Creat. Sp.

Building for Modernity in Post Uprising Colonial India: Sanderson’s Survey and other Tales of Modern Indian Architecture

Jyoti Pandey Sharma

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Hybridity; Mistri; Modernity; Patron; PWD

PUBLISHED DATE July 03, 2017
PUBLISHER The Author(s) 2017. This article is published with open access at

The post uprising colonial modern state zealously ushered modernity in the Indian Subcontinent. In the domain of architecture it produced a building frenzy from implementation of urban improvement schemes to raising infrastructure including buildings patronised by the government, Indian rulers and the masses. In a departure from the state’s view to impose the Eurocentric, universal idea of modernity as the only legitimate form of architectural expression, the corpus of buildings built at the turn of the century was a hybrid product of entanglement of tradition and modernity. Indeed, the various actors engaged in the production of buildings, from patrons to designers including architects and Mistris (craftsmen) negotiated modernity on their own individual terms in the absence of any established framework. Types of buildings ranged from state buildings for governance to opulent princely palaces to innumerable every day buildings. This Paper examines the many trajectories of architectural expression that prevailed in the Indian Subcontinent at the turn of the century and argues that the notion of modernity was not homogenous and was characterised by hybridity. It further asserts that this extant building corpus should get its due as modern heritage and be conserved today.


The post uprising colonial state in the Indian Subcontinent expected the colony to embrace modernity as the vehicle for progress and development. The zeal to modernize percolated from the highest echelons of colonial authority (Klein, Ira 2000). Indeed, Viceroys, in speech after speech urged their Indian subjects to embrace modernity. Decades after the uprising, sufficient progress had been made in this regard and the incumbent Viceroy, Curzon, expressed satisfaction with the state of affairs in a speech delivered at Lucknow on December 13, 1899, on the occasion of a Durbar, a public ceremony to exhibit the might of the state. Curzon stated that ‘Everywhere throughout India, I observe an increasing spirit of public activity, and an awakening to the conditions of modern life, the spread of railways, the increase of education, the diffusion of the Press, the construction of public works, the expansion of manufacturing and industrial undertakings, all of these bespeak, the eager yearnings of a fresh and buoyant life’ (Raleigh, Sir Thomas 1906). It is worth underscoring that Curzon’s speech while dwelling on the emergence of infrastructure, fails to mention buildings as symbols of a rapidly modernizing India. The near absence of architecture from the discourse on the colonial state’s perception of modernity, even as buildings were being built on an unprecedented scale both by the state and private enterprise across the Subcontinent, makes the subject worthy of examination. This Paper focuses on the state of architecture in what Scriver has described as ‘colonialmodern’ Subcontinent, a befitting description applicable to the Indian Subcontinent in the post uprising era from the late 19th to the early decades of the 20th century (Scriver, Peter and Prakash, V. 2007). This period witnessed a building frenzy from commissioning of improvement schemes at city scale to designing of new infrastructure. Contained in its expansive fold were among others, building of roads, canals, dams and railways; devising engineered solutions for water supply and sanitation; and creating a vast network of buildings including schools, colleges, hospitals, museums, parks and libraries, to name some. While infrastructure projects like the railways, canal and road networks, were hailed as icons of modernity by the state including Viceroys in their public speeches, buildings remained in the shadow and were hardly the subject of discussion as paradigms of modernity.

It is asserted that the architecture of this era lies at a critical juncture in the built environment narrative of the Indian Subcontinent, between what architectural historians describe rather generically as colonial architecture and the architecture of post-independent India that is dominated by the Eurocentric modernity discourse. The large corpus of buildings of this period finds no place in the former category that tends to be dominated by the building enterprise firstly of the British East India Company and subsequently the Raj while the latter is dominated by notions of modernity emanating from the west under the influence of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, among others. The paper argues that the notion of modernity in colonial India was not homogenous and was characterised by what Bhaba has called ‘hybridity’ (Bhaba, Homi K. 1994). It further asserts that hybridity existed in the domain of architecture as well with multiple versions of modernity as the state and indigenes commissioned a large number of buildings in the post uprising era. The paper supports this claim by critically examining a relatively little-known work, by Gordon Sanderson, Superintendent in Archaeological Survey of India (henceforth ASI), that was undertaken at the behest of the London based India Society to assess the state of architecture in India. The work presented a survey of modest, common place buildings built largely in the late 19th and early 20th century by indigenous craftsmen, Mistris, as examples of modern Indian architecture. The inclusion of this corpus of craftsmen designed and executed every day buildings as a representative of modernity in early 20th century, pre-independence India, itself was contested on account of the state’s apathetic attitude towards traditional architecture and further due to the state perpetuated schism between the professional i.e. engineer and architect versus the indigenous craftsman, who tended to be unschooled. This state of affairs notwithstanding, both the patrons and the executers of their architectural works indulged in the production of buildings that represented not one but various notions of modernity. By drawing attention to this architectural corpus, the paper underscores that the discourse of modernity in Indian architecture needs to be revisited in light of the sheer diverse ways in which the European ideal was configured in the Subcontinent.

Page(s) 1-12
ISSN Print : 2321-3892, Online : 2321-7154

Twenty one years after Sanderson’s survey, Claude Batley, published a collection of measured drawings ‘to meet a need which everyone who has set out to study the elements of Indian Architecture must have felt’ that contained not only details of monuments but also ‘smaller domestic architecture, from which, perhaps, the most useful inspiration may be gleaned by architects in connection with their practice in the India of to-day’ (Batley, Claude 1960). The survey included among others specimens of residences from different parts of the country such as Baroda, Madura, Nasik and Poona that Batley hoped would serve as a reference for practicing architects much like Jacob had hoped through his Jeypore Portfolio of Architectural Details. Jacob had documented and published a compendium of architectural details from an array of historic buildings across the state of Jeypore in the late 19th and early 20th century (Jacob, S. S. 1890). The attempts of Jacob, Growse and Batley to produce what they envisioned to be useful compilations on Indian architecture, and the views of government officers like Begg and Sanderson, not withstanding, it is evident that the state did not wish to chalk out a framework for the development of modern Indian architecture. In such a scenario the response to modernity tended to be varied as each actor from the patron, i.e. state or private individuals to the designer and builder, i.e. the state engineer, architect to the Mistri chose to respond in their own way resulting in a hybrid expression. There were buildings patronized by the state that were trapped in 19th century historicism and eclecticism in terms of stylistic expression even in the early 20th century. While there were others that chose to negotiate modernity and tradition through uninformed imitation to informed adaptation and assimilation and everything else in between. The outcome of these various practices was a highly hybrid urban landscape that characterized cities across the Indian Subcontinent.

To not acknowledge the building corpus that resulted from these circumstances as products of modernity reflects a lack of ability to look at modernity beyond the European lens. Further, given the fact that a large number of these buildings continue to remain in our cities and are falling prey, by way of vandalism or even complete destruction, to the pressures of contemporary development, it is incumbent upon both the state and the citizenry to recognize their worth as modern heritage. Perhaps it is time that a survey of the kind that Sanderson undertook more than a century ago be undertaken yet again, no longer confined in its territorial jurisdiction as it did in the past but be more expansive to cover the entire country to make inventories and document this vast corpus so that a framework for its conservation can be prepared. Such an intervention will not only be in keeping with the mandate of global organizations like the DOCOMOMO but will also bridge the gap that exists in the country’s narrative on the development of modern architecture.

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