Archis 2003 #1

The karma of a gigantic village

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The faith in control, operating from the top down, has gradually yielded to a greater tolerance for chance, allowing for the continuous adjustment of perspectives and individualism. In the West we have come to understand that no blueprint is proof against the sheer complexity of the planning task, against the often subversive effect on the whole of spontaneous, local inspiration and, above all, against the capriciousness of time.

For those who are fascinated by the dissonance between blueprint and in situ reality, there is no more interesting point of reference at the moment than India. For in this country as in no other it is possible to observe the extremes, alongside and in opposition to each other, of the driving forces behind spatial behaviour: the one top down, the other bottom up. Top down: in their heyday, the British colonial powers established a spatial environment that combines the attractions of elite culture with a barbarous incompatibility with the genius loci. Bottom up: it is precisely in this formerly imperialistic context that the small grain of individual civilian behaviour manifests itself, a phenomenon now well beyond the brink of chaos.

Planning in India should begin with a thorough analysis of the power of big numbers, which is to say, the steeply ascending line of the demographic table. One does not have to be a pessimist to consider the rapid increase in the Indian population on a literally and figuratively more or less unstructured base as a devastating assault on the environment. Because the poverty reproduces itself interminably in this country, every development prospect soon dissolves, leaving nothing but the reality of ‘few tools, few skills, and many hands’ noted by V.S. Naipaul. Breaking into that reality is no easy matter. Classic problem-solving methods are not automatically applied in India, for the simple reason that they do not have any ideological footing. Even the straightforward and seemingly incontrovertible remedy of building houses whenever a housing shortage arises somewhere, is seen as a typically Western approach to the problem that is not necessarily relevant here.

In seeking a formulation and accompanying solution for a problem, there is a marked difference in approach between them and us, which can be explained in terms of a fundamental difference in cultural identity between the ‘wealthy West’ and the rest of the world. The unassailable conviction that was part of the baggage of missionaries and other ideological colonists, no longer exists. With the demise of colonialism, the correctness of the Western view has been called into doubt. As cultural relativists, we have started to question what we have to tell them, and they in turn are dubious about what they want to accept from us. Western culture may embody an irresistible package of products and technologies, that no one wants to forgo, but the underlying ideology of a humanism rooted in tradition, concocted from elements of Christianity and bourgeois individualism, though it may be of some interest in the ivory towers of academia, cannot reckon on a spark of popular support. In a context of mutual doubt or mistrust such as this, planning should stop trying to comply with an allegedly universal rationale: it has no other option than to anchor itself in local conditions.

The imported city

One of the reasons why India is not a country where social problems are readily identified and solved may lie in an evident lack of historical sensibility. Historical facts do not count as rationally demonstrable points on a linear scale here, but as ineluctable moments in an order that was fixed for all time in a mythical past. In such a context, ‘progress’ is a term laden with unworkable complications. The question is whether people in this country actually want to move forward. In the Hindu conceptual world, salvation may perhaps be achieved in a subsequent incarnation, but not during the current one. Seen from a Western intellectual perspective, this is a recipe for resignation and stagnation.

In spite of the cyclical mindset of its inhabitants, India’s landscape has become historically layered by distinct evolutionary stages, though there are a couple of stubbornly recurring themes. One of these relates to a shortcoming. Oddly enough for such a massive country, a fundamental feature of the genius loci of India is the absence of overarching, large-scale structures, either morphological or idealistic. Until the British, there had been no imperium capable of controlling this subcontinental Asian triangle. The State was artificially imposed here; it did not spontaneously evolve.

Following on from this, the city, conceived as a conglomeration of economic, political and administrative power, was likewise a colonial invention and foreign to the indigenous order. Native Indian cities dating from before the colonial era had a specific, one-dimensional programme (in Surat and Cochin, for example, the economic function predominated, in Benares and Madurai the religious function), an extremely limited social horizon and an equally restricted freedom of movement, all governed by the caste system.

