Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture, Urbanism, and Colonialism in Delhi (Architext)

£29.99 (Paperback)

Cover image

By Jyoti Hosagrahar

Edited by N;

Published by Routledge, 2005


ISBN 978-0415323765

Review by Tim Catchpole

Jyoti Hosagrahar, Routledge, 2005

Neither the title, the subtitle, nor the front cover excited me, but when I opened this book and discovered it was about Delhi I was immediately captivated. A serious oversight on the part of the author (or was it the publisher?) for leaving Delhi off the front cover.

Delhi must be one of the most interesting case studies in the history of urban design. This book is authored by one who grew up in New Delhi and explored the ‘Old’ Delhi while a student of planning and architecture. The ‘modernities’ referred to in the title are not so much the global architecture and planning of today as the colonial architecture and planning which the British imperialists endeavoured to impose on the Delhi of the 19th century. The author describes how Delhi had been an organic walled city in the time of the Moguls, how the British after the Mutiny in 1857 were determined to introduce public health improvements, how they succeeded in some areas but were thwarted in others by people who resented the foreign intrusion, how early expansion outside the walls had to contend with squatter settlements, and how later expansion in the form of the grand design of New Delhi succeeded in transforming the outside area leaving the walled city to decline.

It is interesting how today the British Empire is seen as having earned a rather poor reputation. The author, however, presents a balanced case. She recognises that, when the British took over in 1857, public health improvements were a high priority in London and therefore they had to be in Delhi too and that in the widening of roads and construction of public buildings the British were not entirely disrespectful of the local vernacular. It is these improvements that can be described as the indigenous modernities. Although the author does not say so, the British were a lot more respectful than the French imperialists in Pondicherry and le Corbusier in Chandigarh.

My grandfather was in the public health team in Delhi and was determined, like his team, to eradicate the potential spread of disease in the old city. As the author indicates, the public health team needed to apply floorspace standards in the knowledge that such standards were being applied in the UK, and yet the standards could not possibly be the same. They were indigenous. Even so, the enforcement of the standards was Sisyphean.

Where the book is slightly out of balance is in the greater focus given to ‘Old’ Delhi. New Delhi is covered in only one chapter and I felt more could have been said about the compromises made by Lutyens and Baker. What is sad is that the more recent modernities, the concrete and glass of global architecture, do not have the indigenous qualities that the much maligned British imperialists introduced. Perhaps the author should explore this further in an updated edition. A beautifully written book with some purple passages and some fine illustrations, albeit all in black and white.

(This review was first published in Urban Design 98, Spring 2006 and is reproduced with the Editor's kind permission)