In Retrospection: Shivdatt Sharma

CURATED BY SANGEET SHARMA

The Capital Project of Chandigarh is among the most widely discussed and debated projects in the history of Modern Architecture in India. Under the trusteeship of Prime Minister Nehru, several young Indian architects joined hands to contribute to the mammoth task of nation-building, working across diverse sectors such as buildings for Space Research & Technology, Administrative Infrastructure, Cultural & Educational Institutions and Housing. At the forefront alongside his better-known contemporaries, was Architect Shivdatt Sharma [SD Sharma], a silent but powerful contributor to the ‘modernist’ landscape of a young India. In this piece, curated and assimilated by his son and architect Sangeet Sharma, SD Sharma writes about his time working alongside Le Corbusier and as an apprentice under Pierre Jeanneret

In an intimate note that follows, Sangeet Sharma shares instances of growing up in the newly built city of Chandigarh and working under Shivdatt Sharma as an apprentice for almost two decades. He reflects on the many relationships that he has nurtured with his father, over the years – one of a friend, philosopher and guide.


LEARNING FROM LEGENDS
Authored by Shivdatt Sharma

Le Corbusier and his associates, all being the members of CIAM, processed the pure architecture that was to be followed in the making of Chandigarh. They believed that geometry was a timeless factor in the whole universe, and was, therefore, to be followed to create purity. Purity here meant as based on logic, rationality and a sympathetic cosmic relationship with the universe. They did not follow any traditions, as they believed that those were thoughts of the past.

I was fortunate to have been in Chandigarh—where I lived, worked, earned and learnt the fundamentals of architecture, besides getting an opportunity to understand fascinating facts about Le Corbusier, the person, the architect, the thinker, the writer, the painter, and so on. The Chandigarh Office became an institute where architecture and town planning could be learnt without discrimination. Being a clean slate, I was not required to unlearn any preconceived notions about what architecture was.

Chandigarh was like a school of architecture for me where the faculty was none other than the topmost architects of the world.

What a fascinating place for learning! In my early days, I worked with the architect couple Ar. Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Beverly Drew, and with Pierre Jeanneret—all three associates of Le Corbusier, who were selected to work with him for the making of the city.

I joined the project in its initial days and started working in the temporary building designed by Pierre Jeanneret. What a great building! Previously known as the Architects’ Office Building, it was recently renamed Le Corbusier Centre. It is one of the earliest buildings to be built in Chandigarh, in 1952. This building was initially designed as a temporary structure. Fortunately, it still exists, although, at one time, the administration had thought of demolishing it.

 

PIERRE JEANNERET AS MY MENTOR

I worked and remained in touch with Jeanneret for a long time. Working with him was an informal and humane experience. One unique opportunity to work with him was for Nain Tara’s and Gautam Sehgal’s house in Chandigarh. This being a private residence, we were forced to work after office hours. It was a great chance to become familiar with his ideology—we shared a one-to-one relationship for one-and-a-half years. When Pandit Nehru visited this house, along with Pratap Singh Kairon, the then Chief Minister of Punjab, and the young Indira Gandhi, he named the house Anokha. Mulk Raj Anand called it ‘poetry in brick and stone’.

Jeanneret, though a creative genius, was saintly and full of kindness, with a total lack of ill-nature. He was very simple in his work and lifestyle. Jeanneret lived in austerity. His humanity is remembered by all who came in contact with him.

Jeanneret’s architecture was personalized and provoked human sensibilities.

His work was more subtle and softer compared to Corbusier’s, which was dominant and lofty. Jeanneret designed and developed the Panjab University campus, which houses his ‘Temple of Truth’ and the poetically beautiful Gandhi Bhawan. Corbusier’s Notre Dame Du Haut in Ronchamp and Jeanneret’s Gandhi Bhawan are comparable studies of great architecture of this era.

Jeanneret left a lasting impact on all Indian architects. His stamp is therefore visible all over Chandigarh not only in the buildings he designed but also in those designed by the Indian architects. He allowed his team of Indian architects to deal with the projects, subject to his final approval. That is how I could do some projects not strictly in ‘laid lines’, but based on rationality and social reasons, which Jeanneret supported.

