The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 14, 2002
Lead Article

Talking about Chandigarh ...
... and it is not yet 50 !

Talking about Chandigarh ...

Nehru’s ambition for Chandigarh is now being realised. The Master Plan is still in place as are the concrete ghosts from the past but the fetters are now almost gone. It is fast becoming a really nice place to grow up and work in. It spoils you to be brattish enough to ask for the moon, writes Ashwini Bhatnagar

IT is tough for a city to be told when it is nearly two scores and ten that despite the white beards and the mature green hedges lining the streets, it is yet to come of age; and though the body lies sprawled, it is yet to be inhabited by a soul. And that to be functional, it has to wear a spartan look even if it is inconvenient and puts off the neighbours. And, there is really no icing on its cake. The lack of icing, however, is not about missing frills.


Rather, it is about expectation and its simultaneous denial. It is about being locked in an iron-grid and then being expected to grow ’unfettered.’ It is about being City Beautiful with the denial of even the rudimentary make-up. It is about being Chandigarh, a city born out of an immaculate conception of ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru and Le Corbusier that was thwarted, ironically, by its own genetic material. It exists like a body etherised on the dusty plains of Punjab, at times charming curious passersby by its good looks and childlike innocence. There could be, undeniably, nobility in its heart but its activity through the last half century has been measured out in coffee spoons, mostly half fulls. Therein lies its listlessness; its sorrow of a promise unfulfilled.

"Chandigarh spoils you," a senior bureaucrat says fondly as he speaks about his tryst with the city. Hailing from a crowded town in the western part of Uttar Pradesh, the bureaucrat has spent most of his 25 years of service in Chandigarh. "I wouldn’t want to live in any other city as it would suffocate me. Chandigarh gives me the space that no other place does," he says. True, living in Chandigarh is like living in a quaint hill town. It gives people peace and quiet and the weather is reasonably tolerable. Pollution levels are still very low and you can travel from one end of the city to the other in 20 minutes flat. It doesn’t compel you to rush as also it doesn’t invigorate with its own latent energy. In fact, it maintains a studied indifference towards people who have come to occupy it. Its flaccidity is an outcome of its construct.

That’s why perhaps it charms some people. Le Corbusier designed it as a City of Administration and though he consciously moved away from the Raj’s influence and did not want to build a city ‘of lords, princes or kings confined within walls’, he inadvertently did just that. The iron-grid pattern of the sectors of the city has created seclusion and, as a result, houses within a sector, in a manner of speaking, don’t talk to each other. The sectors themselves are more than a shout away. "It is," said noted architect Charles Correa,"Like taking a house and dividing it into 16 rooms. The whole point of architecture is to connect these rooms." In other words, Chandigarh is not, to use Correa’s word, "porous " enough to allow a natural ebb and flow of human life. The stand alone-ishness of the city’s grid plan characterises its life too and all social intercourse is formal and "boring." In fact, unlike any other town or city of the country, Chandigarh is unique for its near absence of the animation of street life and, despite intentions to the contrary, activity has been "confined within walls." Though decried by many, this has its appeal to others as it offers an escape from the pell-mell of the worldly life to the safe quietitude of a ‘cosmic’ order.

Shanti Kunj: Favourite haunt of the health conscious, both young and old.
Shanti Kunj: Favourite haunt of the health conscious, both young and old.

Regulation was and continues to be the buzzword here. (After all, it is a City of Administration with the two states of Punjab and Haryana headquatered here along with the Union Territory of Chandigarh). However, a bit of regulation translates into convenience; a little more into confinement or worse into a personality disorder. A good example is Le Corbusier’s attempt to sort out the problem of traffic into residential areas. He decreed that none of the sectors would face the main roads and designed an elaborate system of side roads called V3 ,V4 etc roads to regulate motorised vehicles. A small problem was solved but a bigger one was created— how do negotiate through a city that has turned its back to you? Or how do you make it turn around and look you in the eye?

Through his career, Le Corbusier inked more words than architectural drawings. Actually, he was trained as a painter and then went on to become an architect. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect that he would bring art influences on him to architecture. Cubism was one such form and he used concrete to achieve his ‘sculpture of the intellect.’ At the far northern end of the city stand the three monuments that this ‘dilettante architect’ had personally crafted to be the crowning glory of his work here. There were to be four of them but the socialist-minded political leadership of the 1950s shot down the plan for the Governor’s Palace. Le Corbusier had personally designed this Capitol Complex and, while locating it , he had written grandly in his diary, "The question of optics became paramount...... I had to appreciate and decide alone. The problem was no longer one of reasoning but of sensation." In another entry, he says, "I am an ass with an instinct for proportion...I am and I remain an impenitent visionary." Similarly, shortly after he accepted the commission to build the new capital for Punjab, Le Corbusier wrote in his diary,"It is the hour that I have been waiting for--- India, that human and profound civilisation --- to construct a capital. A capital is the spirit of a nation.... Le Corbusier is an optimist. His name is not mentioned but in 20 years of urbanism, Le Corbusier is in all of the projects." Therefore, when he came to Chandigarh he had already settled for himself his place in history even though he had been refused commissions by the Bolsheviks, the Nazis and even the Fascists. Architect Satish Gujral says of him, "He was basically a fascist at heart and his architecture reflected his inner feelings. It revealed his anti-democratic and egoistic character."

