A wrong turn on the desolate roads of Delhi recently led me to the historic space around the wide and verdant India Gate hexagon. Blazing with golden and flowery laburnums these days, it was easy to look away from the barricaded enclosures on all sides. Several old buildings that have forever dotted the Delhi landscape are about to be demolished, making way for a new Parliament, a Prime Minister’s House and a new National Museum, among others. India’s colonial past resurfaces in this tiny expanse of perfection which in another era was called, broadly enough, Kingsway. At some point in their lives, the people of Delhi, and indeed all visitors to the capital, strolled along these lawns or picnicked here as schoolchildren.
Although I regularly pass by, I never entered Udyog Bhavan, one of the iconic buildings that should be sentenced to the equivalent of the death penalty. To my untrained eye, this is hardly an architectural marvel. Its rigid and sober symmetry in an inexplicable shade of pink is reminiscent of Stalinist ideals. Perhaps that was the idea, which explains the name Udyog, meaning industrious. Half expect to see bleak, expressionless people patiently lining up for a loaf of bread outside. I imagine the Conservatives would have a hard time defending an austere structure that screams communism. Except that even horribly ugly buildings form a lifeline in our travels – if only to remind us of how far we’ve come. As the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang suggests that opposing or opposing forces complement each other, exposure to ugliness is part of the process, even necessary, of developing an understanding of beauty.
Of course, the question of aesthetic judgment is particularly thorny in a diverse society, where several cultural identities and therefore heritages coexist. What should be protected and promoted? Who decides? Consensus seems impossible. However, after independence India was built not only by a handful of leaders in parliament, but by the lakhs of anonymous government employees who have walked the halls of Udyog Bhawan since 1957. The building is perhaps -be devoid of artistic sense, but it is a record of their contribution. Tearing it down is akin to how many women feel about their grandmothers’ ugly jewelry. Even if you never wear it, the question of exchanging it for a Cartier bracelet simply does not arise. Because “heritage” is not just a structure but our collective memories and our associations with it.
Familiar environments and public spaces bear tangible and intangible traces of our past. They have the power to bend time and bring us back to a time in our life that we thought was forever over. Humanity is essentially nostalgic. Even though I never return to the Gateway of India again, it is lodged in the back of my head, connecting my past and my present. We are urged to live in the moment, but we spend our time subconsciously processing our own experiences. It’s still the books and people we fell in love with, and the environment we grew up in, that shape our understanding of how the world works. Governments should therefore be wary of erasing the structures that bind us as citizens, because they remind us of where we came from. Getting rid of the old to create something new is the progressive American way, but it is not a true reflection of Indian life.
Should it be? Perhaps. Modern ideas open up new perspectives. This is philosophically accepted as the march of time. Yet around the world, the destruction of old buildings is associated with countries at war where social order has collapsed. It cannot be a coincidence that the most popular apocalyptic films like Godzilla and GI Joe blow up iconic architecture like the Eiffel Tower, to underline the disaster, in the most visceral way. This is to argue that civilization, as we know it, is under constant threat.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 30, 2021, under the title “When Familiarity Brings Joy”.
The writer is director, Hutkay Films