 

LEARNING FROM LE CORBUSIER

One great day, I got an opportunity to work with Corbusier. It was a wonderful opportunity, but, at the same time, very scary. I was sceptical if I would be able to deal with the great man. This was in 1963 for the Museum and Art Gallery, in the cultural belt of the city in Sector 10 which is a part of the Leisure Valley.

It was eye-opening to watch the master draw line after line, using coloured pencils for clarity—infusing his philosophy into his sketches.

It was only gradually that Corbusier allowed a hardworking and sensitive person to come close to him. It was also surprising to find him not so rigid to a logical suggestion. He might not have had agreed instantly to the suggestion, but the following day, he would not only agree to it but also come up with a unique and modified version of the suggestion.

Corbusier had neither the patience nor the temperament to teach. Only the people who were sensitive to his philosophy, and his approach to poetic spaces, could learn by studying his works. Working with him was highly inspiring and mindboggling.

The most revealing fact was to see the master working with great exactitude.

Every rough sketch he did was full of dimensions and detailed descriptions supported by mathematical calculations. Thus, the foremost thing I learnt was to be exact. Once he asked me the height of an object nearby. I gave the height using the word ‘approximately’, upon which he cautioned me to always be exact.

What I also learnt from him was to philosophize personal life, its aim and objective. It was akin to pure spiritual study. It is the spiritual aspect in planning and architecture which makes the difference.

Curiously, I found Corbusier humorous too, and easy to work with—if he understood the responsive potential of the other. One interesting memory is of when, at times while working, he would doze off for a few seconds (maybe due to the hot weather). Once, he raised his head and asked me if I wanted to kill him since there was no sign of a cold drink since morning. When I came back after getting some, he picked up something lying on the drawing sheet and asked me what it was. Before I could reply, he said, “It’s my hair, and I won’t give it to you because you will sell it for a million dollars,” and put it in his pocket. So one can imagine how self-conscious he was of his greatness!

During a visit to Chandigarh, a very senior architect from Delhi came to meet Corbusier. After an exchange of pleasantries, the architect requested Corbusier for a picture with him. Instead of obliging him, Corbusier asked, “Have you read my books?” Getting a hesitant reply from the senior architect, the master asked him to read his books and then come back for a photograph. I do not know whether the architect did so or not, but I, fearing this sort of questioning by Corbusier, began reading all books available on him.

 

GALLERY


 

EPILOGUE
Excerpts from the book, ‘Father & I’ Authored by Sangeet Sharma

INFLUENCES OF CHANDIGARH

I grew up watching dad pursue architecture with passion.

Our first house when my father was in the department was in sector 22 and 23. The Type-10 house was one of the first experiments in housing and was constructed in Sectors 22 and 23—the first sectors to be built in the city. The whole entrance was like a verandah. It provided a vestibule that did away with porticos at the entrances, which would be considered a luxury in this category. The rooms in these houses were small. Maybe this was because they were designed for a certain category of the populace. The openness and the provision for natural ventilation left an indelible impression on my psyche, and the first planning principles of the architectural profession began to crystallise at a very early age.

The house had a small garden of a continuous nature, both in the front and privately maintained in the rear part of the house. Besides the drawing-room, dining room and kitchen, all other rooms were on the first and second floors. The terrace areas were used for multiple purposes. It was mainly used for drying clothes and sleeping during the summer. Summertime was a magical experience right from the moment the sun began to set. The charpais and their rumbling sounds announced that it was time to retire and rest. The ruffling of bed-sheets looked like colourful characters dancing behind the whole drama of typical Indian joint families occupying themselves in a wholesome activity. Evenings would still be hot and arid, and any change in the temperature that could soothe the nerves was unlikely. Air-conditioning did not exist. So, the only way by which one could get fresh air and a whiff of cool breeze in the early mornings was by sleeping on the terrace.

As I grew up, instead of the usual parks and gardens, the evening walks with my parents were usually to the upcoming construction sites. The promise of getting an ice-cream cone was used to induce me to accompany them. The buildings were indeed masterpieces in the making. Many visitors, scholars, students, and architects would come to the city at that time to study the phenomenon called Chandigarh. It was, and still is the ‘Mecca’ of architecture where people genuflect in reverence.

