Nehru and the Delhi Modern Movement: Architecture and Design in Delhi 1947-1980

Ram Rahman

A Recorded Lecture from FRAME Conclave 2019: Modern Heritage


In this lecture, Ram Rahman speaks about the works of his father, the noted architect Habib Rahman. He also speaks at length about Jawaharlal Nehru‘s vision for the new nation, the architecture and design in Delhi post-independence and its present-day state.

Edited Transcript

Basically, my approach to what I am talking about has come through photography. I am not really a historian. I am only here because my father, who you see there (referring to image 01), Habib Rahman was an architect and I grew up in the milieu of many of the architects whose work will be discussed today, but I will begin very quickly.

In a tribute to some of my Goan friends, these are pictures I did of Mario Miranda and Charles Correa at Dona Sylvia a number of years ago (referring to image 02). So, a tribute to them, tribute to these fantastic people who came out of Goa and did amazing work.

I first came here in 1986, it was for ‘Architecture + Design’ magazine (referring to image 03) at that time edited by Razia Grover. My introduction to Goa was actually Goan modernism in architecture. I came here to photograph the work of Ralino De Souza, Peter Scriver mentioned him earlier today, and I am happy he did. Also, Sarto Almeida and Lucio Miranda amongst many others. And these were wonderful issues at the time when much of this work had actually not been seen in the rest of India. So, salute to these architects too.

My father studied in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1940s during the war. He was one of the first Indian students to study in the United States and the first to study architecture. He did both a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree, graduating in 1944.

Walter Gropius was teaching at Harvard, the neighbouring college, but there was an informal dialogue between the two schools and Gropius had been a huge influence on my father, particularly, in his study of public housing.

He comes back to Calcutta in 1946 during the great killings, riding over the dead bodies lying on the streets being eaten by vultures. That was the terrible time of riots in August 1946. And he joins the Bengal Public Works Department, as he had actually got a West Bengal state Government scholarship to go to MIT.

One of the things I would like to mention right in the beginning is that my father was one of the few architects with that kind of training, who remained a Public Works architect throughout his entire career. He never went into private practice because he believed that the Public Works Department and Government architecture, Government housing, etc. was where he could make the most mark in the new nation. I am showing you these very early buildings (referring to images 04 and 05); 1949 Women’s College in Hooghly, Police Barracks in Alipore, Tollygunge Police Wireless Club, to show the kind of work that was coming out of his training.

[05:17] You can see that very simplistic Bauhaus block building. Of course, this was a time when resources were extremely tight. We did not have a lot of money. We did not even have a lot of cement or steel. One of the reasons I wanted to show this (referring to image 05), is to talk about how modern architecture actually begins very early on in the late 1940s; both with my father and with Kanvinde and I will speak a little bit about Kanvinde shortly. This was the first project my father built (referring to image 06), many of you may know of this, which is Gandhi Ghat, the first memorial to Gandhi which was built on the Hooghly, and as a young architect, a young student who had not built anything, he found this a challenge but ended up making this tribute, which was a combination of a shikara, a mosque dome and an abstracted cross reflected in the water of the river.

Jawaharlal Nehru came to open this in 1949. Gandhiji, ofcourse had been assassinated in 1948. And this was the first memorial to come up, and Nehru loved the project at the site and asked to meet the architect. My father said that almost no one used the word ‘architect’ at least in North India in those days; you know, they thought engineers were the people who built buildings. And Nehru said to him, that you must come to Delhi because we need people like you to build the new capital.

He did almost eighty projects in West Bengal before finally moving to Delhi in 1953. This is the new Secretariat (referring to image 07), the first tall steel-framed skyscraper in India finished in 1953-54. The construction started much earlier and became a big thing of pride in Bengal, of the new Bengal, and the new architecture.

This is the Bengal Engineering College (referring to image 08), which was finished in 1954, roughly. The earlier pictures were pictures taken by my father. This one is by me (referring to image 08), and it shows you the very typical ‘block’ kind of building that these architects at that time were doing.

