When cultural illiterates rule...

When cultural illiterates rule...

When a dream dies, it hurts – it hurts more when it is deliberately destroyed. As a young reporter, I recall escorting an American businesswoman come...

One of Pragati Maidan’s places of pride, the Hall of Nations, has been demolished. By the time this is published, the Hall of Science and Technology and the Nehru Pavilion shall have been demolished

When a dream dies, it hurts – it hurts more when it is deliberately destroyed. As a young reporter, I recall escorting an American businesswoman come to see Asia72, the India International Trade Fair in 1972, on a quick tour of the just-laid Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. It was the third Asian International Trade Fair coinciding with the India’s silver jubilee year of Independence.

I cannot forget the pleasant surprise on her face at seeing the way India was then doing. Those were cold war years when India’s ties with Nixon’s America were strained after the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict and Bangladesh’s independence.

Those memories shall forever remain etched in my mind as nostalgia. Pragati Maidan’s places of pride, the Hall of Nations, has been demolished. By the time this is published, the Hall of Science and Technology and the Nehru Pavilion shall have been demolished.

Why was it a dream for not just me and my generation but for much of the country? These structures were architectural marvels, being the world’s first pillar-less, concrete frame structures. They were indigenous products, designed by architect Raj Rewal and constructed by structural engineer Mahendra Raj.

They were erected amidst much misgiving, but also tremendous encouragement from a government that keen to show-case India. They were the testimony that India can do it and the global participation in that Fair was an acknowledgement.

After its construction, the Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan was one of the first of large-span cast-in-situ-concrete space frames to be constructed in the world. An architectural marvel, and one which heralded India’s entry on the world stage.

Imagine a fair extended to 45 days, way beyond week-or-ten day norm of those times. Think of the Fair that was literally, and in a very Indian context, a ‘mela’ that, besides the businessmen, drew people like a magnet. A million people visited on weekends, making it difficult to trudge in and out of it and walk within.

Pragati Maidan has had fairs in subsequent years of trade and industry, science and culture. One suspects, the presence of the ‘Halls’ was taken for granted – as one does a Taj Mahal or a Qutb Minar.
Their demolition marks the end of an era when we rejoiced in self-reliance, something dubbed restrictive today. One can draw a mild satisfaction that they were allowed to last four decades and more.

But why this ended, at all, and why this nostalgia-laced anger? For one, the complex could have been retained and cordoned off within the larger one that is a whopping 130 acres. Those interested in looking at the history of India’s commercial endeavour would have visited. The old-and-the-new could have co-existed. The new complex coming up, too, will someday get old.

Worse, the demolitions were carried out on April 24, in haste, without awaiting the final court verdict. A petition by Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to save these structures was pending before the same court with next hearing slated for May 1.

The India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO) took the stand that the court had not stayed the demolition. The pleas of Rewal, now 92 and Raj, now 84, to retain them amidst new structures were discarded. Just shows how we treat our pioneers.

AGK Menon, former convener, Delhi Chapter INTACH lamented: “It’s all over now. As the ITPO did not wait for the court to pronounce its decision, we have lost all hope. Hall of Nations was demolished quietly on Sunday night when the entire world slept. As these iconic buildings no more exist, we cannot move the apex court.”

“In fact as an answer to our letter to the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Commerce indicated to us to find an amicable resolution with the trade fair authority. But obviously somebody in the ITPO had other motives,” a joint statement by Rewal, Raj and Menon said.

The ITPO, we are told, is setting up a world-class Integrated Exhibition-cum-Convention Centre (IECC) with project value of Rs 2,254 crore. The complex will have hotel, mall/multi-level food court, water bodies display, helipad and other tourist attractions.

Evidently, the ITPO got the nod from the government, both political and the bureaucracy’s, to carry out this midnight operation. Sadly, with this fait accompli, there are no protests from Delhi’s citizenry. Even those who march to parliament or throng at Jantar Mantar are silent.

Attempts to retain this legacy of modern India were thwarted on the ground that being less than 60 years old, they did not qualify to be heritage monuments. It is difficult to understand the 60-year yardstick set by the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) when Delhi and its surroundings have monuments that are centuries old.

Why it was applied to structures that were built only in the last century remains inexplicable. If only an old monument qualify to be preserved in Delhi of the Sultans, the Mughals and the British, who will preserve the modern heritage?

Combining old and new, the ‘Halls’ were a cultural landmark in Delhi with their imposing ‘jaali’-like latticed screens often employed by the Mughals between the 16th and 18th centuries, including in the Taj Mahal, forming a backdrop to the dynamic evolution of a city.
But despite worldwide fame, when the time came forty-five years later, the Halls weren’t ‘heritage’ enough.

The plea made before the court was that they were impeding the overall plan of Pragati Maidan’s re-make. But the unstated, one suspects, is that they were eyesores, not just architecturally, but also politically. Were these structures destroyed because Indira Gandhi had them built?

Was Nehru Pavilion destroyed because it was dedicated to the country’s first Prime Minister? Impression of politics having played a role is difficult to ignore since everything Nehruian is being sought to be demolished.

Saying this may invite only sniggers, even the charge of this writer being pro-Congress – an easy one to make in current times. So let this be rubbed in with some more questions. Can the present political dispensation aggressively engaged in re-writing and re-interpreting the past build a city like Chandigarh in seven years or a Bhakra-Nangal or Hirakud in ten years?

The sad reality is that we are being ruled by people who are cultural illiterates. Keen on re-writing history, they seek to convert mythology into history. More examples abound or are up-coming. They are creating expensive eyesores like Shivaji’s statue on the Arabian Sea off Mumbai and a Sardar Patel statue on the Narmada in Gujarat, and yet demolishing a contemporary piece of architecture.

Maharashtra Cabinet has just approved an expenditure of Rs 3,600 crores for only the first phase of Shivaji’s memorial when the original cost of the entire project was Rs 280 cores. As for Patel’s statue that is sought to be constructed spending from the Indian version of crowd-funding, it will be “Made in China” in these “Make In India” times.

Someone should answer: why history has to mean only something ancient or medieval or part of the colonial legacy? Is not modern India entitled to that tag? Forget Pragati Maidan for a while: where is the sense of history in consigning to scrap yards INS Vikrant and INS Viraat that guarded our shores and the high seas?

Disowning own responsibility, the Ministry of Defence wanted to pass the buck to the states, but Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh did not want to bear the entire expenditure of maintaining them as museums that could inspire the young to join the navy.

Actually, we Indians boast of a glorious past, but lack a sense of history. And since we lack that sense, we learn little from it. We lament at the foreign invaders destroying our heritage, but we are helpless at contemporary art, architecture and culture being neglected, even destroyed.

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