Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Indian architecture, circa 1850

The Journal of the Society of Arts, Britain, 1870, reproduces a speech delivered by Lord Napier on the subject of ‘aesthetics’ in design of buildings. He deplores the tendency of ‘natives’ to copy European design using material not compatible with Indian conditions. He urges the use of indigenous material that are available in abundance and that are perfectly suitable. He advises the local people not to be enamoured of the modern architect and to follow the instinct of the maistry form the mofussil area who has preserved the traditions of the forefathers. An extract. ( read full speech here)

If the rules concerning material which are here enunciated are correct, I need scarcely say that they are in every respect so violated in India as to rouse the regret and condemnation of' all reasonable critic. Madras is the epitome of every error that an architect can commit with reference to material.

Look at the railway station, the High Court, the Custom-house, the sea front of the fort buildings, all discovering the same shameful condition of chronic disfigurement and decay; all blistered, discoloured, and crumbling, the victims of an unequal strife between the element and stucco. Yet at no great distance, there are inexhaustible supplies, the finest stone, and the very soil beneath our feet teems with clay, which only requires the skilful exercise of a familiar art to yield qualities of brick and terracotta, competent to resist the attacks of the blast and the spray forever.

The Presidency College and the Sailors' House are the first attempts to build in an honest manner with undisguised materials, but the act of preparing them is not attained in a day, and I fear that we can scarcely regard these buildings otherwise than as the forerunners of a better era.

It is possible that I may be speaking in the presence of some native gentleman who has made a fortune by the exportation of cotton, and who is about to build a new house. The case is not common in Madras, but it is not incredible. If there be such a one here, I beseech him to pause before he sanctions the modern "Muster" which I mentally see before me. I say to him, 'Discharge your Madras architect, and take a maistry from some remote part of the Mofussil, where the traditions of the fathers are still preserved. Determine to have a national house, but such a house as an Indian gentleman should inhabit under an honest government, in an age of peace, justice, and learning, a house in which the light of heaven, and reason, and freedom can penetrate.

Adhere in general to the ancient plan, and especially to the court and colonnade; collect all the best models and patterns of native mouldings and sculpture; use brick of the finest quality from tho School of Arts for the exposed surfaces; employ timber for the pillars within, Cuddapah stone for the pillars without, glazed tiles for the floors; make a liberal use of ornamental stucco and painting where the rain cannot penetrate; fill the unglazed apertures with the beautiful tracery of which Indian art offers an unrivalled variety. For glazed windows, authentic models may be wanting; but they can be treated in the spirit of the style ; and the government architect can show you how.

Get all your carpets from Vellore, and your stuffs from Madura and Tanjore. Where the Hindoo patterns fail you, borrow from the Mussulmans. Make a sparing use of European furniture, and endeavour to harmonise it with the native forms. But in doing this, make everything lofty, light, bright, spacious, and accessible.

Theo task would not be easy, but it can be done; and every effort would be better than that which preceded it.

Endeavour to realise this, that the Indian arts which you are at this moment casting away here, are at this moment, in London and Paris, an object of inquiry and study to the most learned and cultivated minds. Do not imagine that you are required to do anything unprecedented. All I ask you is to do has been done in Europe itself. In Europe, the ancient national arts were, for a couple of centuries, as much forgotten and despised by us as the ancient national arts of India are now forgotten and despised by you. You have hitherto imitated our errors, I call upon you to imitate us in correcting them

Advice is relevent even today, don't you think?

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