Tha: From Preserving Sites to Self
This is an excerpt from Ridhima Sharma’s larger thesis portfolio titled “Tha: From Preserving Sites to Self.” It is a part of the Class of 2020’s graduate thesis presentation “Statements from Isolation.”
What is this India, apart from her physical and geographical aspects? [. . . ]How did she lose that old strength, and has she lost it completely? Does she represent anything vital now, apart from being the home of a vast number of human beings? How does she fit into the modern world?”
Sitting in his dark prison cell at the Ahmednagar Fort, tracing the historical panorama of Bharat beginning from the antiquated Indus Valley civilization, nationalist Pandit Jawhar Lal Nehru gradually discovered a strategy to India’s revival and freedom. For Nehru, as Edward Said quoted, reading into the historical past would support “the search for knowledge and justice, and perhaps also for liberation.”
India—a diverse, multicultural landscape of traditions and heritage—had degraded over the bicentennial interlude of British colonial rule. Engulfed by the dark gloom of misery, chaos, and deterioration, this destabilized palimpsest of constant invasions had forgotten its own unique identity, only to become an appendage of British culture.
When a society collapses into another distinct society, the latter faces rapid fluctuations, eventually becoming dormant and disoriented. In 1947, India was finally unfettered from the chains of colonization, but it was yet to become independent as an entity.
The term “independent” is synonymous to the state of being self-sufficient, which is a compelling notion, and has been a driving force motivating many communities to oppose slavery and dominance. Originating from the very desire to make India independent in its most literal sense, a patriotic fervour motivated Nehru to carve an India that could sustain itself as a distinct yet respectable community.
Eventually, this newborn democratic country of India was nurtured by Nehru, through his utopian vision of modernization. This research attempts to identify the degree of Nehru’s political intervention in decolonizing India from a “third-world country” towards a self-reliant industrial nation-state using the tried and tested formula of modernity. In India, the birth of modernity was a process initiated to unite the community under the identity of modern India.
What started as an experiment with the evolution of the city of Chandigarh became a wave of nation building, as the first batch of post-independence architects defined new archetypes of modernity amalgamating the rationale of technology and function into traditional elements of Indian context, and eventually this period from 1950s to 1980s came to be known as the Nehruvian legacy.
A part of this Nehruvian legacy was the project of permanent exhibition halls built to commemorate twenty-five years of Indian independence, for the first international trade fair in India known as Asia-72.
These permanent exhibition halls—the Hall of Nations complex at Pragati Maidan—reflected Nehru’s ambitions of reviving the nation’s identity as an independent nation within a modern world order, while it was still exploring its potential.
As time passed, the Hall of Nations Complex became more than just exhibition halls—for the dilliwalas, they became synonymous with Pragati Maidan. It developed as an evocative memory in the consciousness of Delhi’s skyline, a constituent symbolizing Indian modernity, anda vision that gave Nehru’s beloved nation a unique identity—until it was erased for another utopian so called “world-class vision.”
Nehruvian legacy—symbolic of Nehru’s India—can also be considered as someone else’s non-India, which is what happened in this case. Political intervention or power has always been the prime contributor to nation building. It is a fact that every ruler wants to build their own utopia, and architecture being a tangibly perennial symbol of growth and identity becomes the political tool to establish the ruler’s agency. Using the literalism of outdated preservation policies and an alacrity of hasty demolition, this memory of post-independence architecture of India was razed to rubble despite constant battles, petitions, international support, and a pending case in court.
Parallels were immediately drawn to the Penn Station movement. Was it truly? Penn Station’s demolition was considered hopeful, because it brought revolutionary changes by the conception of the Landmark Preservation Act. Although the Indian preservation policies were revised to bring down the age bar from one hundred years to sixty years, but is it enough? At present, the post-colonial heritage of Delhi lies endangered due to the age-based preservation policies and political agendas. This would almost mean the erasure of an era in the capital city of Delhi.
So why should we care? To find an answer to this we need to dive deeper inside, and ask our “self,”- “WHY?” since this emotion to preserve our cultural heritage comes from an irrational desire for continuity of our history.
Every community associates built sites with its own identity and thus fights to protect it to keep it alive forever. From an emblem of national identity to a node of nostalgia, this is a journey towards preservation of self, through the kaleidoscopic lens of colonial history, the advent of nationalism, and politics of memory.
Let me share an example.
I came to New York seeking answers to my quest for preservation, and it was there I found the saga of Weeksville. When slavery was in its last stage in the city of New York, a small neighborhood in Brooklyn named Weeksville became a safe haven for the free black community, as scores of African Americans made their way to Brooklyn’s eastern Bedford Hills area. By the 1850s, Weeksville had more than five hundred residents from all over the East Coast.
From then until now, Weeksville has undergone a lot of changes, since change is constant.
Due to gentrification among other factors, this neighborhood was almost obliterated, and it was only in the 1960s that members of this free Black community and the preservation community rediscovered this lost historic village.
Constantly battling with the higher organizations for preservation, what started as the Weeksville Society transformed into the Weeksville Heritage Centre over a period of three decades. To be religious about preserving something, one needs to have a strong belief and a clear motivation. In this case, the identity and self-sufficiency of a free black community raised a neighborhood that would de-stigmatize beliefs about them, which is possible only through the continuity of memories of its own historical roots.
The ephemeral saga of Weeksville developed into an inspirational community coming together with pride and self-reliance. Had this heritage community not preserved this heritage site, I would never have gotten to know about this community, and about the essence of identities, culture, and memories.
Memory and identity are two intertwined elements that play an essential role in Nehru’s process of nation building post-independence, and their use decides and influences the urban context, when the use is authorized and molded under a power. It is this notion of shared identity entwined with collective memories, that motivates the desire within communities to preserve themselves through these sites of recent history.
Exhibitions: Tools for Modernity
It becomes essential to study the significance of exhibitions since they play a crucial role for these sites, in building a case for the conception of these sites. While the Hall of Nations evolved as a structure unique in concept for exhibiting anything from book to bulldozer at a global level signifying India’s potential, the Nehru Pavilion was conceived as a host to commemorate the world-famous Charles and Ray Eames exhibition: Nehru: His Life and His India. This section focuses on the contributions of exhibitions as a medium for India towards establishing its value on a global platform, and a political mode for connections. Through this section I wish to showcase how exhibitions were used as a medium intending to propagate awareness about the significance of these built heritage sites, and also garnering attention to arouse a spirit of activism within the community.
Identifying through the media parlance and research, this thesis also explores the underlying cause for demolition, i.e. the clash of ideologies which made this preservation contested. Despite a global outcry, the site was condemned to dust—using the literalism of a policy stating “60 years of age’” and the haste to demolish the sites before another hearing. Ultimately it becomes a question of power dynamics playing on the decision of “what is worth remembering, and what is worth letting go?”
While international institutions like MoMA, Centre Pompidou Paris and M+ Hong Kong are starting to recognize the contribution of Indian modernity in the mainstream narrative of modernism, through their ongoing plans for permanent exhibitions, the homeland of these sites fails to even acknowledge them. How would then the future generations of Indians witness this significant chapter of their own cultural history and identity?
As we part, I’d like to use my poetic license:
My identity is not just a reflection of me
It has originated from a collective We
We personifying a community
Whose totems of turmoil
To bestow liberty
In these sites of shared history
For memories to exist
To maintain continuity
To sustain our own identity
Preservation is the key