In reality, the indigenous city behaved like a village, or a collection of villages, and as such it is the village that must be regarded as the basis of indigenous society. The village, organized according to a finely differentiated, closed social hierarchy, embodied an extremely complex community structure. The cities founded by the British, primarily in two distinct phases (in the seventeenth century and in the late nineteenth century), departed radically from this and were shaped after the European model. It is these cities (Madras, Calcutta, Bombay, New Delhi) that are still India’s most vital and the development of the native cities bears poor comparison.

State and city as colonial inventions, the village as the principal indigenous form of social and spatial grouping: given these roots it is logical that the nationalist movement, which eventually achieved India’s independence from the British Empire, should have operated at the village level. The city as the bastion of the rulers was also how its designers presented it. Bombay (now Mumbai) has the infrastructure and rich stylistic trappings of a nineteenth-century commercial centre. The archetypes are to be found in Europe, but the urban evolution here in India has resulted in a different kind of ageing. Whereas European cities are continually prey to construction and reconstruction, in India we see chronic wear and tear, the exhaustion of an urban concept that was never maintained or adapted but which is evidently capable of accommodating every conceivable kind of use without formal renewal.

Every bit as alienating as the Bombay experience, is that of New Delhi. In New Delhi it is not the language of industry and trade that is spoken, but the language of the imperium, which required especially powerful expression just before the lowering of the flag. To this very day, Edwin Lutyens’ layout can be read as an imperious show of strength. With the passage of time since the end of colonialism, the ‘debt’ of this kind of urban planning has gradually been repaid. Nowadays, the Delhi of Edwin Lutyens projects in a more general way the qualities of a somewhat excessive grandiosity in two and three dimensions, which is rhetorically gradually breaking free from the colonial past and can be used for any message whatsoever – not necessarily a reprehensible one.

In the circumstances, New Delhi was fairly quickly assimilated into the historically layered Indian landscape as a source of inspiration for a new narrative, this time adopting a post-colonial form in Chandigarh. At the two-dimensional level, the urban planning vernacular employed in this now legendary city is related to that of New Delhi. In both cases we see a hierarchical exposition of line and plane. However, the third dimension, that of architecture, is another matter altogether. The difference between the style of Herbert Baker, who determined New Delhi’s appearance together with Lutyens, and the brutalist grandeur of Le Corbusier is sufficient to make Chandigarh the vehicle of post-colonial society and more especially the symbol of the conquest of the city by colonialism’s successor, nationalism.

This conquest was no sinecure: for one thing because Mahatma Gandhi, the most inspiring voice of the independence movement in the 1930s and ’40s, still leaned entirely on the ideal of the village as social nucleus, even for the new society of the future. He aspired to a new topography for his country, determined not by the railway lines between the cities but by the paths and roads between the villages. He encountered opposition, of course, and some of it was pretty scathing: ‘The love of the intellectual Indians for the village community is of course infinite if not pathetic…. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrowmindedness and communalism?’ (Bhim Rao Ambedkar, quoted in Khilani, p. 128)

These words struck a chord with Jawaharlal Nehru – and it was his opinion that counted in the first decades of independent India, making it possible to ‘nationalize’ the city and turn it into a breeding ground for the modernization of society. The way in which Nehru saw a role for the city in independent India was related to the distinction that he drew between ‘inauthentic’ modernity, which produced colonial cities, and ‘true’ modernity, which still had to be won for the country. One way to do this was by creating an exemplary new city, on a perfect tabula rasa, symbolic of the new India. With Le Corbusier wielding the pen, he gained his icon. Chandigarh made the city a legitimate terrain for nationalist politics, but it was to remain an isolated incident. Minor variations on the theme appeared here and there in the decades after the completion of this masterpiece, but little or nothing of substance was added to the urban canon of India. The contemporary Indian city is used – not made, never mind cherished.