Modern architecture goes well with the youth who are now taking over from the babus.
Modern architecture goes well with the youth who are now taking over from the babus.

It is therefore not surprising that though he noted for India that "everything has an absolute presence and smiles...", he created buildings that have the dourness of a fascist. His ass-like "instinct for proportion" could not be translated into actual buildings on the ground and from monumentality he moved to overmonumentality and from exaggeration of scale to supreme overexaggeration. The Capitol Complex, with its parasols and cubes and brise-soleils, shows that he was "overawed by his concrete madness" and the "buildings are out of context and have no position." He wrote about ‘optics’ and ‘sensation’ while designing them and also filled pages on the problem of shade, air and water evacuation in these buildings but could not offer viable solutions. The three buildings fill a passerby with no sensation though, ironically, he is compelled to ask himself: why are they here?

Like the Monument of the Open Hand. Corbusier described it as a symbol of a new city "open to receive.... open to distribute..." signifying an "era of harmony." The three fingers are close together while the thumb and the little finger are splayed. It requires a bit of quiet tutoring to realise that the metal structure is neither a bird nor a plane but a hand, and the hand is not held up as in a ‘Stop’ sign.

In fact, the problem with Chandigarh, as was with its creator, is that it has to explain itself. To appreciate it, one needs a well-versed guide who can distill Le Corbusier’s explanations and justify the monstrosities that one sees on the Complex hill. Additionally, he has to point out the nooks and crannies where the genius that "shaped city planning in India" lies hidden. For a mere mortal, however, it is perplexing to visit a government house in Sector 7 or 16 and try locating the main door. One door opens to a kitchen and a lavatory with an overhang of a staircase and then leads to a room that is often not the one reserved for receiving visitors. The other lies on the side of the house and it has to be searched for. The planning of these houses have been done in a roundabout way and these roundabouts are not the ones that one is used to on the roads.

The business hub of the city is located in Sector 17. It is open on all the four sides and from one end to the other, it offers an uncluttered view of concrete. Between the rows of shops-cum-offices, the piazza lies like an abandoned tarmac distancing the so-called shopping malls and muffling the sounds of the bazaar. Though Le Corbusier and his team were deeply concerned about providing shade to offices and buildings, they probably devised the Sector 17 plan with blinkers on. Seven months out of the 12 are hot in Chandigarh and the thought of crossing the piazza during the day kills the enthusiasm of even the most intrepid shopper. Interestingly, even the shop owners down their shutters during the afternoons to beat the heat. However, the most amazing aspect is the narrow staircases provided for reaching offices on the three floors above the shopping complex. If Corbusier wanted Sector 17 to be ‘vibrant’ and ‘bustling’ with activity, he surely did not want to give ready and happy access to floors above the ground level. In other words, it is either too much or too little and whichever one it is, it is exasperating.

The character of a city is largely defined by the personality of its creator. From the Pandavs, who built the legendary Indraprastha with its opulence and optical illusions, to Le Corbusier with his stress on controls and straight lines, the interplay between the personality of the creator and his vision has been responsible for giving a geographical space its body, heart and soul. The latter in turn affects the life of the people who live and work within its precincts. It is perhaps a telling comment on the inspirational quality of the Master Plan that while the city was taking shape, a commoner hit upon the idea of creating a rock garden for it. Nek Chand, the much-decorated creator of the famous Rock Garden in Chandigarh, ferried discarded building material to a site near the Sukhna lake and set about creating images with them. The Rock Garden is known all over the world for its innovativeness. It is charming too. But like much else in the city, it is lifeless. The garden, if it can be called that, therefore, typifies Chandigarh— it has a frozen appeal to it, as is that of the music piped along the walkways on the Sukhna lake.

The real city is in fact coming up now. It lies in the southern sectors and despite the controls imposed by the administration, it has managed to turns its face towards the sun. It is also growing and throbbing on college and university campuses and along the geri routes. There is palpable vibrancy in the areas where the young congregate. The restaurants are full and the ‘bullts’ (Bullet motorcycles) are on the roads as are flashy cars with loud music playing in them. Punjabi pop is the dominant mode of communication and the stirring of breaking free are visible. Chandigarhians were characterised by an unabashed "what--can -you-do-for-me?" mode and the generation of the 50s and the 60s was about I, me and myself. Perhaps, in no part of the country could one come across so many people at one place who were such shameless self promoters. Perhaps, they were so because they had left their roots behind. But the middle-aged paunchy Chandigarhian of this day has his roots here. He is open and is to a large extent cosmopolitan. His house was built by his father and he has a professional degree. He has no favours to seek. He would rather aggressively carve out his own place. A distinct pointer to this is the large number of youngsters who have successfully started competing in professional courses at the national level. They identify themselves with Chandigarh and Chandigarh with their own ambitions. The latent energy of Nehru’s ambition when he passionately formulated the idea of a new capital for a ‘wounded’ Punjab is now being realised. The Master Plan is still in place as are the concrete ghosts from the past but the fetters are now almost gone. The energy of the young overflows across the iron-grid of the city. Khushwant Singh once described Chandigarh as a "rather nice place for exile or death." But it is fast becoming a really nice place to grow up and work in. It spoils you to be brattish enough to ask for the moon.