Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Man and His New Lawn

On 23 January, 1931, the day the first occupant of the Viceroy’s House, Lord Irwin moved in, Lutyens slipped away from formal dinner without bidding goodbye to the Viceroy – he stood outside admiring his own creation and then imprinted a kiss on the grand monument he had built. The H-shaped house with 340 rooms and more than 200,000 square feet area took 17 years to built (instead of 4 years as planned) and cost Rs 14 million. Edward Landseer Lutyens, who could not complete his art school degree and was till then a builder of country homes, was paid a mere 5000 pound for his toil of 17 years. But the new capital he built in Delhi along with its crowning glory, Viceroy’s House, made him world famous.

Pranab Mukherjee was born 4 years later – 11 December, 1935 - at Mirati village of Bengal’s Birbhum district. His father Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee was a freedom fighter, member of AICC and later, an MLA. Pranabbabu still recalls how as a middle school student, he used to read Constituent Assembly debates in newspaper every morning. Since those days he always wanted to be in national politics. His history teacher in school instilled a deep love for history. He followed it up with post-graduation in both the subjects – political science and history (he has recently edited official history of Congress). He also has a degree in law though he has never practiced. He has always remained a village boy at heart and studied in local school and college. His active participation in family Durga Puja at Mirati has become a national media event in recent years. Once Donald Rumsfeld wanted to talk to the Indian Defence Minister on some urgent issue and was surprised to know that he was at a village. Pranabbabu explained to him the significance of Durga Puja first before getting onto the matters of statecraft.

As a fresh graduate he taught Bengali in a village school. Later he briefly worked with Post and Telegraph Audit and taught at two colleges near Calcutta. In 1969, he was elected to Rajya Sabha as a member of breakaway Bangla Congress. Congress in Bengal in those days remained under the iron grip of Atulya Ghosh, one of the pillars of Syndicate. Rebel congress leader, Ajay Mukherjee, heading Bangla Congress, forged an alliance with the Communists and came to power. Jyoti Basu was then the Deputy Chief Minister and it was the Communist leader, who is believed to have introduced Pranabbabu to his close friend Indira Gandhi. Soon the young MP joined Congress and became a deputy Minister in 1973. He has held almost all the important cabinet posts since then, except for the Home Ministry. He is someone, who loves to read the fine prints and remembers every statistics. He is quintessentially a committee man, who can reach out to everyone and iron out every difference to produce the most acceptable draft. Above all, he is the institutional memory for his party, government and for parliament.

Even when the King and Viceroy asked him to adopt Indo-Sarasenic style, the classicist architect stuck to his own ideas. Lutyens selected pink sandstone, the preferred building materials of the Mughals and cream colour Dholpur stone and decided to build his dream mansion with bricks and stones and very little cement or steel. Though he never really acknowledged, during the course of work, he went on adopting a number of elements from Mughal and Rajput architectures. The most prominent of those being the extensive use of Chajjas, chattris and jaalis (perforated stone screens). The great dome was his tribute to Rome’s Pantheon though the design around the drum below it definitely points to his debt to Sanchi railings. His classic pillars are embellished on top by four small temple bells – a design he picked up from a Jain temple in Karnataka. Lutyens managed to win most of his battles regarding site selection, design and decorations, but lost the most important one to his colleague and co-builder of New Delhi, Herbert Baker. Since Lutyens joined the project with the condition that he would build the principal building himself, the best Baker could have got was the Secretariat. Baker proposed to cut a gradient to situate his two buildings – North Block and South Block – at the same height with the Viceroy’s House. Though he signed the agreement regarding this, he could grasp the significance only later, that this would take away the prominence from his magnum opus. Then Lutyens protested but to no avail. Lutyens and Baker then fought a very public battle and did not speak to each other for many years. This came to be known as Bakerloo of Lutyens.

Pranab Mukherjee’s rise in Delhi is almost parallel to Congress’ decline in his home state. Last significant victory for the party in Bengal was in 1984 – riding on the sympathy wave after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. He has always been happy to be the key person in Delhi and maintained close friendship with the left leadership in Bengal – so, there is no surprise in CPM’s decision today to back his candidature. It is significant that from 1985 to 2010, Pranabbabu headed the WBPCC. Never comfortable in the heat and dust of grass root politics and hardcore electoral campaigns, he managed to register his first direct poll victory in 2004 – wining the Jangipur Lok Sabha seat, which he retained in 2009 too.

A total of 5 Viceroys, 2 Governor Generals (Mountbatten was both the last Viceroy and first Governor General) and 12 Presidents have stayed in the house so far. Accordingly the name of the building was changed twice – from Viceroy’s House to Government House to Rashtrapati Bhavan. First Indian Governor General C. Rajagopalachari found the house too big and proposed it to be converted into a hospital. Later, part of it was temporarily turned into an archaeological museum, which was shifted to Janpath later on as the National Museum. Only two artifacts still remain from the museum collection – an Asokan Bull Capital, at the entrance and a Gupta-period Buddha statue at the Darbar Hall. When he was sort of forced to stay in this vast mansion, Rajaji decided to shift to a small living quarter instead of Viceroy’s suite, which he found too ostentatious for his frugal tastes. So far every President of India has stayed in that small quarter, what was built as the living quarter of Vicereine’s lady-in-waiting.

There were two elements of Mughal style, which Lutyens openly admired – gardens and use of water as a design element. He studied Mughal gardens in Agra, Lahore and Srinagar before building the huge garden. Though it is called Mughal Garden, it is actually a mixture of Mughal and European styles. Spread over six hectares, it starts with a 200 feet by 200 feet lawn. A canal starts from here and gently falls down the steps, at the far end stands a round pool and fountains are there everywhere. Apart from other flowering trees and shrubs, there are more than 250 varieties of roses in the garden, which is opened for public in every winter.

A voracious reader, Prananbabu is often found reading multiple books together, at least one of which is likely to be in Bangla. A workaholic, he takes his dinner - usually fish curry and rice – only after 11. Before he goes to bed well past midnight, he makes it a point to make entries in his journal, which he has been keeping for decades now. Surely, future historians will be ready to pay any price for that journal. If you drive up from India gate to Raisina Hills, there is just one point - at the entry of Vijay Chowk, when the dome goes out of vision. Contemporary history will remember him as the best Prime Minister India never had but early morning in Rashtrapati Bhavan lawn, when he would be walking alone with his thoughts, what would he consider as his chief legacy? Will the history student in him re-evaluate the socialist turn of Indian economy in 1970s and 80s? Will he consider writing the all time best-seller on Indian Politics?