1939 is the first time he came to Delhi – much of New Delhi had not been built. This is 1933, an image of Shahjahanabad showing the wall of the city on the lower right side (referring to image 09), which was torn down after Independence to become Asaf Ali Road and the business district. It shows you actually the scale of what the old capital of the Mughals was, and what the British had built (referring to image 10), also in 1933. This was imperial Delhi and much of the rest of Delhi was completely barren land; that is one of the distinctions of what happened with the building of Delhi itself and why Delhi became such an important site for modernist building.

This is a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) building by Achyut Kanvinde (referring to image 11) and that is him with Shaukat Rai, the engineer. And I am so pleased in a sense, that because of the controversy of CharlesKala Academy that the conference moved here. This is a CSIR site, and I did not know until this morning that Kanvinde had built the building next door also. Now, this is very important because what was happening in Delhi at the time was that all the institutions for science, arts, governance, law courts, were being built in Nehruvian New Delhi. The British had built their very impressive imperial ruling buildings, but there was no housing for Government staff there were only barracks remaining from the Second World War. British and American barracks, across the whole of New Delhi.

[09:47] This is the CSIR building a couple of years ago (referring to image 12) on which a few years later, well actually in the 1960s, M.F. Husain did this giant mural. The mural is of Nehru and Science, and Husain actually also figures in this story of the new nation, the nation building, he almost became like a national artist figure. And in many ways, him being exiled after being attacked by the BJP was a harbinger of what we are now facing many years later. These are histories which I think Prem talked about, re-looking, re-imagining, re-dreaming these histories; a very important history of our building of the new nation and this whole vision that Nehru had of bringing these young architects to Delhi.

This is the Kingsway Camp (referring to image 13), after the partition. People forget that they had a huge influx from Punjab. This is 300,000 people who are housed in these tents in the early 1950s – late 1940s, and this is what the city had to accommodate and build, at a very high speed.

This is the 1953-1954 International Exhibition on Low-Cost Housing (referring to image 14). This was an emphasis of Nehru; that we have to bring people from all over India – engineers and architects, who actually built low-cost, small-scale housing models; in what became Pragati Maidan, which was land next to the Old Fort in Delhi. This was a hugely important initiative with an amazing publication which gave details of every single project which had come with plans, with material costs per square foot (referring to image 15). And from this model, which was done by my father for the Public Works Department came this housing in Ramakrishna Puram between 1955 and 1959. These were two-room flats which were built on a huge scale in the thousands, and they became known as ‘Rahman Flats’ because they were actually very comfortable to live in, they were full of light, and they were very practical. This kind of housing was very much inspired by the Bauhaus influence, which he got in the USA; and the mix that he had was both Bauhaus Modernism and American Modernism, which was in vogue in the 1940s and the USA. It was this wonderful mix created because Hitler exiled all the architects and shut down the Bauhaus School in 1933.

This was the housing (referring to image 16), these were all the institutional buildings (referring to image 17); that is the University Grants Commission building, the Comptroller Auditor-General building. This was the infrastructure, which was coming up, much of it in ITO, Delhi. You can see the style of the buildings. The tall building is also by Habib, and that was built later, with the diagonal crosses at the end.

This is the Central Post Office Building on Patel Chowk, 1954 (referring to image 18).

In the 1950s, Maulana Azad, whose tomb this is (referring to image 19), was conceiving the three academies of culture; The Lalit Kala Academy, The Sahitya Akademi and The Sangeet Natak Akademi, which were to be housed in a building that was to be built. And was to be launched in commemoration of Rabindranath Tagore‘s centenary in 1961. Maulana Azad passed away and Nehru asked my father to do his tomb in front of the Jama Masjid, and this is what my father came up with. It was an arch, which was derived from the arch of the entrance to the mosque in exactly the same proportion but done in very thin-shelled concrete with a marble-terrazzo finish. Because of his engineering background, my father was able to work with concrete quite well. Nehru loved this project.

