After Miami, India has the most Art Deco Buildings in the world and more than 800 of these are in Mumbai. The Art Deco buildings on Marine Drive and Oval Maidan in Mumbai have also been recognised by UNESCO as part of a World Heritage site listing, the result of a long campaign by heritage activists and local resident groups.
However, few people associate Art Deco with Delhi. When you think of historic architecture styles associated with the nation’s capital, your mind conjures up Mughal domes and jaalis on the one hand, and Colonial or Indo-Saracenic structures on the other.
Two young architects, Geetanjali Sayal and Prashansa Sachdeva, dug deeper into the diversity of design in Delhi. Their three year quest has led to the creation of DecoinDelhi, a digital repository of Art Deco buildings in Delhi, created with the help of a grant from India Foundation for the Arts.
Given that there was hardly any existing documentation on the Internet, they have done this the old-fashioned way – pouring over forgotten journals in libraries, walking through narrow streets to spot an architectural detail and speaking to families who once inhabited the buildings.
Sayal returned to Delhi in 2018 after completing her Masters degree in Narrative Environments at Central Saint Martins in London, and says she was always interested in the movements that shaped the cultural identity of the city – especially those that had not been documented extensively.
She teamed up with Prashansa Sachdeva, an architect trained in Architectural Design Research from the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff, to discover more about Delhi’s architectural past. Sachdeva lives in Daryaganj, an area that underwent rapid commercialisation during British colonial rule in the early 20th century. Several of the buildings in the area were constructed in the Art Deco style. “Although many structures have been altered, there is still enough evidence that Art Deco was the favoured style at a certain point of time,” she says.
The duo decided to find out more about Delhi’s Art Deco past, turning to libraries in institutions like the School of Planning & Architecture, Delhi, as well as blogs like Varun Shiv Kapur’s Sarson Ke Khet, which has an extensive collection of architectural photographs. “Given the lockdown, we had to turn to alternate sources of information,” says Sayal, “and each fresh discovery just kept pushing us forward.”
The Right Signals
It is well known that Art Deco, with its connotations of modernity and opulence, was brought to Mumbai by British and western-educated Indian architects in the late 1920s. Their approach was welcomed by clients eager to signal a new prosperity.
Less discussed is the fact that once Delhi was declared the capital of the country in 1911, its skyline was destined to change.
Princely states who attained sovereignty under British rule were allotted land for residences in Delhi. India’s royalty had visited the West often, travelling in luxury ocean liners that often provided their first brush with the Art Deco style.
The princes commissioned architectural firms from Mumbai, says Sayal, and a significant milestone in the capital’s architectural history is the establishment of palatial residences like Kota House, Dholpur House, Jaisalmer House, Kanika House and Faridkot House in the late 1930s. These were in the Art Deco style, and many are described in detail on the Deco in Delhi website.
Adding to this were affluent patrons and middle-class business families, all eager for an alternative style to showcase their wealth and avant garde taste. Art Deco, with its bold geometric forms and bright colours, provided the perfect expression. This was helped by developments in technology and materials like reinforced concrete, which allowed for the experimental nature of the style to flourish.
The team has also been able to identify specific firms and people who influenced the spread of Art Deco in Delhi, like the architect N.K. Kothari who worked for Mumbai-based architectural firm Master, Sathe and Bhuta. Here, Sumanta Bhowmick’s book, “Princely Palaces in New Delhi’” proved a helpful resource for confirming the data acquired from oral conversations with building owners.
The Indian Influence
Slowly but surely, a desire to claim an Indian identity, distinct from the West, was also gathering momentum. Both in Mumbai and Delhi, you can see this in the family homes called “Mahals’ and ‘Bhavans’ that combined the classic Art Deco style with elements from Indian visual tradition like religious symbols and floral forms.
A similar ideology was also seen in structures such as St Stephen’s College, where the
Anglo-Indian architect, Walter Sykes George adopted a unique hybridisation of Indian classical
elements encoded with Christian values, with parts of the building’s exteriors and interiors drawing inspiration from the Art Deco style. This allowed for a distinct architectural style to emerge, further reinforcing the desire to seek an identity away from pre-existing British ideologies.
Unlike Mumbai, Delhi is yet to protect its Art Deco buildings as there has been no recognition for the style so far.
Sayal narrates the story of residences Charan Bhavan and Bharat Bhavan, in Delhi’s Rani Jhansi Road. The original Gupta residence had been divided between two brothers, Charan Singh Gupta and Bharat Singh Gupta. Each side of the house showcased a different facade, and the homes were considered a neighbourhood landmark.
“We managed to speak to a family member and she told us that Charan Singh was a contractor who supervised the construction of the original residence in the Art Deco style. However, the houses had already been sold and were razed even as we documented them,” says the team.
Many of the buildings that feature in Deco in Delhi are occupied residences. “Given the nature of research, we had to speak directly with families of residence owners to get the most accurate information. At times evidence in the form of plans and lease documents made them suspicious of our intentions. In some cases, we made a couple of visits to ensure the comfort level of the families, and avoided using any camera/ recorders for them to converse with ease, ” says Sayal.
“Most people are also hesitant about the heritage building tag,” adds Sachdeva, “for they do not see any benefit in it. The stringent laws make it difficult to carry out even minute repairs. Unaware of the style, owners often don’t understand or appreciate its craftsmanship and would rather reconstruct the entire building or sell it to a new owner.”
What’s next for Deco in Delhi?
“The first phase of the project primarily aims at creating awareness about the expanse of style in Delhi, intended to associate value with the few remaining Deco buildings in the city,” says Sayal, “We cannot begin to speak of preservation and respect for history, if people don’t even know why a particular building is worth protecting. The next phase will see workshops, walks and other forms of on-ground initiatives, aimed at helping people engage with the buildings at a deeper level.“