Empire buildings

Some of the best examples of Georgian design were constructed by British military engineers in India. Now most of them are in danger.
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The Independent Culture
The British contribution to the making of India is now, it seems, an embarrassment. As if by mutual consent both Britain and India seem inclined to forget the whole episode of Empire. If ever any reference is now made to the great enterprise it is more likely to be to those terrible and dark moments - such as the massacre that General Dyer oversaw at Amritsar in 1919 - rather than to the fact that without the British there would probably not be an Indian nation. It was the commercial instinct of the East India Company before 1856, and the political policy of succeeding British governments through the later 19th century, that forged India from a number of distinct states and nationalities - an amalgamation which barely survived the withdrawal of the British in 1947.

One of the great victims of this amnesia is the cultural achievement of British India - most notably the architecture produced in the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries. Much is now made of late Victorian and early 20th-century British building in India - notably Bombay Gothic, and the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker at New Delhi. But few realise that some of the most inventive Georgian buildings ever produced by British designers are in India, and many of these are now in a state of extreme peril.

What makes early British building in India of extraordinary interest is the way in which British-trained designers - mostly military engineers - responded so creatively to the possibilities offered by Indian design and construction traditions and to the demands of the Indian climate and society. Much of the quality of these early buildings, with their deft use of local materials, and interiors organised to modify the extremes of the climate, must be due to the fact that the engineers worked with guilds of Indian craftsmen. This was typical of the initial British response to India - to work with rather than against Indian traditions, to marry European and oriental design - and the architectural consequence was powerful and poignant, and remains haunting.

Surprisingly little is known of this early British architecture in India, but one man is working hard to redress the balance. Banmali Tandan has spent much of the past 20 years discovering, researching and recording early British architecture in India, particularly in Calcutta, Barrackpore and Lucknow. Tandan, a Cambridge-educated historian now living in Delhi, is soon to publish some of his discoveries in a Cambridge University Press volume on the buildings of Lucknow. Tandan's appreciation of his discoveries is highly informed and infectious. He can say things about the British in India that no Briton dare say publicly and which few Indians care to. His observations of the rich but rapidly dwindling remains have convinced him that the buildings of the British Empire in India compare favourably, in terms of quality, inventive complexity, and significance, with the remains of the Roman Empire. Tandan believes that early British architecture of India represents, as a body of work, one of the great periods of human creative endeavour and is working against time to record all that he can. As Tandan explains, "far from being a merely colonial architecture, early British architecture in India forms an important part of the architectural heritage of the country and is of international significance". The still extensive remains of early buildings in Calcutta confirm Tandan's analysis. In the late 18th century, Calcutta was, points out Tandan, the second city of the British empire in terms of economic importance, and its architecture reflected this fact. Main streets were spacious, houses built for rich and powerful Europeans and Indians were palatial, and the city's public buildings were impressive. In the case of Government House, built in 1799 and modelled on the Robert Adam and James Paine-designed Kedieston Hall, Derbyshire, the scale was almost too impressive. But, as Richard Wellesley, Lord Mornington, pointed out, in India it was necessary for the governor to govern in style if he was to be respected by Indian princes. Most important, all these early buildings reflect a powerful and characteristic response to their location and to Indian building traditions. The classical detached urban villas in the main streets off Chowringhee have lofty upper floors and south-facing colonnaded verandas calculated to catch the breeze so as to create cool and shady interiors. The elevations are clad with traditional Indian polished stucco, chunam, and in many cases have ground floors raised on arches to allow cooling air to circulate below the floor structure. The overwhelming impression created by the sight of this Roman- inspired architecture in an oriental climate is that this was one of those rare moments in human history when an enterprising, vigorous and culturally mixed society achieved an architecture that reflected accurately its aspirations.

The analogy with Rome is particularly apposite in the context of Lucknow. A visit to the ruined Residency with Tandan is a memorable experience. The scene of an heroic struggle in 1857 during the Indian Mutiny, the Residency complex was preserved by the British as a shrine and maintained as an odd mixture of cannon- riddled ruins and municipal park. With an enlightenment almost unique to India, the Residency was preserved after independence in 1947 despite the fact that it commemorates the failure of an earlier struggle for independence. Most other newly independent nations would, no doubt, have rapidly destroyed such ruins sacred to their ousted rulers. The Residency is like a miniature Pompeii: the ruined buildings are mostly classical in design, built of brick originally covered with stucco, and it is entered through the shot- spattered ruins of a triumphal arch.

But the Residency is far more than a clutch of public buildings. It was a small, self-contained town, and Tandan has made extraordinary discoveries about the nature of its buildings, mostly built in the late 18th century and abandoned and forgotten since the mid-19th century, which made up this little township. There were not only villas modelled inventively upon great British exemplars like Kedieston Hall, but also barracks in which the different requirements of Hindu or Muslim troops were achieved within a classical language of design realised in local building materials. These discoveries cast a new light on the early British architectural achievement in India and, in Tandan's view, confirms that a vigorous and distinctly national architecture was already beginning to emerge out of the marriage of European and Indian traditions.

The best, and perhaps best known, place to see this in Lucknow is the Martiniere - a vast lakeside house designed by the adventurer Claude Martin, who was French-born but employed by the British East India Company. The building, started in the late 18th century and turned into a public school in the 1840s, is a most extraordinary mix of European classical design traditions but with a thoroughly oriental feel for form, detail and picturesque profile. Interiors are rendered in a lively version of Robert Adam neo- classicism, while the exterior has elements which are distinctly Moghul in flavour, including huge emblematic lions in honour of the East India Company's arms. Almost as extraordinary is the Dilkusha, built in 1844 for a rich and powerful Muslim and modelled on Sir John Vanbrugh's Seaton Delaval. Although scheduled as an Ancient Monument and the centrepiece of a small public park, this strange amalgam of early 18th century English Baroque and Moghul detail is now a ruin and quietly disintegrating.

Despite a generally benign attitude towards the architecture of British India, the central and state governments in India do not feel that its preservation is a priority. This is quite understandable. The main legislation for protection remains Lord Curzon's Ancient Monuments Act of 1905, and a certain number of buildings are scheduled for protection under this act - including 16 in Calcutta - and the Government of West Bengal has supervised and funded the repair of such significant early buildings in the city as the Royal Asiatic Society of about 1780 and Metcalfe Hall of 1840, as well as the later grand monument to British India, the Victoria Memorial. Other organisations such as INTACH, the Indian National Trust, has taken on a certain number of British-period Indian buildings, while the Park Street cemetery for Europeans in Calcutta has been saved by a combination of official and private initiative. But if more is to be saved, money will have to come from outside India - principally from Britain. A good starting point would be Lord Clive's house, which was built in 1757 and survives in ruinous condition on the outskirts of Calcutta. The building, a classical villa adapted to Clive's particular needs and to the climate, is not a scheduled monument - for which blame must be assigned to the British, rather than the Indian government, for there was ample opportunity to protect the building before independence in 1947. It is significant that the French government is now funding the repair of the house of Clive's great French rival, Dupleix, in Chandernagore. The British government should do the same with Clive's House in Calcutta. If the saving of this house establishes a mechanism for conservation and provides a successful precedent for foreign intervention, then much else of architectural value in India could yet be saved. Clive's House will, it seems, become the test case.