[15:08] On the right is a very important seminar for architecture in 1959, presided over by Humayun Kabir who was Maulana Azad‘s assistant; where all the young architects had come from across India to discuss the whole nature of whether there was to be a national style, was there to be a modern national style for Indian architecture? And the papers that were presented were published in this wonderful booklet, which I think has been reprinted. Architecture was a subject which was very important for the state and really driven by Nehru. I forgot to include the cover of a book that came out at Nehru’s centenary which was Nehru’s writings and speeches on architecture and urbanism (Jawaharlal Nehru on building a new India : a construct of his sayings on art, architecture, heritage, cities and city planning) published by the National Institute of Urban Affairs. It is a one-hundred and sixty page book and no leader I know anywhere in the world, I think up till now, has ever written on conservation issues, sanitation, planning, on architecture as much as Nehru has.

This is courtesy of Sanjay Kanvinde, which I was very surprised to find in Sanjay’s office. On the left (referring to image 20), this was the first project model for Rabindra Bhavan (New Delhi), which my father came up with. I have found this in Sanjay’s office a picture of Kanvinde on the left with the very grimacing Nehru looking at what was the model of Rabindra Bhavan. And it is a very funny picture because Nehru hated the project and he got furious when he saw it and yelled at my father saying, “What is this? This looks like an office building. This looks like the University Grants Comission building. It has nothing to do with Guru Dev, with Tagore.” He said, “You know you have done the Maulana Azad; you have done the Gandhi Ghat, which had the spirit of India in them. Why have you done this, you know corporate-looking building?” And my father said, “Well, I have never done a large building with that kind of formal language or conception.” In a way, Nehru forced him to rework it and actually worked with him to come up with what became Rabindra Bhavan. And this is a picture of him showing the plans as the building was just finished in 1961 (referring to image 21). And this completely changed his thinking, my father’s thinking. Because he said that he suddenly felt that he broke out of that rigid Bauhaus modernist mould and could think of a stylistic modernism which was related to our culture. This was using jalis, using the quartzite stone of Delhi – inspired by the Tughlaq buildings.

The galleries, most of which have been ruined recently in the redoing process, shutting all the skylights, which is a battle that I started fighting many years ago; a losing battle. And the buildings he did afterwards, the World Health Organisation (Delhi, 1963) and Patel Bhavan (Patel Chowk, Delhi, 1973) had a different kind of style which emerged from Rabindra Bhavan. Though these were office buildings, he tried to make buildings which had some sense of beauty to them.

Curzon Road Apartments, 1967 (referring to images 25 and 26). These are all his photographs, by the way. And in the front (referring to image 27) is the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) building by Kanvinde and in the back is the Indraprastha Bhavan by my father, and I love this picture because they are both Gropius prodigies. And here are two of their buildings literally right next to each other in New Delhi.

This was a private commission (referring to image 28), which my father was not supposed to do, but he did it for a friend. This is the Sheila Theatre, the first 70mm theatre in Delhi, which is about to be torn down; with the mural by a young Canadian architect who passed away a few years ago, Luc Durand. And lastly from his work, two memorials he did (referring to image 29); on the left for Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and on the right for Zakir Hussain. These are both in Delhi.

[20:05] Coming now to the other modern architecture that was happening in Delhi at the time. This is Kanvinde, Gujarat Bhavan in the 1960s (referring to image 30); and on the left, you will see Ashoka Hotel done by E.B Doctor from Bombay.

This set of photographs is a remarkable document which was done by the great photographer Madan Mahatta and I did a show of his work, luckily before he passed away, of his architectural photographs. And these are just some of them. This is J.K. Choudhury‘s Indian Institute of Technology (referring to image 31), again a very important institute which was built in the early 1960s to the late 1960s by J.K. Choudhury, who had come from Chandigarh. So, there was this gathering of architects who were coming from different regions and out of different schools. You had a few who came from Chandigarh who had been influenced by Le Corbusier; used concrete. You had others like Kanvinde and my father, who had had an American exposure to the Bauhaus and their work was a mix of that American and the Bauhaus and you had people like Edward Stone who built the American Embassy. And Madan‘s trove of photographs is actually a treasure, and when I put this show together, the few architects who are still alive, who saw this collection, even in Delhi, were quite astonished. They said that we had never known that we had done such amazing work because they all knew each other’s work but seeing it at the time when it was first built; pristine and perfect. This is the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) (referring to images 32 and 33).

