Rashtrapati Bhavan is a house with 340
rooms. But size is not its only or even its chief
claim to fame. It is a widely acclaimed masterpiece of architecture, the crowning
achievement of a master-builder, Edwin
It was built to proclaim the might and
permanence of the British empire in India.
That empire vanished from the land within
eighteen years of its construction. The book
tells the story of this imperial edifice which
has been adapted to the needs of Republican
**Contents and Sample Pages**
Sand takes time to turn into stone. And stone takes talent to be converted into
an edifice. Nature and man, rock and architecture, have rarely collaborated to so fine
a purpose as in the fashioning of the magnificent Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Indian stone, both supple and tough, smooth and heavy-grained, had earlier
gone into the making of two other regal residences in Delhi, the Purana Qila and the
Red Fort. Those gaunt monuments proclaimed India’s architectural excellence
and more. They bespoke India’s artistic skills and symbolized its strength. When, in
the early years of this century, the British moved the Raj’s capital from Calcutta to
Delhi, the search for an imperial Residence became a desideratum. The Kingsway
Camp was first chosen and even a foundation was laid there. But to the genius in
architecture, Edwin Lutyens, the Raisina Hill appealed as an ideal site for the
proposed building. A palace on this hillock would crown the landscape. Visible
across miles, the palace would levitate on the horizon as a monument that is a cut
above the rest. It would be, among buildings, a Kanchenjungha which the dust haze
of Delhi’s summers and the mist of her winters would obscure, unveil and obscure
again. A tantalizing presence that would be close and far, within touching distance
and yet elusive behind the undulation.
Lutyens and his colleague in the enterprise, Baker, knew that the new building
could not exist in a vacuum. The building, Lutyens and Baker realized, would
therefore have to use not an unfamiliar architectural language but a higher vocabulary from within India’s own idiom of edifices. The Viceroy’s House, they saw,
would need to stand out but not stand apart. Years of painstaking research and
meticulous study went into the planning of the noble pile. The construction
commenced and proceeded thereafter with the dignity — and slowness — of a
pageant. Shape merged with tone, theme fused with rock, as hundreds of masons,
carpenters, cutters, carvers and artists worked to give the building its finishing
touches with the detailed care that engravers bestow on jewellery. When in 1929
after years of construction activity the monumental work was completed, there came
to be added to the list of the world’s palaces a fresh, new name. But a name that had
an old ring to it. The ‘wicker trellis’ of Sarnath hallowed by Gautama the Buddha
and ancient Indian motifs like the Sun, the serpent and, of course, the elephant
adorned its walls, lintels, cornices, plinths and courtyards.
The building which Lord Irwin stepped into in 1929 was.a metaphor for the Raj:
strong, regal and majestic — like a caparisoned elephant. The building which, three
Viceroys later, Lord Mountbatten stepped out of retained the same elephantine
bearing, but there was a difference. The pachyderm now displayed a different aspect
of its personality: wisdom and sagacity. Mahatma Gandhi had in the meantime
visited the building for several rounds of parleys. The best minds of Indiaand Britain
had interacted in it, often with heat but always with courtesy and decorum of which
the Indian leaders were living examples.
A series of austere, scholarly and wise Indians such as C. Rajagopalachari, the
first Indian Governor-General, Rajendra Prasad, the first President, and his
successors like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Zakir Husain in the years since
Independence, have brought to this building the texture of a renascent but self-restrained India. Exceptional Indians led by Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime
Minister, Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Azad have been administered their oaths
of office in its stately precincts. A succession of dignitaries from abroad have come
and stayed in it as India’s honoured guests, a tradition that continues, to be
cherished by host and guest alike.
A steady stream of sightseers comes to see Rashtrapati Bhavan's Durbar Hall
where India's distinguished sons and daughters are honoured for their accomplishments and where India’s brave soldiers are decorated. Visitors also see the renowned
Moghul Gardens and also the new Museum which I have had the pleasure of
launching. Some priceless paintings, photographs, artefacts and objets d’art which
have been received by the Presidents over the years are housed in this Museum and
its adjoining Toshakhana.
The story of this building’s rise and transformation from an imperial palace to
India’s First Residence needed to be told. As one who had received, during my visits
to world capitals, beautifully produced books on State Residences, I keenly felt the
absence of such a book on Rashtrapati Bhavan. There were of course some splendid
volumes on Lutyens’s work but these were, essentially, meant for those interested
in architecture. Likewise, history books per se could not be expected to do justice to
the role of what, to a historian, is a mere venue.
But great buildings, like great human beings, need a biographer. They need
someone who can write about its architecture as also its ‘within’, not in the sense of
its interior but its spirit. It therefore gave me no little satisfaction when Shri H. Y.
Sharada Prasad agreed to undertake the task. He is sensitive to aesthetics and to
history and uses words, like Rashtrapati Bhavan’s stone-carvers used their instruments, with a gentle strength. He has brought the story of this edifice to life.
I commend the book to the widest possible readership. Lam sure that a diligent
reader will discern not merely the massive structure but the solid foundation of our
strong, sturdy and unassailable Constitution which the Rashtrapati Bhavan symbolizes.
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