Article Published in THE STATESMAN

The House that Lutyens Built

Navtej Sarna

A few days ago, after a couple of sets of tennis on the immaculately laid grass courts of Rashtrapati Bhavan, I sat down to catch my breath. A dignified old man in white shirt and trousers stood quietly on the sidelines and watched the net being taken off. He was Hira Lal who looks after the games facilities. Something in his quiet authority prompted me to ask him how long he had been in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Such is our obsession with the here and now that nothing had prepared me for his answer:

Lord Linlithgow ke same se hain. Aapne to bahut kuch dekha hoga yahan? Bahut zamana dekha hai.

In the gathering dusk, his tone was wistful and we both fell silent. He was no doubt along with his thoughts of the past and I was wondering what all the old man had seen at such close quarters. The pomp and pageantry of the Raj, the days of ceremony and four o’clock teas on the lawn, the wrangling, the negotiations and the struggle for freedom and then the passing of the Raj. And then the dawn of Republican India.

Perhaps there may be more than one Hira Lal quietly going about his job in the labyrinthine corridors of the imposing building. Perhaps they could have added a very meaningful chapter to this already immaculate book and brought to life the statues and the portraits that adorn the room and the corridors. They could have told us a hundred little human stories and lessened to some extent the all encompassing mystery of the place. Perhaps Hira Lal could have even told us how good Mountbatten’s backhand actually was.

But that was obviously not the intention. If the intention was to produce an elegant and readable account of Rashtrapati Bhavan detailing the history of its conception and construction and giving the reader a glimpse of the ceremonial life of the palace. H.Y. Sharada Prasad* and the publishers have succeeded eminently. The book contains ample evidence of research without sounding pedantic, and it has style without being glib. The printing and production are well done and professional. It combines in itself the qualities of a good coffee table book, a gift item and an authentic and serious work.

The most interesting part of the book is its portrait of Edwin Lutyens, the man who came to be later recognized as the greatest architect of England since Sir Christopher Wren. Although he never completed his art school education, the book informs us, he went on to earn a knighthood, an LL.D from Oxford University and the Order of Merit. But for making a building as unique as Rashtrapati Bhavan over a period of 17 years, he earned a fee of only £5,000. Lutyens emerges as a witty and likeable genius, committed to his art and willing to cajole, flatter and bludgeon Viceroys and kings for its sake. He won over Lady Hardinge to his side in his tussles with her husband, having once written to her: “I will wash your feet with my tears and wipe them with my hair. True, I have very little hair, but then you have very little feet”.

Lutyens scoffed at Indian architectural traditions. He found the Taj Mahal only “pretty”. He commented that, if the villas of Simla had been built by monkeys, they would have to be shot if they ever did such a thing again. Yet he combined the red sandstone of Mughal buildings with the Dholpur cream stone of Rajput edifices. He yearned for the classical but yet Rashtrapati Bhavan is full of chajjas, chattris and jallis. Indian motifs of elephant, water and even the cobra can be found. One wonders how all this crept into the desing. Was Lutyens opposition to Indian tradition only skin-deep, or did that tradition ultimately prove too strong?

To his everlasting regret, he lost he battle of the gradient, or Bakerloo, to his colleague, Herbert Baker, the builder of North and South block. Baker wanted buildings to be on the same level as the Viceroy’s House and Lutyens unwittingly allowed it, not realizing until later that would imply that the Viceroy’s House would not be visible in all its grandeur from what is today Vijay Chowk. Perhaps it was all to the good. Today, part of the mystery and grandeur surrounding Rashtrapati Bhavan arises from the fact that one can only see the tantalizing dome and not the totality unless one actually goes up Raisina Hill.

THE book also takes the reader on a conducted tour of the 340-room edifice, pointing out many interesting details. From the impressive forecourt with its rows of squatting lions and the towering Jaipur column to the splendour of the Durban Hall and Ashoka Hall. Through the generously appointed guest suites, the vaulted corridors, the loggias and the drawing rooms where dignitaries are received. Down to the Mughal Garden with its 215 varieties of roses and 60 kinds of bougainvillaea and 600 varieties of trees where the peacocks still dance.

The tour does not raises out on the paraphernalia too, such as the celebrated President’s Bodyguard which comes out on its sheep and panther-skin saddles during ceremonial occasions like State welcomes and farewells to visitors from abroad in the forecourt. This is an immaculately trained and turned out unit. An eye-witness the other day recounted the story of a welcome ceremony for a visiting President during which one of the horses of the bodyguard reared and threw off its rider. But, having thrown him off, it continued to trot in position and went through the entire ceremony.

The photographs and drawings are well-selected and displayed: From details of Lutyens notepads and black-white shots from the days of the construction to close details in colour of the artifacts and furniture. They also include breathtaking views of the central vista and surrounding buildings.

Rashtrapati Bhavan has long survived the Empire whose permanence and might it once proclaimed. Today, it is part of our history, present-day polity and national consciousness. It is as Indian as the Taj or Ajanta and Ellora and without it Delhi’s sunsets would be incomplete. This book enables us to look at it with renewed interest and curiosity.

*Rashtrapati Bhavan. BY H.Y. Sharada Prasad (The Publication division of the Ministry of information and Broadcasting in association with the National Institute of Design: price not stated).