Shiv Nath Prasad, very Corbus-ien, though he never worked with Le Corbusier, did these highly sculptural buildings in exposed concrete (referring to image 34).

This is Charles Correa (referring to image 35). It is an interior shot of a very small little house he did, for Riten Mozumdar, who is sitting there, the great textile designer, also, very much a part of that whole modernist movement in Delhi, which included the publication of a design magazine, which propagated many of these projects.

And this is Kanvinde’s Gandhi Bhawan (referring to image 36), during construction, but I love this picture because the structure is so fantastic. These are all Madan Mahatta by the way. This is Kanvinde in his own house (referring to image 37).

Architect Ram Sharma in his own house (referring to image 38). There was a whole style that developed; Raj Rewal, Ram Sharma. I would like to mention here Cyrus Jhabvala who sometimes gets left out of these histories. And Jhabvala was extremely important as a teacher and taught this whole generation starting from the Delhi Polytechnic, by teaching them construction, by taking them to all the Tughlaq and Mughal buildings in Delhi to Fatehpur Sikri to Rajasthan and that whole exposure of this generation through Jhabvala influenced all the work that they started doing. The use of brick, use of sandstone, kota stone, which became kind of a Delhi modernist idiom. Cushions by Riten Mozumdar, furniture by Ravi Sikri and Mini Boga. This is the Escorts Factory (referring to image 39) by Joseph Allen Stein, an American trained by Saarinen and in California. Stein was famous for doing these incredibly fantastic roof structures which were very light and very cheap to make, but perfect for a factory like this to let in a lot of light.

That is Escorts on the left and the Ford Foundation, Joseph Stein on the right (referring to image 40). Staircase in the Ford Foundation and that is Joseph Stein’s bald head over there and Madan Mahatta’s feet under the camera (referring to image 41). So, it is a nice picture with a little bit of history. Ford Foundation, Riten Mozumdar hanging on the wall (referring to image 42). And the India International Centre also by Joseph Stein (referring to image 43). Luckily, this building has been fairly well maintained, it has the landscape, so it still pretty much looks like this.

[25.13] This is Kuldip Singh who was a partner of Raj Rewal early on, until they separated into separate practices. And this is the New Delhi Muncipal Council building in New Delhi (referring to image 44). Kuldip Singh did very graphic buildings in exposed concrete using the shuttering as a decorative device.

Kuldip Singh on the left (referring to image 45). You see many of these buildings other than the Indian International Centre are all Government buildings. The Government at that time was the biggest builder, except for a handful of what I am showing you. That is The Design Group on the right, (referring to image 45) – the Syrian Christian Church. This is National Cooperative Development Corporation which was another institutional building.

This is Yamuna Apartments by The Design Group, which is Ranjit Sabikhi and Ajoy Choudhury (referring to image 46). Tara Apartments, a housing Charles had done, which is not very far from here, also had a vocabulary – not similar, but trying to do very dense housing in interesting forms, some of which were related to some of the typologies which they had seen in North Indian cities, older cities.

Yamuna Apartments (referring to image 47), and on the left is Kuldip Singh’s Delhi Development Authority housing (referring to image 48) in Malviya Nagar and on the right is Raj Rewal’s Asian Games Village, again both Government projects. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) housing was plastered over many years later and that brick texture completely vanished. Two by Charles, the British Council building with a facade by Howard Hodgkin and the building of the Life Insurance Corporation building (referring to image 49).

And that is Habib Rahman on the left, Hindustan Times building and Raj Rewal on the right is the STC (State Trading Corporation) building (referring to image 50), and of course, coming to the iconic Rewal tragedy in a sense, the Hall of Nations (referring to image 51). This is the building of the Hall of Nations, and this is what was so remarkable, I think if there was an iconic modernist building in Delhi, this was it. This was in 1972, built for the 25th year of Independence when we had the Asian Trade Fair. It was a remarkable feat of design conception and engineering by Mahendra Raj and you will hear more about his work tomorrow, I think. An absolute genius structural engineer particularly with concrete, completely hand-built; but a high-tech structure built by hand could only have been done in India.

