Naman P. Ahuja

Naman P. Ahuja, Professor of Indian art history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Editor, Marg Publications, Mumbai, specializes in ancient Indian iconography, temple art and architecture, and ancient India's visual exchanges with the rest of the world.

Much publicity fell upon Lutyens in 1981, 37 years after his death. The Arts Council of Great Britain held a major retrospective of his work at the Hayward Gallery in London. In the same year Robert Irving published a comprehensive piece of research, Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi. These intiatives contextualised Lutyen’s oeuvre within a British history of imperium deriving from an emulation of Rome. It analysed the quotidian influences of the Arts and Crafts movement on him and celebrated him as a witty and inventive transformer of classicism to modernism.


This module approaches the president’s home from the perspective of design, showing how its detailing and ambience harness the diverse influences in shaping the mood and lived experience of its residents and staff. It fills an important lacuna as anglophile architectural historians have avoided contextualising Lutyens within the wider movement of architecture on the European continent.


How Indian was the imperial style to be?

Extensive documentation of traditional Indian architecture, design and ornament had already been initiated by the mid-19th century. These were carried out by Thomas Headley, the residency surgeon in Jaipur and officer with the Indian Medical Service, who helped set up the Jaipur Museum. Documentation projects included photographic projects by Linnaeus Tripe, Samuel Bourne, Raja Deen Dayal, Captain E.C. Impey, and the exhaustive documentation by the Archaeological Survey of India. These were supplemented and informed by major exhibitions of Indian craft and industry in Britain and France, most significantly the landmark Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace in 1851. Exhibitions were accompanied by creations of permanent museums for design and craft. One that stands out is the South Kensington Museum in London (now the Victoria and Albert Museum).


Government art schools were also created across the subcontinent from the mid-19th century. The first of these emerged out of a private initiative by Alexander Hunter in Madras in 1850, before it was taken over by the government two years later and renamed the Government School of Industrial Arts. These schools preserved Indian craftsmanship as much as they imparted techniques of western art. Master craftsmen were found who could impart their skills and knowledge to a new generation which would have lost them in the face of industrialisation. The fear of deskilling handicrafts was part of an intellectual backlash against Victorian industrialisation in Britain. The revival of Britain’s own handmade traditions came together under what is called the Arts and Crafts movement, which attracted many supporters in the later half of the 19th century.


In India, the demands of Arts and Crafts espousers were pitted against the politics and economics of colonialism, and a replacement in the market of Indian handmade cloth by British mill-made cloth. By the early years of the 20th century, the movement in India took on radical dimensions with a significant boost from Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, E.B. Havell and Ananda Coomaraswamy. When the decision to create New Delhi was announced in 1909–11, an intellectual climate prevailed where there were many who wanted the new buildings to showcase the finest Indian craft and skill. Havell made a strong case for using the Indian style when he wrote a letter in the Times saying  ‘the question which is now being debated might have been settled already in the only practical and artistic way—by using the artistic resources of India practically and artistically’ (Singh 2009). Havell’s strong espousal of Arts and Crafts was accepted by Lutyens only in small measure. In response to an appeal made by the viceroy Lord Hardinge that the buildings should have 'an Indian motif' and 'an oriental adaptation', he said:


I do not think he realises the use of ornament in relation to construction, where it should begin and end, and what is integral and what applied. He begins with ornament instead of construction… To express modern India in stone, to represent her amazing sense of the supernatural, with its compliment of profound fatalism and enduring patience, is no easy task. This cannot be done by the almost sterile stability of English classical style; nor can it be done by capturing Indian details and inserting their features, like hanging pictures on a wall! In giving India some new sense of architectural construction, adapted to her crafts, lies the great chance of creating what may become a new and inspiring period in the history of her art. To express modern India in stone… is no easy task…In giving India some new sense of architectural construction, adapted to her crafts, lies the great chance of creating what may become a new and inspiring period in the history of her art. (Wilhide 2000).


While the design of the Rashtrapati Bhavan is indeed remarkable, it is relevant to pause and think about the political economy and social stratification. For many, it was a core marker for exploitation, with the imperial state’s use of semi-skilled, semi-rural displaced migrants reliant on paltry wages (Dutta 2007a). For the proponents of the Arts and Crafts the construction of these buildings was done with little regard for preserving Indian architecture and knowledge. While the state carried out extensive documentation of indigenous technology and traditional crafts skills, this knowledge was used in exploiting local technology. Local terms were employed in design handbooks as an instrument to command the productivity of Indian labour, and local communities could be used optimally on public projects. Ironically, in England, the department of Science and Art, drew from this archive—models, textbooks and formats—to attempt and guide craft restructuring in England (Dutta 2007b).


The articles reveal Lutyens’s wider frame when dealing with design in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. We see how the pressure of using Indian material, iconography and design forced Lutyens to internalise its elements without compromising his Palladian classicism. Partha Mitter’s article brings out the context and debates about whether a western or vernacular style should be selected in the designs of the Murals. Rebecca Brown’s essay reveals that artworks by several modernist Indian painters, who worked in a globally informed cosmopolitan style, were purchased for the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Laura Ongaro’s essay examines Lutyens’s choice of furniture and shows that he was a master at assimilating many different designs and styles. Monisha Ahmed’s chapter discusses the textiles of the Rashtrapati Bhavan such as the carpets, soft furnishings, uniforms and cloth choices




Coomaraswamy, A.K. 1909. The Indian Craftsmen. London: Probsthian & Co.


Davey, Peter. 1995. Arts and Crafts Architecture. London: Phaidon Press.


Dutta, Arindam.2007. ‘Strangers Within the Gate: Public Works and Industrial Art Reform’, in Colonial Modernities: Building, Dwelling and Architecture in British India and Ceylon, eds. Peter Scriver and Vikramaditya Prakash. London and New York: Routledge.


Middleton, Robin. 1982. The Beaux and Nineteenth Century French Architecture. Cambridge: MIT Press.


Wilhide, Elizabeth. 2000. Sir Edwin Lutyens: Designing in the English Tradition. London: Pavilion Books