced during the process of preservation, but so long as the design remains unaltered, it retains its identity. Thus, the ‘it’ is the immaterial idea of the ship, conceived by Theseus, that is the source of its identity and not the materiality of the ship itself, which is replaceable.
Philosophers have a way of saying things that may sound perplexing at times. I believe this concept of Formal Cause needs to be explored in a way that we all can relate to. Think about a bird that we all know of – chicken. The name lends it its identity, not only from the fact that we are familiar with it as such but also it looks different from other similar creatures, say, a peacock, which has a crown like a chicken and feathers and sings. Yet, their identities are different because their bodies, with similar parts, are assembled with different designs. Science tells us that at the more fundamental molecular level, both birds share a similarity of materials. And yet, nature has designed these and assembled the materials in ways that make one bird a chicken and the other a peacock. You can say the same about a tiger; the ferociousness, the stripes, the dignified, graceful and confident stride with which he walks and patrols his territory in the jungle are all part of the formal cause. Even when there are two tigers whose bodies may differ from one tiger to another, the design remains. We may then ask, what is the chickenness of a chicken as opposed to the tigerness of a tiger? Does identity reside in that ‘ness’ of everything?
This is not dissimilar to what Alberti had proposed; all edifices consist of Design and Matter; “the first is produced by the thought, the other by nature; so that the one is to be provided by the application and contrivance of the mind, and the other by due preparation and choice”. But then, can Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Fallingwater’ be built using similar materials at a similar but different site called the ‘Fallingwater’? They both will be identical but not the ‘same’ in the sense that the identity of the original is also tied to the moment and the place of its making. Thus, we can further narrow down the question of identity: it is not just the idea in abstraction but its material and ethical connectedness with the time and the place of its making that distinguishes one from the other. One is authentic; the other is not.
The idea of shamiyana was integral to the conception of the Hall of Nations, though it was not consciously named so: the design unmistakably reflected this. It was the shamiyananess that was its identity. In its present form, it contained the entire history from mandapam to shamiyana, reflecting the composite culture of modern India. It was a modern classic, not in the sense of a work that has stood the test of time and has been bestowed this honour by the authority of the past epoch. A modern work becomes classic because it has once been authentically modern. It was authentically modern not only because its design was rooted in the time and the place of its making but also because it conveyed a sense of history in which precedent and innovation, past and present, tradition and modernity co-existed. But it expressed a different idea of modernity, one that does not reject any part of its past but builds on it.
If both Mandapam and shamiyana are only linguistic variants of the same idea, then one would expect the design of the new building to embody that idea in spirit and form. If the Hall of Nations was comparable to the ‘Ship of Theseus’, could the Convention Hall be like a modern-day battleship in its application of technology and its formal expression as a modern-day mandapam? It is clear that the name, ‘Mandapam’, is pasted onto a structure that is not it. Granted, it is iconic and new, but it is fashionably new and not authentically modern.
Could it be that the demolition of the Hall of Nations was pre-ordained? Could it be that the enigma of its identity was such that we can comprehend it only by first demolishing it and then replacing it with something of doubtful identity?
The above essay includes excerpts from the author’s forthcoming book, Sense of History.
 Sanjay Singh, The Sunday Guardian, September 10, 2023.
 T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, (1920).