FATHER AND ARCHITECTURE

An autobiographical note without the dimension of one’s parents is not possible and so it comes to my mind to talk about a man who is a father, architect, and a person of considerable magnanimity. Since the time I was a child, I have been observing and watching him struggle with circumstances.

The Partition uprooted him and his family and brought the survivors to the borders of Punjab. Survival was difficult with five brothers, one sister, parents, and a few uncles and aunts huddled up in a one-room tenement. While most of the refugees unlocked the houses of the people who fled, my grandfather—a teacher and staunch disciplinarian—refused to resort to this mean act. A large part of my father’s initial earnings and salaries went into bringing up his siblings and like a dutiful perfect eldest son, he would be very protective and caring for his family members. I say it with pride that despite the change in time and circumstances, he still is, as magnanimous as he was to his family and has ensured that the family is woven together in spite of the new generations taking over.

Being the eldest, career options came and went by, broadly dictated by the elders of the family. Ultimately, he landed up making drawings in the shanty office of the proposed ‘Capital Complex’ called Chandigarh. Order and clarity in a spatial regime came naturally to him. Equipped with his ability to work hard, determination and strong will-power, he established himself as a creative architect who was to design a lot of important buildings in the new city of Chandigarh and subsequently in the country. The profound convictions, the unparalleled humanity and the pursuit of the loftiest ideals in the face of obstacles would have broken anyone of smaller stature. In the profession, he employed his intellect to resolve problems of both technical and metaphysical nature.

As part of the first modern team of architects post-independence, it was an era filled with inspiration and awe for these young men, who were aiming at something called ‘modern architecture’. The very air of the new city of Chandigarh was conducive to the birth of a genius if he had a little capability. It is on this soil that he grew up to be a titan in his field in the times to come. He worked at a frantic pace, with a prescience of an inspired fanatic and at a level where others could not even have dreamt of.

He was rubbing shoulders with the masters like Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret on various projects. All his architecture had a message and a purpose—buildings are not merely to live in but must inspire and provide a platform for higher flights beyond the simple mental plains. Five decades is no small-time for a person to establish his credentials. Seeing him pass through the torrential times and emerge successful left an indelible imprint on my mind. There is always a certain sense of fascination in recalling the two decades when I worked as an apprentice under him.

He is a tall personality—physically and temperamentally. He was clear-cut and focused in his directions. Right from the beginning, he showed great promise and the fact that he had what it takes to become a genius. He confronted every problem and situation in designs head-on. Both in life and architecture, I have seldom seen him stray into superficialities. He always knows what is ‘correct’ rather than ‘fashionable’, and would insist on the idioms which would strongly match with his fundamental philosophy.

When I joined him in 1989, I was broadly assisting him, driving him to various clients and meetings and absorbing the fundamentals of a very tedious profession called architecture. Generally, to a son, the father is an idol and it is natural for him to sing praises, but as time passed, I began to respect him more as a professional and gifted architect. ‘Gifted’, as I define it, is hard work and intelligent planning coupled with a ten per cent gift of talent that one is born with. It was not easy to grow under a famous father. The initial hiccups and pressures tormented me and there was many a time a desire to de-align myself from the existing life-pattern. There were natural priorities and philosophies both in life and a profession that made my father behave in a particular way in those days.

I later discovered that what I initially misunderstood to be an imposition on me was just the natural consequence of what happens when the second generation joins the first.

Particularly in a profession which has personal elements of design, personality traits, and inbuilt dogmas, accommodating the next generation and accepting the change in views and ideas was not easy. It does tend to affect an ego which may not be defined as ‘self-propagation’ but a versatile corroboration between experience and understanding. I am happy I have outgrown that stage and today, we work together. Having cast reasonable faith in me as an architect, he devotes more time to design, urban planning, advising the administration on various committees, besides the day-to-day chores of running a commercial office. Seeing him struggle to eke out a day-to-day survival of the office makes me want to take up the mundane tasks and leave him to the finer elements of the architectural profession. I remind him that the best works of all the master architects were in their later years and maybe, this gives him a little inspiration to continue the mission.

‘The other name of architecture is experience,’ said my father.

I used to travel with him to many sites. Airport lounges and noisy train-journeys gave enough impetus and time to dwell on the profession. Unrelenting, egotist and unsavoury clients, the philosophy of architecture and the pursuance of a career which is ‘not yet right’ for the country were the subjects of constant discussion.

