Chandigarh began life on a Western architect's drawing board. Some say that's where it died. But this Indian enigma is finding it has a soul
Click to follow
LE CORBUSIER, the austere patriarch of modern architecture, had always dreamt of building a city. So when India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, first approached the Swiss son of a watchmaker and asked him to design a new city on the wide plains of Punjab, one "unfettered by traditions of the past", Le Corbusier readily agreed, even though the money was paltry.

Le Corbusier had never travelled to India before taking the job, and his team of young, European-trained Indian architects were curious to see his first notebook sketches. Aditya Prakash remembers: "He showed us drawings of villages and bullock carts, of the beautiful women labourers." Some of the Indian assistants were dismayed by these trite, postcard images. Many Indians complain that the great "Corbu" never bothered to understand India, that his impressions of this vast, complex country were no more profound than a quick-jaunt tourist's.

That is why, his critics argue, Chan-digarh - now a city of 700,000 people - has no soul. Indians who live in real cities, such as Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta, dismiss Chandigarh as artificial and colourless. His critics say that all that Le Corbusier did was to transplant his drab vision of a northern industrialised society from, say, Marseilles - with its endless, architect scale-model boulevards, its un-named sectors and quandrants, and its chunky concrete and brick edifices - on to India's alien soil. "It was a sort of colonialism," argues Jaspreet Thakar, a young Chandigarh architect. But Mr Prakash, a former principal of the College of Architecture, disagrees. "Le Corbusier wanted to show a modern democratic India, and he succeeds by using equal elements to create a rippling, beautiful rhythm. He was rather brash and impatient - he treated us like uninitiated children - but he helped us to realise our own country. He showed us inside ourselves."

On the fast train, the Shatabdi Ex-press, Chandigarh is only a three- hour ride west from New Delhi, and I decided to see for myself how well Le Corbusier's vision had withstood the chaotic forces of migration, traffic and filth that besiege every Indian city. New Delhi, where I was coming from, had exploded over the past 40 years from a smallish town (by Indian standards) of 500,000 people to a dusty metropolis of more than nine million. Sir Edwin Lutyens, New Delhi's designer, had no inkling that his tidy imperial capital would grow so hellish. How could he? How could anyone - even a bold planner like Le Corbusier - foresee the upheavals in Indian cityscapes?

Le Corbusier had meant Chandi-garh to be a pedestrian Eden in which merry people strolled through gardens or jogged to work. (A fine idea for Europe, but the last thing an Indian labourer would want to do after 14 hours lugging bricks on his head is go jogging.) He laid out Chandigarh, rather fancifully, on the notion that the city would resemble a human body, with the head being its administrative buildings - Chandi-garh is the joint capital of both Haryana and Punjab states - the heart its commercial centre, while industry was on one arm and the university on the other. But its inhabitants live in different "Sectors", depending upon how prominent they are in the administrative hierarchy. The high-ranking civil servants live in big houses near the "head", while the drones are off in cheap housing cluttering up "the feet". The end result is that Chandigarh is stretched out over such immeasurable distances that even a nomad would think twice about travelling it on foot, especially during the fierce seasons of heat and monsoon rain that assail the city.

Putt-putting along in an auto-rickshaw along its boulevards, my Sikh driver weaved cautiously through a flow of bureaucrats moving in white Ambassador cars; the civil servants who fancied themselves to be truly important had cars with little flags on the bonnet covered in condom-like sheaths. Each big bureaucrat also had a posse of bodyguards with Uzis, for the city has been wracked by Sikh militancy since the early 1980s. But people are no longer so scared of the puritanical Sikh militants; the police have hunted down and killed many.

Chandigarh is the most un-Indian of cities: its buildings are nearly all invisible. Le Corbusier, along with the British architects Jane Drew and the late Maxwell Fry, have (thankfully) hidden the uniform brick and concrete pillared rectangles behind a screen of trees. I had imagined Le Corbusier to be a monstruous egotist, squeezing people into his concrete egg cartons. But his edifices don't dominate; there are no trium-phal arches at the end of long boulevards. As Le Corbusier wrote, "It was a matter of occupying a plain... the geometrical event was, in truth, a sculpture of the intellect... the battle of space fought with the mind."

Some of his detractors insist that Le Corbusier lost the battle, that the vastness of the place has exerted a centrifugal force which has destroyed the city's wholeness, flinging his magisterial buildings across the Punjab plains. I'm not sure this is true. Le Corbusier deliberately set out to build a city devoid of urban trauma, one in which the countryside could tap its roots deep into Chandigarh's heart. He realised that the city's first settlers had come from a rural life: they were mainly the Sikh and Hindu farmers wrenched from their lands in West Punjab by partition in 1947. They didn't want the claustrophobic density of a Delhi bazaar or a Bombay, they wanted homes with gardens and a view of the Shivalik hills.

Le Corbusier had intended Chandi-garh to be a workers' city, but today the workers, many of them migrant labourers from as far away as Bihar and Tamil Nadu, cannot afford to live in his proletariat paradise. Some social activists say 33 out of every 100 people in Chandigarh inhabit slums. But you won't see them, for they are miles away from the tidy plots tended by bureaucrats. At the lower end, in the colonies by Chandigarh's "feet", three or four families are crammed into two-room dwellings intended for one, and illegal floors have been trowelled on.

Those are the fortunate ones. They at least have houses. The maids and gardeners and shopworkers on whom the city's middle-class depends are forced to live in slums of 25,000 people with no sanitation, water or electricity. Ms Thakar said, "In these slums, some people rent out electricity from generators and charge two rupees an hour for every light bulb." She added, "I'm not saying Corbu's to blame. Cities grow. They change. We can't say it has to remain static just to preserve the heritage of Le Corbusier."

