A record of over one and a half centuries of architectural history, the RIBA’s Periodicals Collection holds news from a century ago warning that the British authorities were undermining traditional Indian craftsmanship…

Taj Mahal and the Jamuna River

Taj Mahal and the Jamuna River, Agra, (taken in the 1860s)
Images from A Visual Journey Through the Indian Subcontinent exhibition
© RIBA Library Photographs Collection

On the 20th June 1913 in Building News (1), Ernest Binfield Havell was quoted at length from his book Indian Architecture. The selected passages made clear his condemnation for the way Indian craftsmen were being ignored and how the Anglo-Indian authorities, refusing to support the traditions and skills native to India, were employing western architects who were simply applying inappropriate European ‘styles’ and copying ornament seen in pattern books. Havell points out that: “In India, it seems, there are still master-builders and craftsmen with an unbroken tradition of more than 2,000 years”. On the other hand, the modern architect sits in an office, in isolation and “detached from materials, craftsmen, and site.”

Mausoleum of Itmad-ud-Daula, Agra, circa 1828

Mausoleum of Itmad-ud-Daula, Agra, circa 1828
This drawing is by an unidentified 19th-century Indian draughtsman.
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collection

Tomb of Humayan, Delhi

Tomb of Humayan, Delhi, drawing circa 1818
This drawing is by an unidentified 19th-century Indian draughtsman.
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collection

A few months before in a different article for Building News, published 25th October 1912 (2), Havell wrote – in relation to the building of the new imperial capital, New Delhi – that by refusing to take advantage of “the fact that India still has a living building tradition” and imposing foreign architecture, the British government was not fostering harmonious relations between Britain and her Indian subjects. If built with Indian skills and knowledge, and using the pre-existing architecture of India as models, then New Delhi, according to Havell, “would be a more worthy capital of the Empire than any British one-man show” – a reference to the appointment of architect Edwin Lutyens to design the new city.

Exactly a hundred years later, the RIBA is celebrating the architecture of India, both ancient and modern. The RIBA’s current major exhibition celebrates the work of Indian architect Charles Correa whose contemporary work is linked to the culture and artistic traditions of the subcontinent. Alongside, in the British Architectural Library, is A Visual Journey Through the Indian Subcontinent, an exhibition of 19th and 20th-century images from the RIBA’s own collections, giving a historical context to Correa’s modern work.

Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque), Agra

Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque), Agra, (taken in the 1860s)
© RIBA Library Photographs Collection

In taking an overview of India’s architecture, Havell’s book uses many of the same beautiful subjects as the exhibition in the Library, including the Taj Mahal, Qutb Minar, Moti Masjid, Tomb of Humayun and buildings in Sikandra, Fatehpur Sikri and Bijapur. This and many of the other books he wrote about India are available in the Library. Fortunately, today in Britain the art and culture of India is appreciated as a source of inspiration.

Display of photographs of Fatehpur Sikri

Exhibition display of photographs of Fatehpur Sikri
© Wilson Yau / RIBA, British Architectural Library

The exhibitions of the Charles Correa and Out of India Season run from 14 May until 4 September 2013 at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London. Entry is free. More images of India can be seen online via RIBApix.

 

References:

  1. Building News, 20 June 1913, vol.104, pp.845-7
  2. Building News, 25 October 1912, vol.103, pp.567-70

 

About Wilson Yau
I work for the British Architectural Library at the RIBA as part of a team to share news, images and information online about the activities of the Library and the fascinating items we have in our architectural collections – it contains over four million items, so there's plenty to see! If you’re curious about what we do at the Library and with the collections, or want to discover the latest about our education programmes, public events and exhibitions at the RIBA, please visit www.architecture.com

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2 Comments
  1. suryaveer singh

    July 20, 2013

    sir ,I am doing work on tradition of craftsmanship in India( Rajasthan), so would you tell me about more sources that from where i will get such more information which you had discussed above.
    Thanks

    • Wilson Yau

      July 22, 2013

      Hi. Thanks for reading the post.

      All the information for the post came from the collections of books and periodicals in the British Architectural Library at the RIBA, London. Entry is free and anyone is welcome to use the RIBA’s collections. Use the online catalogue to find out what is held in the Library before you visit. If you can not visit us in person, check our image database RIBApix to see digitised material, or use our reprographics service and copies can be sent to you of some items. If you have any further queries, please contact the Library.

      Outside the RIBA, another possible source is the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi. Good luck with your research!

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