The British Empire Library

New Delhi: The Last Imperial City

by David A. Johnson

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Many scholars have seen the building of New Delhi as India's new capital city primarily as an assertion of British imperial supremacy. Its architecture and design predominantly but not exclusively classical in form has been interpreted as expressing a belief in the superiority of European civilisation over that of previous empires, and the enduring validity of British rule in India. in this new study of the archival record of the deci ion to move the capital from Calcutta , and the salient features of its architectural plan and design, David John on argues that coercion should only be seen as half the story . The move to Delhi was also intended as a symbol and promise of government by consent, appealing to a conscious continuity with the traditions of previous empires based in northern India, and implying a downplaying of the primacy both of the commercial capital Calcutta and of Bengal, which was perceived a a hotbed of intellectual dissent and revolutionary aeticism. The proposed move was a bitter pill for the European commercial community to swallow and they marshalled their opposition to it with all the force of their powerful friends in London and of the English language media. But the skilful package of changes and concessions put together by the Viceroy Lord Hardinge included the reversal of his predecessor Lord Curzon's partition of Bengal, a move to delight the Bengali intelligentsia and to infuriate Curzon himself and his influential coterie in the House of Lords. Ironically the surprise decision itself had not been open to democratic discussion or debate. Hardinge's trump card, as he believed, was that the announcement was made by the King himself in all the pageantry of the Delhi Durbar of 1911, the only such event in which a British King Emperor or Queen Empress had been present in person. British prestige was therefore seen to be at stake and the project could not have been abandoned without a major loss of face.

The idea of government by consent was predicated not on any substantial concession to nationalist demands, but in pursuit of a gradualist programme with a measure of elective representation and devolution of power to the provinces. The centre of power, embodied in the new capital would continue to be imperial. The Council Chamber, now the Parliament, was to embody the principle of government by consent, with the quasi-independent princely states, free of nationalist ambitions, accorded a prominent but largely ceremonial role.

What comes through in this book is the personal dominance of Lord Hardinge in deciding how the move should be implemented. This became clear in his effective interventions over the appointment of the planning authority, the design engineers and the architects. Hardinge's Viceregal tenure would end in 1916. He knew that unless the project was pushed ahead quickly it would be open to his successor to cancel the move. With a major war in Europe intervening, the project might well have been abandoned on financial grounds alone. Had the major buildings not already been above ground the fledgling project would not even have been the 'magnificent ruin' that some cynics predicted New Delhi would eventually become, as had all its predecessors.

The names of Lutyens and Baker share almost equal honours as the architects of New Delhi. But Johnson's account restores the names of others who were deeply influential in the planning debates even when their ideas were not adopted. Though Hardinge favoured Lutyens as the architect of Government House (later Viceroy's House and now Rashtrapati Bhavan), Lutyens was open to criticism on other grounds which were central to Hardinge's ideological concept of what the new capital should represent. Lutyens had little regard for Indian architecture which was allotted a largely decorative role, and that through the advocacy of others. Hardinge admired the work of Bhai Ram Singh of Lahore but it would have been good to have had more information than Johnson gives us about the Indian craftsmen who were eventually involved. The gradient of Kingsway (now Rajpath), between the two Secretariat buildings which housed the bureaucracy, was the subject of a stand-off between Baker and Lutyens which Baker - with Hardinge's still support - won. Lutyens himself wryly described it as his 'Bakerloo'.

More fundamental than the individuals were the conceptual issues raised; the relationship and share of accommodation for the Indian and European staff; the scale and proportions of the public buildings in relation to the old cities of Delhi and to the new city's ceremonial space; and later the memorial to soldiers killed in the war that was fought as the new capital was being built. After 1918 the design of war memorials in Britain and across Europe became Lutyens's acknowledged forte. His All India War Memorial - now India Gate - was intended to symbolise a universal sense of loss and sacrifice by both British and Indian soldiers. It commemorated a battle for freedom, but not the freedom that after 1947 Indians wanted to celebrate, namely their own.

After Indian independence much of the symbolism of Indian's capital city had to be re-imagined. The city itself changed beyond recognition with the massive influx of refugees from Partition, and especially the division of Punjab between India and Pakistan. It has expanded exponentially, spawning new suburbs and satellite cities, and a host of new environmental problems. But New Delhi remains a place of national pride and real power, and this skilfully told story of its origins sheds light on the reasons why.

British Empire Book
David A. Johnson
First Published
Review Originally Published
Spring 2016 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe