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Alpna theatre of Model Town is now just a ‘P’ on its scratchy wall. The pastel stripes of the post office at Hauz Qazi Chowk can only be glimpsed through a tangle of wires. The square jaalis of RK Puram Sector-8 flirt with the “stern-but-cute” chajjas above them. You’ve passed these, and other structures like them: now a writer and Khoj Studios fellow hopes you’ll see them with new eyes through an Instagram account, @delhimodernism. #nofilter, by the way. 

Mila Samdub, recently returned to the city of his childhood from the USA, goes walkabout to find and photograph a layer of the city that slides past most residents’ eyes. Modern Delhi - a broad term for what was built between 1947 and the onset of liberalisation - is a stately but spare map of government buildings, exhibition halls and above all, colonies. It’s both functional and totalitarian; optimistic and austere; beautiful and ugly.


Why are they special? “When I came back I was struck by these buildings,” Mila, inspired by writer-photographer Teju Cole, tells us. “Most of the friends I grew up with don’t think of this architecture as particularly beautiful or interesting.” Yet modernism is one of the great “ordering logics” of Delhi, of course. Mila has started to photograph these unassuming, sometimes forlorn icons of the recent past because it helps “draw attention to the way our built environment completely controls how we move through our space, and use our time.” 

@delhimodernism focuses on, and teases apart, three strands of this aesthetic: the institutional, Nehruvian monsters; the colonies, “which are also engineering projects”; and a more delicate, organic modernism - the work of private capital, built in the careful, hopeful 1930s in and around Daryaganj and Paharganj. Mila is also working with “co-conspirator” Sukaina Husain on a zine that he’ll publish next month, about DDA rasois: “It’s about conquest, kitchens in government colonies, and the ideal citizen.” 

Modern Delhi - a broad term for what was built between 1947 and the onset of liberalisation - is a stately but spare map of government buildings, exhibition halls and above all, colonies. It’s both functional and totalitarian; optimistic and austere; beautiful and ugly.

Mod Cons

Lovers of “Delhi modern” - as opposed to colonial or pre-British Delhi - tend to be a small, put-upon lot. Their heart is given to Delhi’s nation-building years, when the city of modern India’s dreams arose in the streets between Shahjahanabad and south Delhi. (See our walk with Shruti Narayan for a glimpse of one historic stretch.) 

“But there’s no protection for modern architecture at all,” Mila points out: this is in spite of a good chunk of it being the work of legendary architects, including Habib Rahman, Shivnath Prasad, Raj Rewal and Achyut Kanvinde. 

The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibition called 'Delhi: Building The Modern,' which includes the architectural drawings and engineering models of five seminal architects, as well as the architectural photography of Delhi's great Madan Mahatta. The Raj Rewal display tells the story of the emblematic Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan, one of Delhi’s most famous examples of urban modernism - and one of its most contentious, given the legal battle currently raging between the government, which wants to tear down the Hall Of Nations and the Nehru Pavilion, and heritage activists and citizens who argue for its importance. (The next Delhi High Court hearing on the matter comes up this Monday, March 6, for those following along.) 

“In any historical moment you only find it important to remember what speaks to your aspirations,” Mila says. “It looks like the current Indian state wants us to forget how the older state was made and ordered.” When that goes, though, so will an organ of Delhi that’s still crucial to how it functions. Neither Mila nor we know what will replace it. But he photographs what remains, the twentieth century animating the twenty-first, keeping time for a little longer. 

Delhi Deco: Mila’s Guide To Delhi’s Unlikely Art Deco

@delhimodernism’s photographs sometimes focus on the austere, stripped-down Art Deco seen in old-new Delhi. “This ain’t no Bombay,” a wry comment on one such photograph reads. Indeed, the lush, F Scott Fitzgerald vibes of coastal deco (check out a bpbmumbai fave, Art Deco Mumbai) is all but absent in the capital. Mila tells us five favourite places to spot our own variation on the theme: 

The grey structure that looms over Bhai Mati Das Chowk, Chandni Chowk: “At street level this is like any other building around, but look up to see a wonderfully brutalist deco hulk.” 

Backside of Golcha cinema, Darya Ganj: “A very spare example of 50s deco,” almost giving in to the state’s disdain of frou-frou ornamentation. 

CGHS dispensary building, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan Road, Darya Ganj: “Look out for the amazing jaalis here.” 

16 Darya Ganj, opposite LIC flats: “A wedding cake of a building, the wildest excesses of Punjabi art deco.” 

UPSC Building, Shah Jahan Road: “A rare governmental take on the style.” (bpb adds: If you visit, don’t forget to eat a gol gappa for us at our beloved Prabhu Chaat Bhandaar, nestled against the wall in UPSC Lane.)

Getting there: Follow Mila’s pictures on @delhimodernism. 'Delhi: Building The Modern' is currently on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, DLF South Court Mall, Saket. 

Image credit: Mila Samdub / @delhimodernism.


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