Village-like habitation

It is natural to assume that Indian society’s inability to create, maintain and adapt an urban culture of its own, is tied in with the historically deep-seated emphasis on the village as a social, cultural and spatial entity. Nehru had an obvious political interest in presenting Chandigarh as the post-colonial, nationalist city with a specific emblematic quality. Yet because of the uniqueness of that particular historical moment, this cultural clarion call was also destined to remain unique. Later on, as nationalism lost its edge, so the need for a city-oriented cultural policy dissipated, leaving the field wide open for indigenous, grassroots urbanism. This is not a corner of the world where a proactive cultural policy is conceived for the metropolis. Travelling around India, one gains a strong impression that everywhere – in the countryside, a small settlement, a village, a town or a slum – it is the system of the extended family that dictates the scale of the culture. Life seems to be governed by whatever is within shouting distance; everything beyond that is foreign territory.

This village-like cultural unit can evidently take root in any spatial form, as if the relationship between content and form is totally indifferent. One sees the village reflected in the village, but equally in the city. Outwardly, Chandigarh is a Western city, at least at first glance, but on closer acquaintance much of the culture of the village seems to be palpably present within each and every block. Take, for example, the improvised ironing hut on the inner courtyard, to which all the block’s residents bring their clothes to be ironed.

The persistence of village-like habitation takes place on the macro level in an environment that is becoming ever more urban. In 1950, 15 per cent of the population lived in the cities. Today, that percentage is at least 35 per cent and in absolute numbers that growth adds up to a cityward stream of many tens of millions of people (and cows). In the absence of an urban culture, such a stream inevitably results in wear and tear on the existing city and, by extension, sprawl. The experience of travelling through contemporary India is of moving through a country in the throes of urbanization, a land that is being inhabited to the point of total disrepair and that is governed by indigenous patterns that never acquire a permanent form. The established order seems to make little or no effort to annex trends in public behaviour and to promote them, symbolic expression and all, to an official culture. As far as the rhetorical expression of national culture is concerned, that official culture must pretty well make do with the pearls it has inherited, which are accordingly set apart so as to protect them from wear and tear. The Taj Mahal is even protected from above by a no-fly zone.

India’s patrimony is often of a stunning quality. Nowhere else does one see buildings in which the decoration is so convincingly in harmony with the subject matter of the architecture, and nowhere else does one find buildings with a labyrinthine quality that is so clearly expressed in a refined, continuous sequence of rooms. Chandigarh is the final pearl in the necklace of historical highlights, but thereafter it really is all over with architecture in India, at least as a means of expressing any collective symbolism.

That said, we find ourselves in the middle of V.S. Naipaul’s clinical analysis of the India question. Naipaul, more than anyone, has identified karma as a virtually insurmountable obstruction to progress and development. The blockade lies at the very heart of Hinduism. ‘Hinduism hasn’t been good enough for the millions,’ Naipaul wrote in the mid-1970s, ‘It has exposed us to a thousand years of defeat and stagnation. It has given men no idea of a contract with other men, no idea of the state. It has enslaved one quarter of the population and always left the whole fragmented and vulnerable. Its philosophy of withdrawal has diminished men intellectually and not equipped them to respond to challenge; it has stifled growth. So that again and again in India history has repeated itself: vulnerability, defeat, withdrawal. And there are not four hundred millions now, but something nearer seven hundred.’ That last figure must now be raised to one billion, but otherwise the diagnosis still seems adequate, be it that the problem of ethnic and religious tensions has flared up again since then. Here too the genie is almost out of the bottle.

More than ever before, India is a land of risks: the massive population, the wear and tear, the national psyche and the tensions. The ambivalent social structure is by no means the least of the complicating factors in the management of those risks. Insensitive to the social order of the city because the Indian disposition knows no collectivist impulse, India is equally lacking in that individualist impulse which in eighteenth-century Europe laid the psychological foundations for the far-reaching modernization of society.

