IIT Delhi: A Modernist Case Study

Riyaz Tayyibji

Excerpt from IIT Delhi: A Modernist Case Study by Madan Mahatta and Randhir Singh, published by Photoink.

If there are a set of institurions that have symbolised the aspirations of an independent Indian state and its people, these are the twenty-three Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) spread across the country brought into prominence by a 1961 Act of Parliament. However, the idea of the IITs was sown prior to independence, as early as 1943/44, when the Nobel laureate Professor A.V. Hill, at the behest of the Viceroy, submitted a report titled ‘Scientific Research in India’, in which he identified the need for technical education in the country. This cause was further championed by Sir Ardeshir Dalal who was on the Viceroy’s Executive Committee, and the Sarkar Committee, whose Report is widely acknowledged to have led directly to the establishment of the first five IITs.[1]

It is well known that technological advancement and education were seen by our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as the drivers of a ‘new’ India into a modern world. It is not surprising that the IITs then held a special place in Nehru’s imagination. He would say at the first convocation of the first IIT in 1956, “Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India”.[2] For people, on the other hand, the study of technology, commonly referred to as ‘engineering’, was one of the three professions, along with law and medicine, that signalled progress and familial economic stability. To be admitted into an IIT is to be part of a special place, an ‘Institute of National Importance’. It is to be at the forefront of excellence that recognises a particular form of intelligence that was seen as an essential ingredient in the modernising of a young nation.

For these special institutes the buildings were to be distinctly ‘Modern’. Rationally planned, economically built with the use of concrete and steel. At a time of material scarcity, their designs were necessarily required to be innovative. But the innovation lay as much in the appropriate and judicious use of materials and the resolution of technically sophisticated programmatic requirements as it did in the generation of new symbolic forms. To this end the partnership between the architect and an engineer had never been more important. Both were being encouraged by the government to learn abroad and train in the more technical dimensions of building craft. The recently demolished Hall of Nations was emblematic of this collaboration that led to the first ever concrete space frame structure. Elsewhere, the collaborative practice of the architect Jugal Kishore Chowdhury and the structural engineer Gulzar Singh would win the 1960 competition for the design of the IIT campus in New Delhi, transforming it from a regional engineering college to an ‘Institute of National Importance’.

Jugal Kishore Chowdhury studied at the Sir J.J. School of Architecture in Bombay, truncating his studies to join the freedom movement. He completed his studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Town Planning, University College, London, after which he was encouraged to study regional planning at the University of Tennessee and work at the Tennessee Valley Authority. While in the USA he also worked with the renowned architect Antonin Raymond who had recently completed his ‘Golconde’ Ashram in Pondicherry. On returning to India, Chowdhury became a Consulting Architect to the Punjab Government (1950-1957), where he was greatly inspired while working with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret.[3] It was here that he met Gulzar Singh, an engineer, who had graduated from DAV College Chandigarh. While Chowdhury was in the USA, Gulzar Singh received a government grant to study advanced structural engineering at the University of Toronto. He would return to join the Punjab government as an engineer and oversee the construction of the Secretariat and the High Court Buildings.[4] In 1957 both Jugal Kishore Chowdhury and Gulzar Singh would leave their posts at the Government of Punjab to start their own partnership firm in Chandigarh. In 1960 they would shift to Delhi to work on the design of the IIT campus.

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[1] Dreaming up IITs, The HINDU Business Line online, 22 January 2011.
[2] Bisaria, Anjali, Inaugurated in Kharagpur in 1951, The First Indian Institute of Technology turns 66 Today, India Times online edition, 18 August 2007.
[3] Das, Piyush, Gupta, Manjari & Pattanayak, Uday, In Search of a Modern Indian Identity: Through Architecture with Jugal Kishore Chowdhury, Copal Publishing Group, Ghaziabad, 2019.
[4] Interview with Gogi Trivedi, 18 January 2020. See also Varyani, U.H., Life Story of a Structural Engineer, South Asian Publishers, New Delhi, pp. 9-11.
[5] Conversations with Arun Mirchandani 13 & 23 January 2020. Also Director’s Report, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, 1968 and Inauguration of Buildings Catalogue, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, 2 March 1968.
[6] Chatterjee, Malay, “I. 1947 – 1959: Options After Independence, The Evolution of Contemporary Indian Architecture”, Architecture In India, Paris and Milan: Electa Moniteur, 1985, pp. 124-131.
[7] “Inaugural address by Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister”, Seminar on Architecture, Achyut Kanvinde (Ed.), Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, India, pp. 5-9.
[8] Tankha, Akshaya, A Photographer’s Thoughts: Interview with Madan Mehta of Mahatta Studio, Marg Magazine, Volume 61, No. 1, Aperture and Identity: Early Photography in India, Rahaab Allana (Ed.), pp. 104-111.
[9] Singh, Randhir. Modernity, Identity and the Role of the photographer, TAKE ON INDIA, Issue 1, Volume 4, January-June 2018, pp. 86-89.

Other References
A conversation with Stephen Shore, (with artist Alec Soth), FT Series Photo London 2019.
Architect Abha Narain Lambah speaking at IAD, 2018. YOUTUBE, 20 March 2018.
Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Illuminations, Hannah Arendt (Ed.), translated by Harry Zohn, from the 1935 essay New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Convocation Catalogue, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, 1968.
Gupta, Trisha, Mahatta’s Pictures are a History of (the routes to) Delhi’s Present, The Sunday Guardian, Online edition, 22 June 2012.

Interviews & Conversations
Arun Mirchandani (son of I.D. Mirchandani) 13 & 23 January 2020
Gogi Trivedi (daughter of Gulzar Singh) 18 January 2020