Thursday, July 6, 2017

A growth of a modern city through the eyes of Madan Mahatta

(The original article appeared in The HINDU  Vignettes of Old Delhi - The Hindu read the unedited version here....) 

Delhi is a city built and re-built over time, a city with myriad influence spanning centuries and culture. Lutyens Delhi has been much documented and written about. It is however the building of modern Delhi, a change from the British Era to the Indian one, which gave it its own particular character symbolising growth and development.   Modern Delhi, 1950s onwards saw the influence of a number of renowned architects, each leaving his own unmistakeable imprint on its buildings. Several iconic buildings emerged. INTACH has come out with a list of 62 buildings which deserve the modern heritage status and needs to be preserved as modern heritage. It includes office complexes, cooperative group housing societies, cinema hall, shopping complexes all designed post 1950s each is a study in itself with its own charm. What made it all the more interesting for me was our residential abode was in the list as the first cooperative group housing society in Delhi.

A common factor or thread in all the buildings listed by INTACH was that majority of the buildings were shot by one man, the legendary photographer – Madan Mahatta.  Working in an era where there were curbs on importing equipment, doing with the little infrastructure that was in place, the man worked with some of the finest architects involved in the design and building of modern Delhi. Documenting their work and at the same time documenting the growth of the city.  He understood architecture and was able to compose his shots showing off the buildings splendidly. As leading architect, Kuldip Singh, says, “My association with Madan Mahatta started in 1960s, He was highly dedicated who would go to great extent to get the right shades, colour and textures, show the composition to us before shooting. At times if the ambiance was not right, a second visit was arranged. The distortions were corrected through his Linhoff camera.” The architects with whom Madan Mahatta worked reads like a literal whos who – The architects with whom Madan Mahatta worked reads like a literal whos who – Raj Rewal, Kuldip Singh, Charles Correa, Habib Rahman, Design Group - Ranjit Sabiki and Ajoy Choudhury,  J K Choudhry, J A Stein, Achyut Kanvinde…

The sheer volume of work is mind boggling. Madan Mahatta had single handed shot almost over a lakh images of modern Delhi. He worked with over 60 of the top architects in Delhi documenting their work. A peek into Mahatta Archives makes me forget the hot afternoon trudge to Connaught Place to the upstairs office of Mahatta & Co. Mahatta’s closed their retail last year, they continue with their commercial work and studio above their showroom which used to be their darkrooms. What comes through is a mad passion to photograph with uncanny precision the growth of a city. The love for modernity, architecture, keen eye on the composition comes through in each of the photographs. It might have taken hours, days or months to document. The cameras he used from childhood to his professional life , baby brownie by Kodak,Zeiss Super Ikonta, Rolleifex, Nikon (35mm )the F, F2 , F3 , Linhoff (medium format), Hassalblad (Medium format). The photographs are still being documented and digitised. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and it is indeed true here.

Pavan Mahatta who now runs Mahatta with his brother Pankaj and son Arjun says, “there have been several outstanding buildings in Delhi even in the recent past. But the finest of them were done from the 1950s to the 1980s. It is not to say that architects today are not good, but those who created the buildings then had vision, they used a wide spectrum of materials and each design philosophy is different from the other. The sheer vibrancy and the depth of work was very different.” Adds Singh, “It was an exciting phase. This was a period of better patronage from the Government, where they tried to involve private architecture to raise the standards and add a new dimension to building. Once the actual construction of the building started one did have the feeling that one is a participant of an evolving city.”

And did the city evolve? Yes, it certainly did, the pictures are incredible. There is an aerial shot of the Jantar Mantar, Park Hotel area, all lush with a few buildings, the NDMC building yet to be built. There are shots of the American Embassy designed by Edward D Stone, there is a black and yellow ambassador parked right at the entrance. Yes, it must have been possible to drive so near the place. There is a photo of our apartments, Yamuna Apartments by The Design Group being built. The front of the society without any roads is a barren sand area. I am stunned to see the open space, today the road outside takes me a good 10 minutes to cross! There are many such gems. There is a shot of a plane landing at night, when the first night landing commenced at the Palam Airport. The runway lit by plethora of lights with the plane. It must have been some determination to document the changing face of the city so methodically. There are shots of the Safdarjung Tomb beautifully reflected in the water surrounding it. A shot which made me nostalgic – of bunking school for movies and ice-cream, was that of the inside of the famous Nirula’s restaurant next to Chanakya cinema. There is a shot of the “once happening mall of Delhi” the Super Bazaar where everyone shopped before the mall explosion occurred. The Bahai Temple, an architecture marvel, as Pavan says, “my father was involved with it from the time the model was built.”

There are shots of the Centaur, Akbar, Maurya, Oberoi and Ashoka Hotel. Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations is well documented as are Kuldip Singh’s NDMC building and Palika Kendra. There is Charles Correa’s Jeevan Bharati, Stein’s Habitat Centre, India International Centre, The Design Group’s YMCA Staff Headquarters and Yamuna Apartments... As Pavan says, “my father was partial to Stein’s work.”


There is a beautiful shot of 19th January 1961, of an open cavalcade in which Queen Elizabeth rode with Dr. Rajendra Prasad around Connaught Place. There are crowds lining the streets and the aerial shot shows the tranquillity of the place. He recalls how when Palika Bazaar was being built, they would shoot it every month so the growth of the bazaar and the entire area would be known.  The Odeon cinema, Supreme Court…what is poignant is as Pavan says, “my father had cancer but even in those last days he would insist on being driven out. He used to mentally document the progress of the Metro through its pillars.” I ponder how would he have reacted to the demolishing of Raj Rewal’s architectural beauties at Pragati Maidan?