WHEN ASHOK VAJPEYI, the chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s National Academy of Fine Art, told photographer Ram Rahman at a party in 2008 about planned renovations at the Akademi, he didn’t know of Ram’s connection to the building. Rabindra Bhavan, the lush modernist compound in central Delhi that houses the Akademi, was designed by architect Habib Rahman, Ram’s father, who is known for adapting Indian cultural elements in his work while drawing upon the International Style of the mid-20th century.
Soon after the party Ram Rahman wrote a letter explaining his disapproval of the renovation plans to Ambika Soni, Union cultural minister at the time, and copied it to Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The news about the renovation plans ran in the Hindustan Times which, Rahman says, stopped the Lalit Kala Akademi from installing mirror glass on part of the façade as well as a lift tower. Other aspects of the renovation, however, continued.
Rahman calls Rabindra Bhavan his father’s best work. He says the structure was inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s vision of modern Indian culture, which Nehru explicitly asked Habib Rahman to draw upon when designing the compound. He feels the compound is being renovated without due respect to its architectural intricacies, and that its imminent renovation signals a disregard to that vision.
Rahman recently exhibited his photographs at the India International Centre to raise awareness of the ongoing loss of India’s modernist architectural heritage. The series, titled Restoring the Old, Destroying the New, depicts the sorry state of various modernist buildings across India. Pictures of a newly-constructed Rabindra Bhavan taken by Rahman’s father in the 1960s are juxtaposed with photos taken in the past few years of its renovation.
Rabindra Bhavan is also home to Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi, the national academies for literature and for the performing arts, respectively. Lalit Kala owns the gallery in the compound and rents it out, making it the sole revenue generating body among the three.
As Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi refused to be part of the renovation programme, the difference between the appearances of their offices is comical. Lalit Kala’s swanky new lobby gleams in sharp contrast to the common spaces of the other two academies, with their worn mid-century architectural elements.
Rahman doesn’t hold Vajpeyi accountable for the renovation, but believes that it’s the secretary of the Akademi, Sudhakar Sharma, who holds the real power. When Sharma shows me around the renovated office space and gallery, he talks about it with deep personal pride. He began working at the Akademi long before Vajpeyi became the chairman in 2009. The renovation plans began in 2007.
Speaking to the controversy and Rahman’s remarks, a slightly agitated Sharma repeats the phrase “it’s not done” after every few sentences. His idea is to create a space that can host international exhibitions. But to hold such exhibitions he would have to meet requirements not just of the artists, but of the insurance agencies involved. “The building was created with the parameters of the 1950s.” Among other achievements, he says he has added two new galleries in the basement, which had been lying neglected for decades. “Earlier, artists found it abusive to put an exhibition here; now we are so popular that they have to wait before we can find time for their exhibitions.”
“We are not tampering the façade at all. We are 200 percent concerned about the concerns Mr Rahman is raising.” Sharma says he respects Rahman as a great photographer and a friend, and he would want his cooperation. “Had he [Habib Rahman] been alive, he would have had been happy to see that someone is looking after his building,” he says.
Back at Rahman’s exhibition, a woman with more salt than pepper hair who seems also to be a friend tells him that the descriptions and captions for some of the photographs are not properly placed and that many people can’t read them. She suggests that he place the captions a little lower, which would appear to give them better positioning for a viewer. But an aesthetically conscious Rahman seems less perturbed by this inconvenience and replies almost dismissively: “It doesn’t look good there. People who want to read it will find it.”
Krishn Kaushik was formerly a staff writer at The Caravan.