The ‘isms and styles’ of architecture trouble him, the fashions and frills annoy him, and unintelligent use of wrong materials agonizes him. Globalization might have brought the world closer but it has taken away the thinking sensibilities of individuals. But I saw him conquer it all. The then most troubling clients are now his closest friends because he would insist that ‘they are after all human beings’ and are only pressurized due to various factors and are doing their job. You do your job well and everything will fall in its place smoothly.

He has been humble and rather too modest for his stature to be on the forefront even when it was well-deserved. It is difficult to convince him to send his projects to publications or awards (which he invariably won). Besides other honours, he was awarded the JIIA Babu Rao Mhatre Gold Medal for lifetime contribution in the profession in 2001. As a member of the next generation, I am at times forced to continue that philosophy of architecture and yet, I am adaptive to the prevalent market sense. Very few absorb the change, and he is a man who would not only be ready to adopt new technologies and ideas, but rather strengthen them with the wisdom of his own. He is always ready to discuss and give a patient hearing even to a trainee in the office and would be up for discussions with an open mind.

After the initial years, when he was hardly seen by us as children, he would be there at almost all my school functions and would strive to cultivate my abilities and talents of which he is always proud of. Be it music, my writings, poetry or my dabbling into areas too big for my age, he would always be encouraging and on my triumph, a sense of personal satisfaction would well up in his eyes.

After the breaking of many a false notional walls between us (as it may be with other father and son relationships), I now look upon him, as a friend, philosopher and guide.

It is delightful to catch him in a jovial mood for a joke or in a sombre mood to contemplate the professional scenario. He has been under-published and largely unrecognized for the amount of architectural work he has created and it is my earnest desire to see the monograph of his works published and getting international recognition, which is aptly due. I always pray and hope that during any kind of adversity, God gives him the strength for greatness he could not want ♦


Shivdatt Sharma [SD Sharma]
Character Portrait by Sangeet Sharma 

Shivdatt Sharma at his studio in Chandigarh

SD Sharma spent his formative years in Chandigarh architect’s office “learning lasting lessons from the legends” of this era like Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret who came to India to build Chandigarh as a new capital of Punjab and to reinforce modernism and its adoption.

SD Sharma has been pursuing modernism and its philosophy all his life and has found it very appropriate for contemporary society considering their lifestyle and aspirations. ‘Modernism’ followed the ‘Spirit of Time’ and its emphasis was to enrich human life. It was considered that if architecture does not enrich human life it has no reason to exist. Working experience with Le Corbusier was essential to see how he translates his philosophy in every line he drew which was mathematically justified.

He sums up modernism in three words which cover most of its ideals and philosophy:

  • Purity
  • Simplicity
  • Geometrical order

The ‘purity of head and heart’ is necessary to create devout architecture which can only be created by lifelong dedication like the monks in a monastery, those who have spiritual fixation and hunger for perfection. ‘Purity’ is to create aesthetic charm without restoring to any superficiality. It is not a matter of fashion or of vogue; it is an attitude of mind and procedure. Only purity sustains in the high moments of history.

SD Sharma understands, “Geometry unifies the whole universe and it can create poetry, harmony and bring in the overall order. Simplicity and purity at times overlap each other. The simplicity speaks of silence and peace which are its basics. Simple restraint in life can curb all types of natural calamities like global warming, carbon footprints, environmental pollution, etc. and in the process, it can help sustainability on this planet. Global exposure has created a lot of confusion in the profession and human life itself and both are becoming complex and directionless, but this can be simplified if the path is clear”.


 

Sangeet Sharma 

Sangeet Sharma is an architect based out of Chandigarh. He is a partner at SD Sharma & Associates, along with Shivdatt Sharma. He is widely published and featured in prestigious journals in India and abroad. Sangeet Sharma has authored five cult books on architecture including, “Castles in the Air: Misadventures of a Profession”.

His essays on architectural aesthetics culminated in the book called “Archi Talks”. A popular book on Chandigarh titled,  “Corb’s Capitol” has been translated into three languages.  Sangeet Sharma has also been involved in many “writers workshop” that delves in teaching writing expressions- both literary and prose.

 

 

 

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