My earliest recollection of my father, as much of a “recollection” as one can have from being a four-year-old, is of running behind him barefoot, barely keeping up, skipping over thorns and bushes, and the occasional nail and rebar, visiting construction sites. We lived in Ludhiana then, a mid-sized Indian city that is still the industrial heart of the state of Punjab. In the ’60s, Ludhiana was also being transformed into the nucleus of the Kennedy-Johnson sponsored so-called “green revolution”—an extremely successful but ultimately toxic process designed to multiply the agricultural output of Punjab by transferring the latest “science” of high-yield seeds and crops to the area along with, of course, the accompanying pesticides. My father’s job, after working for ten years on the Chandigarh Capital Project, was to design the three agricultural universities that formed the academic core of this transnational transfer of knowledge. A part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s postcolonial developmentalist vision (with the West “on tap rather than on top”), these universities, like the “green revolution” they nurtured, were designed to jump-start modernism in India. Much was expected of them.
My father liked to photograph his buildings under construction, and for the early 1960s, he had state-of-the-art equipment with which to do so: a Rolliflex TLR and an Argus C3. He had obtained the cameras by persuading the American and Canadian scientists who lived around our house to bring them back for him from their visits home. He surely must have paid dearly for them, but clearly, at that time, photography was a passion for him, and with my father, nothing but the best ever sufficed. The best from the West surrounded us in the rest of our lives too. We spoke English at home as fluently as Hindi and Panjabi. We watched our slides on a Kodak carousel projector, heard music from a Gerrard record changer and recorded our conversations on a Grundig spool tape recorder. My mother had the latest Belling oven, a hefty Hoover vacuum and a shiny Moulinex “mixie” at her disposal.
And so it was that early on weekend mornings, when the light was good and it was still not too hot, my father set off to capture his creations on celluloid with his little boy in tow. Construction safety seemed not to have been an issue at the time, and since we lived on the very campus he was building, everything was close by and protected from external traffic. On the weekends, my mother, I well presume, must have been quite happy to get me off her hands.
Today, more than four decades later, and five years after my father’s death, when I look back over those photographs, I am struck by the studied intentionality of their framing. These are not casual shots documenting construction progress. Rather, they are carefully composed visual essays. Browsing through them, I can almost see my father shuffling between his two cameras, often photographing the same building with both. The square shapes of the Rolliflex negatives freeze the buildings within the frame as if to capture a core essence, while those from the Argus use the inherent directionality of the rectangle to shuffle the eye to a point outside the frame, as if the critical reference lies somewhere beyond. I sense that there is a visual game at play between the two cameras, one following the other, as if to say catch me if you can.
The buildings themselves are stark Modernist creations, rationally assembled masses in brick and concrete, with clean rectilinear outlines punctuated by the occasional circle or curve for contrast. Shorn of all decorative details and superfluous additions, the buildings present themselves unapologetically in their original naked materials and unadorned structural bones. Truly, they seem to literally follow the Modernist dictum that form follows function (plus materials).
Today, in our post-Postmodernist times, am overawed by the lucidity and minimalism of the building forms. But what is more striking is the manner in which they are photographed by my father. Unexpectedly, the photographs are neither rationalist nor strictly documentary. Rather, they seem to be self-consciously framed, with an almost disarming lack of candor, as if to explicate a sense of poesis submerged beneath the stark forms. One notices right away that deep shadows roll across the facades, sharply receding lines of perspective suggest drama, high contrasts between light and dark generate exaggerated depths. One cannot also help noticing the workmen and “inhabitants,” carefully positioned in the picture frame, standing motionless, waiting for the shutter, as if they were on a theatrical stage.
My father loved theatre. His finest building was the Tagore Theatre of Chandigarh, and he was a card-carrying member of the Acoustical Society of India. He founded an amateur theatre company, and at the ripe old age of eighty-five, was on his way to perform in a play in Mumbai when he died suddenly on the train at 4 a.m. from a heart attack. What might the photographic staging of Modern architecture have meant to him?
I notice that his photographs always locate his buildings asymmetrically within the frame, as if decentering contained a vital visual clue to their exegesis. Invariably, the viewer’s eyes wander, almost involuntarily, searching the whole frame for supplemental content, other clues to their author’s mind. In one of my favourites, the raggedy outline of an extricated tree stump carefully frames the strict geometries of the buildings, as if the point needed additional contrast to be made.
Retrospectively, I am struck by the deep investments made by the first generation of Indian Modernists in the stark simplicities of Modern architecture. In Nehruvian India, perhaps the contention might have been moot that Modern architecture, such a vivid contrast to the messiness of the Indian city, could in fact deliver the future. It may have been a hard aesthetic to sell at that time, as it still is for many. Even when they see my father’s pictures today, many of my colleagues here in the US cannot move past stereotypical cultural oppositions between the “Indian” workers and the “Western” Modernism behind them.
How can we see beyond that? Clearly, these are not mythical images, like those by Marcel Gautherot of Brasilia rising magically from a dusty Amazonian plain, nor are these heroic images, signaling a triumphalist architecture at work, like Lewis Hine’s images of the construction workers building the Empire State Building taking a lunch break. What then? I would suggest that my father’s studied images project a sense of quiet anticipation. They show the ambitious worksites of a nation whose future, still unknown, is both fraught with doubt and filled with great expectation. As such, for me the photographs are doubly framed, both self-assured and unsure, capturing the anxieties of an architect searching for meaning amongst his silent creations, with his wayward son in tow.