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New Delhi, India – Delving into the archives to uncover Robert Byron’s 1931 account of New Delhi

Documenting a city of ‘proper magnificence’ in a very different era: an early AR journey to India

This is not the first time the AR has dedicated a special issue to Indian architecture. In January 1931 Robert Byron made an extensive study of New Delhi prior to its official inauguration as India’s new capital and repository of British imperial power. A seasoned explorer, writer and historian, Byron is perhaps best remembered for his traveller’s tale The Road to Oxiana, documenting a journey through Afghanistan and Persia.

‘It is expected and assumed that the representatives of British sovereignty beyond the seas shall move in a setting of proper magnificence,’ wrote Byron in his introduction to the issue. ‘To satisfy this expectation New Delhi was designed and created.’ Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker were charged with grafting a new city on to a scrubby plain outside Delhi, a task they embraced with vigour, synthesising neoclassical and Indian sources with a modern vision of imperial authority.

Arriving by car, Byron’s progress began with a rhapsodic first glimpse of the ensemble of buildings lining the great axis of King’s Way, terminated by Lutyens’ famous Viceroy’s House, with its mammarian dome, rooftop fountains and chattris inspired by the 16th-century Mogul capital of Fatehpur Sikhri.

‘The traveller heaves a breath,’ wrote Byron. ‘Before his eyes, sloping gently upward, runs a gravel way of such infinite perspective as to suggest the intervention of a diminishing glass; at whose end, reared above the green tree-top,glitters the seat of government, the seventh Delhi, four-square upon an eminence - dome, tower, dome, tower, dome, red, pink, cream, and white, washed gold and flashing in the morning sun. Here is something not merely worthy, but whose like has never been’.

Detailed critiques of individual buildings area illustrated by the architects’ original drawings and Byron’s own highly accomplished photographs. In the great tradition of early architectural photography the images are devoid of people, but perhaps all the better to emphasise the puissant character of Lutyens’ and Baker’s buildings.

But behind the imperial facade were intimations of political and social change. Byron’s issue on New Delhi also coincided with the first Indian Round Table Conference in London convened to discuss the issue of Indian federalism against a backdrop of increasing civil disobedience and resistance to imperial rule. Yet despite such nationalist stirrings, it would be some time before India finally achieved its independence in 1947.

Readers' comments (1)

  • New Delhi was certainly not 'grafted' as the article suggests on a' scrubby plain outside Delhi'!
    This was one of the healthiest parts of the region on which there had been 6 earlier capital cities of Delhi. One has only to read the opinion of Sir Edwin himself.

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