Punjab Journal: Of Modernism and Punjab

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by Shashwati Talukdar and Diditi Mitra

Faculty Housing Hallway, Punjab Agricultural University

Part I

Punjab is perhaps the state that best exemplifies India’s modernist dream. And nowhere is this clearer than in the architecture. The last image I have of our visit is of the Punjab Agriculture University Guest house, where we stayed during our visit to that region of Punjab. It was spacious, comfortable, and quiet. Looking like what most of Corbusier’s architecture in Chandigarh, the city that he planned looks like. Chandigarh is the capital city of both Punjab and neighboring state, Haryana. It is the flagship planned city of post-independent India. Architects Albert Mayer and Maciej Nowicki started planning it in 1949, but the master plan was done by Le Corbusier. The city was completed in 1960.

Corbusier may have been the high priest of Modernism, but his call to prayer has been answered by Indian citizens in unexpected ways. If you go to Chandigarh today, you see that the city square he planned as a space for subjects to become citizens, lies fallow and is full of weeds, the balconies that he planned in public housing to function as spaces to open the mind’ have been made functional as kitchens or an extra bedroom by its residents. The traffic may be rational, and surprisingly orderly in a country with some of the worst traffic in the world, but Le Corbusier would probably be incensed with how the populace has interacted with his design.

They say Corbusier didn’t even bother to visit India when he designed the city of Chandigarh. And during the time it was coming up, he only visited a few times a year (in all about 22 times). And did not move there. He just had a beautiful modernist dream that was planted in the Punjab plains. And therein lies the rub. An open square without any shade does not make sense in a country that suffers from oppressive heat in the summers. Nor do balconies, to improve the mind’ make sense for families that are often multi-generational, where space must be devoted to the needs of the family and not the individual. And so some see Chandigarh as a failed experiment:

On one level, then, Chandigarh is the hollow shell of Indian democracy, a representation without content, a museum to the deadly rationalism of a French modernist architect and the naive optimism of the first Indian prime minister after Independence…..

Corbusier’s dream may have gone rancid, and maybe it deserves to.

Part II

The recent success of populist movements, at least in India and the United States, would certainly signal the impending doom of liberal western modernity of which this kind of architecture is a symbol. This kind of modern,” it’s source being the Enlightenment with reach far and wide through projects of colonization requires deliberation.

The urban generations of the post colonized world, like India, and in fact as well as the generations in the developed parts who have reaped some benefits from it, might view it positively. They have been raised to see themselves and the world through the lens of a Eurocentric conception of advancement, normalized as natural.”The privileged urban classes in societies previously colonized do have something in common with their counterparts in the western world as well. There too, the privileged are not likely to see this path of development as necessarily a problem. They have ignored the plight of their disadvantaged sisters and brothers — people who were excluded from this modernist project.

Thus, modernity, with its foundations in scientific knowledge, scientific logic and the associated definition of progress, has not borne fruit for all of humankind. It left out significant segments of people from the project, deliberately or not. Failure of this vision was, consequently, inevitable. Or at least, one can say that this vision of progress has met with a great deal of resistance.

Right now, we are in a moment in time where one has to take stock of the past, its impact on the present and ways of moving forward. More importantly, how can all this be done with inclusion for all?

Rebuilding with another vision is perhaps the order of the times we are living through, and may as well be the same for at least for sometime to come.

In sum, we thought of ending the series with this post on modernity because it forces a reflection on the ways in which Punjab embodies the modernist project in India.

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(Go here for the first post in the series)