The last week of November saw Ripon Building completing a century. The coverage in the electronic media had at least one channel claiming that it was built “by the British for their administration”. Considering that it was constructed in 1913 and therefore it was only 34 years old when the country became independent, surely that is somewhat of an overstatement! After all, the majority of its 100 years saw Ripon Building as the administrative headquarters of a civic body for a city in an independent India. So how British is Ripon Building?
For that matter, how British are such buildings that have been built in the colonial era? Let us first of all concede that their designs, largely Gothic, Neo Classical and Art Deco, are foreign in origin. But then so are all the modern glass, steel and concrete structures that we build now! It is a well-known fact that very, very few architects in the country have evolved an indigenous style and even fewer clients want such designs to be implemented. So how does that make modern highrises Indian?
Yes, it is true that the architects who designed the old buildings and their several clients who commissioned them (most often Government departments) were British. But does that not make a post-Independence construction for the Indian arm of a multinational, with design by an overseas architect, also an alien? How do we consider that an Indian structure? The TCS building in Siruseri was designed by a Uruguayan firm. To which country does it belong? And while on the same point, what about the German-designed Assembly building now turned multi-speciality hospital? Is it Indian or German? From its appearance it definitely looks alien as does the Siruseri office of TCS.
The colonial buildings may have been designed by British architects, but the execution was entirely in the hands of Indians. The contractors were all Indian (you can’t get more local than T Namberumal Chetty, Nemali Pattabhirama Rao and P Loganatha Mudaliar – the three men involved in the construction of Ripon Building) as were the workmen. And it was this group that really helped in ensuring that the British-designs were translated into reality. After all, where would St Andrews Kirk, Central Station and Ripon Building be without the terracotta well foundations, which were very much a product of local expertise? The British did not even know of this till Major Thomas Fiott de Havilland made a study of the technique in the early 1800s.
Next let us look at the material used. Old buildings had a mix of native and imported components. The steel was often from England (and, later, increasingly from local sources), the fittings were imported as well (as they often still are) as was the stained glass. The timber was largely indigenous (as opposed to the now increasing habit of importing exotic and unsuitable varieties from other parts of the world). Floor tiles were imported by those who could afford them, the rest made do with indigenous stone. This still continues. In short, components then were a mixed bag and they still are. Stone carving has remained indigenous. Gone, however, is the completely indigenous technique of lime mortar and plaster. What we now have is reinforced cement concrete, which is not entirely suited for the local climatic conditions but then there are no alternatives.
Architecture and construction were always a combination of several influences and styles. It never was hundred per cent indigenous or foreign and never will be. Let us learn to appreciate whatever buildings are available and worth preserving as part of our continued heritage without searching for classification tags.