This is my picture of the interior (referring to image 52) just a year before it was torn down. So, it was a completely functional building. You know, talking about heritage and modern heritage, I think this has been a criminal tragedy (referring to image 53).

The colour pictures here were recently taken by Rohan Shivkumar and I am showing you these (referring to images 54, 55 and 56). This is the Weissenhof Housing Complex, 1927 in Stuttgart which was built as a model like the housing fair in Delhi in 1954. This was built at that time as a model for public housing and very much by the Bauhaus Architects, by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and on the right is a postcard that was published at the time (referring to image 54). This is in the 1930s, early 30s extolling the virtues of this housing complex and below that is a Nazi postcard on which that image has been superimposed with these images of Arabs, meaning Jews. Because the Jews and the Communists had become the targets and the enemies of Nazi Germany. So this is an amazing postcard to see, because, ideologically they were against this kind of modernist architecture.

[30:05] Now, these are Rohan’s pictures done just a few weeks ago and I am using them with his permission. This is the condition of what remains of that housing now (referring to image 55), and there is a beautiful museum with models of the housing, and this is what is happening in Delhi (referring to image 56). That is the housing in R.K. Puram by my father and that is last year (referring to image 57). It is all being torn down and the Government land is now being converted into these new buildings, half of which are being sold to corporates. That is the new model of development in Delhi.

This (referring to image 58) was next to the Hall of Nations by Raj Rewal The Nehru Pavilion which was designed to house the very famous exhibition on Jawaharlal Nehru done by Charles and Ray Eames and Ashoke Chatterjee may speak about this later today, because this was a foundational exhibition which was created at National Institute of Design, by Charles and Ray Eames. This exhibition became famous across the world for the kind of timeline style and the visual style it developed. The Hall of Nations may not have been an ideological demolition, but this building was (referring to image 58), because Nehru is you know being demolished every day. Most recently if you saw the debates in Parliament on Section 370. That was the site after the demolition (referring to image 59), and nobody knows what happened to the exhibition. It has vanished.

And this is the building that is coming up there now (referring to image 60), right behind the Crafts Museum, which is also been jazzified with marble floors and steel beams replacing all the wood, etc.

That is the building replacing the Hall of Nations (referring to image 61). And this is Stein‘s exhibition hall in the Trade Fair Complex (referring to image 62), which was also torn down after the Hall of Nations. Another remarkable roof structure; huge building.

And that is the World Health Organisation (WHO) building on the left and that was it two weeks ago (referring to image 63). That has been blasted down. And this is what is coming up in its place (referring to image 64).

On the left is a poster which is still up in the Delhi Metro and the Mandi House Metro Station where they have done a tribute to some of the architecture and the architects (referring to image 65). That is the Federation of Indian Chamber of Companies and Industry (FICCI) building which I recently discovered was by Master, Sathe and Bhuta and that is the building about two months ago, which has also been blasted down also.

So, this is talking about heritage and the odd thing is, Museum of Modern Art is going to do a big show on South Asian Modernism in two years and many of these buildings which were going to be shown there are no longer in existence. It has happened between when they conceived the show and when the show is actually going to come up.

And that is a portrait of Nehru, I did a few years ago and two hats that I designed for the people responsible for the demolition of the Hall of Nations (referring to image 66). Thank you.♦


Photographer, artist, curator, designer and activist Ram Rahman, initially studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Later, Rahman completed a degree in Graphic Design from Yale University’s School of Art in 1979. Born in 1955, Ram has shown his photographs in individual and group shows in India and around the world. He has been lecturing on aspects of contemporary Indian photography and architecture in the last few years, at The Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai; Jnanapravah, MumbaiMoMA, New YorkThe Pompidou Centre, Paris; including major lectures on Sunil Janah, Raghubir Singh and the modern architecture of New Delhi. Rahman is one of the founding members of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) in New Delhi. The artist lives and works in New Delhi.


FRAME is an independent, biennial professional conclave on contemporary architecture in India curated by Matter and organised in partnership with H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society. The intent of the conclave is to provoke thought on issues that are pertinent to pedagogy and practice of architecture in India. The first edition was organised on 16th, 17th and 18th August 2019.

Organisation and Curation: MATTER
Supported by: 
H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society


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