Even today, the city planners are expected to adhere strictly to the building guidelines laid down by Le Corbusier and his team. No housing is to be more than three storeys high, for example (a rule anarchically flouted at the backs of buildings, where five storeys are common); new development must follow Le Corbusier's original grid. Such commandments have, according to some, stunted Chandi-garh's growth - and its originality. Even a staunch Le Corbusier loyalist such as Mr Parakash says, "Modern architecture rightly got a bad name for making dull boxes. Even if you make a box, you still need some sensibility to form." Too many of Chandigarh's new shopping centres and buildings are ugly boxes. To borrow from Nehru, Chandigarh has become a city fettered by the tradition of its creator.

Le Corbusier's most memorable buildings, such as the Palace of Justice and the Assembly building, are like wonderful quirky sculptures, with their bold elemental colours, odd-shaped portholes and primitive forms. It's as if Le Corbusier forced everybody to make assembly-line cardboard boxes while he wandered off into a corner and played at origami. He had all the fun. Unfortunately, neither the Indian weather nor the bureaucrats have been kind to him. The sizzling heat and torrential monsoons have cracked and stained his concrete facades. People in Chandigarh complain that thanks to Le Corbusier's infatuation with brick, in summer everybody must broil inside a tandoori-like oven. As for the bureaucrats, they use balconies on the battleship-like Secretariat building to heap legless chairs and broken typewriters.

From the Palace of Justice, where turbanned lawyers in black gowns and white collars sunned themselves on the lawn, I tried crossing over the wide piazza to a Le Corbusier sculpture of an open hand that also resembles a bird in flight. It rises above a small amphitheatre which he pompously called the Trench of Consideration. Ditch of Drudgery might have been a better name, for to reach the piazza - which Le Corbusier had intended to be the focal point of the city - I had to labour across a concrete wasteland stabbed by icy winds off the Himal-ayas. In summer you could toast chappattis on the piazza. Ever since the Trench was dug, it has only been used once - by a group of radical architects. With its ramps and plunging, unscalable sides, it looked as inviting as a zoo pit for polar bears.

On Sundays, Indian families ignore Corbu's extraordinary architectural monument and flock instead to Nek Chand's Rock Garden. Ask schoolboys in Chandigarh who Le Corbusier is and you're lucky if one or two might know; ask anybody in Chandigarh, from the shoe-shine boys in Sector 17 to the betel-nut seller outside the train station, and everybody knows who Nek Chand is. If anybody can give Chandigarh some character, he can.

A lowly road inspector who in the 1950s could barely read or write, Nek Chand had a private hobby. He collected junk. Broken washbasins from Le Corbusier's edifices, busted light sockets, old tar drums, everything was worth saving. Working at night in the forest by the light of burning tyres, he assembled his junk into strange, organic-looking sculptures. On his days off, when most of the road crew were getting drunk on countrybrew and gambling their wages in card games, Nek Chand would wander up into the Shivalik hills, hunting for weird limestones that he would add to his scuptures. Nek Chand did it all for himself and never intended to show it to anybody but his wife.

Then an engineer, walking back through the forest from the Palace of Justice's building site, stumbled across Nek Chand's secret sculptures. Recog-nising the road inspector's protean talents, the engineer persuaded the city to give Nek Chand some land and a little money. Today the Rock Garden is an exuberant maze of tunnels, waterfalls and secret doorways, peopled by creatures formed out of broken bangles, electric wires and pieces of crockery. It is visited by 5,000 people a day. I went three times, once following the shy, gnomish Nek Chand. He led me through miniature passageways and along 15ft high ramparts from where we had to swing down on cement sculptures the size of war elephants into a gaping crowd of picnickers.

Nek Chand took me to a tangled, hidden garden. In the loamish soil he had buried hundreds of clay heads and hands. He offered me one hand, smooth as a child's. "I'm happiest being solitary and at work. For me only I was doing this. I never thought so many people would come and see," he said. From the debris of Le Cor-busier's modernism, the road inspector has created art and magic. He has also given Chandigarh what Le Cor-busier never could: a soul. 8


GETTING THERE: Trailfinders (0171-938 3366) offers flights from various British airports to New Delhi via Frankfurt with Lufthansa, from around pounds 400 return. A student fare of pounds 380 is available from Campus Travel (0171-730 8111).

TOUR OPERATORS: Andrew Brock Travel (01572 821330) will tailor holidays in India to your individual requirements. A short trip to Chandigarh, staying four nights there and one night in Delhi, will cost from around pounds 795 per person. The price includes return flights from London with British Airways, rail tickets, twin-room accommodation and a tour by private car with driver provided (taking in Le Corbusier's government buildings and Nek Chand's Rock Garden).

GETTING AROUND: The journey from Delhi to Chandigarh can be done by train or coach and is best arranged on arrival in India. The Shatabdi Express, an air-conditioned train, takes three hours to reach Chandigarh, leaving Delhi twice daily, and costs around pounds 16 each way, including meals. Booking in Britain is possible through SD Enterprises (0181-903 3411).

FURTHER INFORMATION: Gov-ernment of India Tourist Office (0171-437 3677), 7 Cork Street, London W1X 2PB. The necessary visa for travel to India can be obtained from the High Commis-sion for India, India House, Ald- wych, London WC2B 4NA (0171- 836 8484). Applications take two days in person or four weeks by post.