Friday, January 12, 2018

Jaipur, 1727

"Where do the poor in your city live?
Are they consigned to shanties and ghettos, far from the 'gated communities', 
or do they share a common, egalitarian space?"

Earlier this week, I found myself at IHC, a refugee trying to escape the evening traffic, looking for something worthwhile do until it was safer to drive back home. On the boards was a talk titled, "Architecture and Society Series: Future City Jaipur". It was apparently part of a series initiated by M.N. Ashish Ganju, and the speaker who posed these questions was Sudhanshu Mukherjee, an architect who thought that city planning in 1600's was a lot better than it is today.

Having visited and stayed in Jaipur numerous times, this did seem like a tall claim - until the speaker explained how the city came into being. In the early 1700s North India was in turmoil - the Mughals had weakened considerably and Raja Jai Singh thought it was an opportune time to build a new city which would attract businesses away from Delhi, Agra and Mathura, along an alternate route to the ports of Gujarat. Like any modern SEZ, the city of Jaipur offered numerous sops and incentives to traders who were willing to relocate to the new city.

The city was conceived as a nine-box grid, aligned not only to the principles of Vaastu-Shastra, but also the existing temples to the Surya and Krishna/Vishnu. While common infrastructure and services were provided by the state, each Mohalla or quarter was allowed to design living spaces as they wished, after the plans were duly approved by the chief city planner, a Bengali named Vidyadhar Bhattacharya.

The advantage of this flexible planning was that it integrated citizens from various economic and social strata into common living spaces. This, in turn, fostered a sense of belonging and an egalitarian sense of solidarity amongst various communities in the city.  This approach to city planning was later abandoned in favour of Western style grids that separated living and working spaces, in creating cities like Chandigarh and Bhubaneswar that end up looking "more like army cantonments than bustling metropolises; cities built for automobiles rather than human beings".

It seems there have been attempts to revive this approach, such as Norman Foster's Masdar City in Dubai which aims to be a "a mixed-use, low-rise, high-density development" with an emphasis on pubic transportation. Another example is Khuda-Ki-Basti (Hyderabad, Pakistan), and Incremental Development Plan which won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1995.

As one of the few non-architects attending the lecture, I was struck by the pessimism of all the city planners present (were most of them Bengalis?). It also brought out the disconnect and the turf-wars going on between those who were teaching (mostly at SPA, Delhi), and those running their own studios.

In a hall that seemed full of articulate, long-winded experts, if there was one person who made an impression, it was the elderly Ashish Ganju. A practicing, teaching architect who had been staying for the past 18 years in Aya Nagar, a crowded village wedged between Delhi and Gurgaon, he seemed to be the only one walking the talk!

References & Links
* Book - Jain, Kulbhushan(): Indian City in the Arid West -
* SlideShare -
* Norman Foster's Masdar City, Abu Dhabi -
* Khuda-Ki-Basti, Hyderabad, Pakisan -

More Qs:

* How did Vidyadhar Bhattacharya end up in Jaipur? Is there a link between Jai Singh's tenure as Akbar's Subedar of Bengal, and his presence in the desert kingdom?

* In 1739, within a decade of Jaipur coming into being, the Persian marauder, Nadir Shah plundered what remained of Mughal Delhi. In Delhi alone, he is recorded to have massacred over 20,000 people. How many of the survivors ended up in Jaipur?