In honor of the Delhi centennial

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A hundred years ago today, on 12 December 1911, King George V announced that Delhi would become the capital of India, replacing Calcutta.  As the BBC reports, this is an awkwardly colonial moment for modern India to commemorate, so little is being done to mark the occasion.  That is too bad.  The British bequeathed few things to India as glorious as Edwin Lutyens’s New Delhi, with its dramatically arranged state architecture, radiating circles, and the grand, straight, almost unpeopled avenues so unlike the India of the imagination.  This was built adjacent to, but in many ways in defiance of, congested old Delhi; yet, in the decades that have passed since Lutyens laid out this city it has been wholly digested by India so that, today, it can hardly be said to be foreign at all.

Dinyar Patel, writing in the New York Times blog India Ink,  says, “Few cities of recent vintage have a history as complicated and contested as New Delhi.”  It is worth checking the article for its vintage photographs of Delhi but this statement is wholly untrue: because colonialism itself spanned the globe, a great many cities have a similar history of having been built to showcase a political power now displaced.  The streets of Khartoum in Sudan were laid out to resemble the British flag; Cairo, as I’ve written before, wanted to be Paris, with a downtown built on a Haussmann plan; Lima, in Peru, was an entirely new city built in the image of Spain.  All these cities have been made local with time and use, so to celebrate them today need not require a celebration of the political context that brought them into being.

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Click here to read why I felt I had waited twenty years for the New York Times to start its India-centric blog India Ink.  Or here to read about the aging puppeteer I met in Kerala who is the world’s last known practitioner of a strange form of puppetry.  Or here for my encounter with a master veena player who lives by the tsunami-swept beaches of Chennai.  Or here for the flashbacks of Cambodia and Bali that I saw in the temples and landscape of Tamil Nadu.  Or here to see my India photographs.  Or here to see an archival film of a journey through from the Khyber Pass in 1930.

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