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India’s Virtuoso Builders

The History of Architecture in India: From the Dawn of Civilization to the End of the Raj

by Christopher Tadgell
Phaidon, 336 pp., $49.95

The Royal Palaces of India

by George Michell, photographs by Antonio Martinelli
Thames and Hudson, 232 pp., $50.00

The vast Indian subcontinent is as densely packed with remarkable architectural monuments as tiny Greece. Because they had to decide which buildings to include in the books under review, Christopher Tadgell and George Michell must have felt like hungry men roaming a vast market crammed with delicious food, knowing that their shopping baskets could not contain nearly enough. One sympathizes with their publishers. Long gone, alas, are the days of lavishly produced heavy volumes, such as Meadows Taylor’s Architecture at Beejapoor, published in London in 1866, and illustrated with superb tipped-in photographs documenting single major sites. Gone, too, are such remarkable scholars as Stella Kramrisch, the late “white witch of Philadelphia,” whose The Hindu Temple,1 covered enormous scholarly ground. Her study is at once a substantial compilation of facts, a romantic evocation, and a meditation on Hindu India.

The present authors have clearly delighted in their work, particularly their many years on the road, and their delight is infectious. For one’s spirits soar as one travels to visit India’s temples, mosques, palaces, forts, tombs—even some of its railway stations and hotels—through busy towns, and past elegant village compounds of stunning purity. Although known as a paintings and objects wallah, I myself keep my eyes peeled for buildings of every sort, realizing that of all artistic expressions architecture is the most exhilarating but the least approachable, the hardest to analyze, explain, and illustrate. To understand structures so complex, one should not only view them as sculptures from every angle but also, whenever possible, have a sense of their uses, whether as living spaces, places of worship, tombs, forts, or whatever. One must also understand their engineering, materials, and step-by-step construction. Compared to pictures and objects of art, they are daunting in scale; and searching out enough examples to make comparisons requires extraordinary stamina and decades of extensive, costly, and often uncomfortable travel.

Buildings should be pondered inside and out, by night and day, and from season to season. They must be studied as parts of a whole, as separate structures, and in detail. Most Indian temples, like some Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals, are enriched by intricate iconographic programs of sculptured reliefs and images, as well as by wall paintings, each figure of which requires scrutiny. More time is required to study a building than to build it. Given the scope of these challenges, is it any wonder that so many of today’s architectural historians are desk-bound conjurers of theories based upon photographs, ground plans, and social documentation?

While on the road in India, one gazes at people, landscape, the backs of bullock carts or trucks, and buildings. One’s thoughts are abundant, stimulated by the slow unfolding of an ancient land. The Indian subcontinent includes every level of culture, from the elementally tribal to the highly sophisticated urban and international. Some recurrent thoughts from the road are relevant to the two books under review. Practically everyone knows, for instance, that most Indians support themselves through agriculture, live in villages, and rarely see any of the great architectural monuments upon which academic specialists focus their attention. Their humble traditional domestic buildings, often of timeless beauty, are of a sort labeled “vernacular.” In their shapes, sizes, and materials, those we admire—not the coldly brutal concrete blocks erected in the name of progress, but the ones built in traditional ways—have scarcely changed over many centuries. Comparatively recent portrayals of them in sensitively observed Mughal miniature paintings of the later sixteenth and earlier seventeenth centuries show that then, as now, they were constructed from locally available materials, such as mud brick and wood. Immaculately swept and whitewashed, each building contains a place of worship, such as a Hindu shrine, or is close to a place for Muslim prayer.

Appealingly pure, the buildings’ outlines seem not to have been built but to have grown on their own. They have been softened to skinlike sensuousness by rain, wind, and constant massage by people and animals. Few buildings elsewhere seem so alive. Outer walls are adorned by the women of the family with vividly fresh paintings in whitewash, ephemeral creations replaced after every monsoon, or refurbished to celebrate marriages or other family events. Usually these ideographic pictures are apotropaic—intended to turn away evil spirits—and scrupulously follow regional patterns as ancient as the forms of the buildings themselves. Their precursors could be the seeds from which developed the sculptural friezes, inscriptions, or ornament admired on India’s grander buildings.

Within their simple but elegant compounds, most Indians live and work together in very close quarters, conforming to the “joint family system.” These small spaces are shared not only by several generations of one family but also with domesticated animals and visiting friends. Through the millennia, families have adjusted to being so clustered together. In this sardine-tin existence, the establishment of an ancient, orderly pattern of authority has contributed to harmony. The senior male of the family in effect “reigns,” usually assisted by a “cabinet” of senior womenfolk, younger men, or anyone powerful and clever enough to be influential. In this environment, which encourages respectful physical familiarity of a sort many Europeans and Americans artificially cultivate through group therapy, there has traditionally been little privacy beyond psychological buffer zones. Everyone saw, heard, rubbed elbows with, and inhaled the breath of everyone else. Most people accepted this mode of life, which encouraged conformity and mutual understanding. Flight was the only solution for those unable to adjust to family pressures or for those so modest they found it painful for their intimate lives and feelings to be on view. For these sufferers, traditional India provides escape hatches, one of which is to become a wandering ascetic.