Risk management means planning – and herein lies an acute complication because since Nehru the planning question has been not been a political priority, but has instead been overshadowed by the ideological underpinning of the unitary state. When this unitary state was being formed, at the end of the 1940s, a democratic system was immediately put in place which has survived to this day, a fact as positive as it is incomprehensible. ‘Contrary to India’s nationalist myths,’ writes Sunil Khilnani, ‘enamoured of immemorial ‘village republics’, pre-colonial history little prepared it for modern democracy. Nor was democracy a gift of the departing British. Democracy was established after a profound historical rupture – the experience, at once humiliating and enabling, of colonialism, which made it impossible for Indians to regard their own past as a sufficient resource for facing the future and condemned them, in struggling against the subtle knots of the foreigner’s Raj, to struggle also against themselves. But it also incited them to imagine new possibilities: of being a nation, of possessing their own state, and of doing so on their own terms in a world of other states.’


Clearly lacking in preparation, the country set out on the democratic adventure, an adventure that presented great opportunities in a predominantly unstable, if not explosive, context. The planned development of society is not a question that can be ignored for much longer in India. In the meanwhile, it is no longer a question of choice, but of necessity. Poverty and political tensions that exceed a certain pain threshold automatically push the planning task to the top of the agenda.

A developmental vision for the spatial organization of India must find a way of rooting itself in that amorphous reality, no matter how dynamically the notion of culture is interpreted. A programme that simply provides for the construction of as many houses as there are homeless families does not work here. One possibility lies in strategies linked to the still vital tradition of Gandhi, which implies a gradual, conservative evolution and a critical stance vis à vis crude globalization. This entails the stimulation of local initiatives rather than generic plans which take no account of the specific location. It also entails measures aimed at influencing behaviour and process rather than the appearance of the spatial order. It looks as though physical planning in India must first and foremost be approached indirectly, via the codes that determine public behaviour and business activity, leaving actual locations and buildings to a later stage. Given the laborious manipulation of the relation between problem and solution, this is no simple recipe, but the Indian context does offer a felicitous precedent. Many a textbook on urban planning makes play with the celebrated tale of how Edwin Lutyens was irritatingly hampered during his work on New Delhi by the planning sociologist Patrick Geddes who was on a tour of India. Geddes impressed upon the colonials that their civil engineering and architectural tours de force could not expect one jot of native support, because they had been generated out of context. He advocated planning based on survey, a thorough study capable of ensuring that the chosen form would be a natural derivative of a variegated motif, from the bottom up. This Geddesian tradition, which was abandoned incomplete some time in the last century, is ripe for revival.

Even a policy aimed at influencing the process depends on spatial visions. When the small scale of the village constitutes such an obvious constant in tradition, it is difficult to ignore the suitability of the garden city model, especially in this context: the ideal vehicle for the construction of a ‘humane’, small-scale world of integrated living and working. It is perhaps no mere coincidence that a classic garden city design took the lead during the initial phase of preparations for the construction of Chandigarh. More than elsewhere – more than in China, for example – one might perhaps expect some degree of support for this urban planning archetype.

The garden city is a form that seems to accord with the Indian psyche. But this alone is insufficient to achieve a conclusive response to the planning problem. The scale at which the village operates is simply too limited. In addition to the reality of indigenous village-like behavioural patterns, there is also the hard reality of excessively overgrown cities like Bombay. This reality renders a large-scale and structural approach to the task of urban planning unavoidable: in terms of civil engineering but also as a Gesamtkunstwerk. With all respect for the specific, historically rooted character of the Indian nation, the design of the metropolis is a theme, no matter what. The longer Indian politicians respond to that theme in purely opportunistic fashion, instead of with the courage that is occasionally manifested in the Western world and elsewhere in Asia, the greater the risk that this massive population concentration will become a powder keg. Thinking in terms of large-scale planning concepts that provide massive answers to massive problems is an absolute necessity here.

Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India New York 1997.
Robert B. Silvers, Barbara Epstein, India: A Mosaic New York 2000.
Percival Spear, A History of India: from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century (vol. II) New Delhi 2001 (1965)
Romila Thapar, India: Another Millennium? New Delhi 2001 (2000)
Shashi Tharoor, India: from Midnight to the Millennium New Delhi 1998 (1997)
V.S. Naipaul, India: a Wounded Civilization New Delhi 1979 (1977)

Bernard Colenbrander is theme coordinator for cultural planning at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and an independent researcher.