Although trying to some, the joint family system usually encouraged harmoniousness, probably by exposing so openly both everyone’s worst and best qualities. There was ample time for gup, the sharply analytical gossip of the sort psychiatrists might be tempted to share. How enlightening it must be to study home-grown eccentrics so like those vividly and humorously described in R.K. Narayan’s novels of life in Malgudi. (And could anyone not seem eccentric when studied and listened to round the clock?) The fruits of such engaging if at times excruciating analysis of domesticity are apparent from traditional Indian portraiture. Although artists unsparingly noted every quirk of gait, epidermal blemish, buck-toothed malocclusion, pockmark, and psychological or spiritual deformity, they were rarely unkind. One can see behind the scowls.

Indian tolerance of eccentricities has extended to outsiders as well as to family members and other Indians—even to foreign architecture. On the whole Indians have welcomed seemingly peaceful strangers as well as foreign ideas, customs, techniques, and motifs. Once allowed entrance, however, these outside forces were analyzed and evaluated. Whoever or whatever failed to fit into the Indian mode was either reshaped along Indian lines, isolated, driven out, or encouraged to wither away. Classical architectural motifs brought to India in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s Indian adventures left few traces except in Gandharan reliefs. Le Corbusier’s unsuitable, impractical creations in Chandigarh and Ahmadabad gradually erode. Although for a time their forms echoed and re-echoed in often comical pipsqueak villas, shops, and chicken coops, their concrete surfaces have now blackened and cracked, having fallen victim to the Indian disinclination to accept them—which is not quite the same thing as disapproval. One day, perhaps, Corbusier’s style will re-emerge, Indianized beyond recognition. Somehow, despite the absence of anything resembling zoning regulations, Indian architecture maintains its aesthetic unity. Blessedly, the same human filtering system that excludes many fine but unsuitable Western-style contemporary buildings will have screened out worse eyesores, India’s suburban “chateaux” with their aggressively dyed marble walls.

Stone (undyed!), stucco, wood, and brick, not reinforced poured concrete, are India’s ancient building materials; and in making use of them India is fortunate to possess a powerful, highly skilled, and peripatetic work force. Probably unique in the world, India sustains legions of artisan families—perfumers, sweets makers, bronze casters, chemists, and many others—all quietly but rigorously trained by apprenticeships within their castes or subcastes. Through them, a vitally creative asset from old India lives on, partially compensating for the hazards of the population explosion. Carrying out craftsmanlike work far above the level of the work of machine-age culture, they can be admired, hard at work, building today’s Bauhausian high-rise office buildings and apartment blocks. Entire families clamber high in the air on wobbly scaffolding made from branches of trees tied together with pieces of string.

These builders, so like the acrophiliac Mohawks in America who are also oblivious to cranes and excavating machines, bring to mind other ingrained Indian characteristics. Since early times, Indian craftsmen have explored, analyzed, categorized, and codified every possible architectural idea, material, and technique. Only after these have been perfected, through centuries of trial and error, are they fully accepted. But once they have passed stringent tests, they become part of the unshakable Indian way. Thus, the picturesque middle-aged ladies climbing ramps and ladders with large bowls of cement balanced on their heads differ little from their ancestors whom we see in miniatures in sixteenth-century Mughal historical manuscripts. They and their caste fellows from the same roaming community of builders all possessed—and possess—trade secrets perfected over many centuries and still effective. Often virtuosic, these closely held techniques have given economic security to people vulnerable to poverty.

These underappreciated builders, who deserve to be honored as national treasures, are responsible, in large measure, for India’s architectural heritage and qualities. Directed by architects working in the styles of their regions and periods, some of their roving forebears may have created both the great temple at Ellora and the cave at Elephanta by chipping them out from massive rocky cliffs. Possessed of the craftsman’s intuitive sense of “right” proportion, others may have shaped and polished subtly rounded marble slabs for the dome of the Taj Mahal, or chiseled and raised into position the formidable stones of Rajput forts.

Down the road from these medieval-seeming construction workers, we come upon admirably skilled stonemasons, probably members of a splinter group from the same caste of aerialists. Like their pipe-legged colleagues, these drillers and chippers of red sandstone or marble are traditional craftsmen whose progenitors might have worked for Raja Man Singh of Gwalior during the fifteenth century, or for Emperor Jahangir in the seventeenth. During the nineteenth century, they might have created Indo-Saracenic jalis, pierced stone windows, under the direction of Sir Gladstone Soloman—ornaments as potently Indian in spirit as Bombay’s splendid, would-be Victorian railway station. While I write, such master craftsmen are busily finishing scores of jalis for a palace looming on an oceanside cliff in Mexico, the sub-imperial whim of an international magnate.

It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of traditional Indian life to the development of Indian architecture, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim. Were it not for India’s penchant for categorization and compartmentalization, as reflected in its caste system, the skilled builders would never have held together and developed and maintained their mastery. And had they not refined their secret techniques, India’s architectural heritage would likely be less brilliant, and less permanent. Also emerging from the Indian way of life, specifically from the custom of people working together in close proximity, is the scale of most traditional Indian buildings. Before the mid-seventeenth century, when imperial Roman grandeur was brought to India from Europe by the British and other colonizing powers, most Indian buildings, except for a few tombs, were built on the scale of the human body. Even mighty rulers occupied small spaces, as can be seen in the palaces of such powerful figures as the Hindu maharajah of Gwalior, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great, or his grandson, Shah Jahan. Their sleeping quarters—“chambers of dreams”—were intimate, better suited to whispered conversations, recitations of poetry, or musical recitals than to the courtly mobs invited to share the matitudinal toilet of le Roi Soleil.

  1. 1

    Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986).

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