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The origin and indigenisation of the Imperial bungalow in India

Dak bungalow of narkanda village of shimla district in indian state of himachal pradesh in 1868

As the population increases and urbanisation accelerates, this widely popular and aesthetically rich cultural icon is fast disappearing

At the beginning of the 20th century, a wide variety of indigenous house types existed in India, varying in layout and articulation in response to socio-culture and geo-climatic locales. British colonial rule affected India’s social and institutional structure. Its impact included attitudes towards housing design and settlement patterns of which the emergence of the bungalow type was important.

The new concept of the bungalow arrived as an alien house form in this setting. Its roots lie in the early attempts by British military engineers in Bengal during the 18th century to transform a model of a traditional domestic structure into a standardised and permanent dwelling for the East India Company when they were still traders in the subcontinent. In its evolved version, the archetypal bungalow in the 19th century consisted of a low, one-storey, spacious building, having a symmetrical internal layout, with a veranda all around, situated in a large, landscaped compound. It was a counter concept to the more or less socially geared, community-oriented, collective lifestyle that was manifest in the urban (craftsman-designed) and rural dwellings of a vast number of dense and organically grown settlements of medieval India. The bungalow thus reflected very different ways of life, gender roles, and the hierarchy of family members, visitors and servants. However, in the post-colonial time, the bungalow became absorbed into the collective psyche and built environments of the Indian society as its own, as this article attempts to narrate.

The colonial bungalow concept

Broadly speaking, there were two bungalow categories: the urban and the rural. The rural ones were inhabited by British residents of India such as managers of various plantations or factories in the 18th century onwards. They also included the dak bungalows (government guest houses usually in remote localities) and other dwelling structures spread all over the districts of British India. In urban areas, large pieces of land adjacent to the inner city were reserved by the British for their cantonment and civil lines.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the bungalow, set in a spacious lot, was the norm as the residential house type for British military officers associated with the Indian Army, colonial administrators and business people, as well as a small group of wealthy Indian elites. The early bungalow was typically austere, built from brick or stone, with simple volumes and a stark whitewashed finish. It was symmetrical in form and largely so in spatial organisation. It had a hall in the centre, rooms on each side, and a verandah in front facing the garden and sometimes also on both sides. The roof was either hipped-gabled or flat. The kitchen and servants’ quarters were detached and located behind the main house in most instances. The bungalow was served by a retinue of Indian servants. The entire set-up reflected the sheer contrast of lifestyle of the natives and the rulers.

This basic model developed into a more European Classical form in outward appearance in the 19th century to indicate the superior socio-position of the British owners. The bungalow at times resembled a villa, with its Doric, and later Tuscan, columns on the facade holding up the roof. It became a symbol of Britain’s commercial and military might. The labour for building the bungalows was supplied by Indian craftsmen and contractors – thus the bungalow’s physical fabric remained rooted in Indian architectural traditions in spite of changes in the construction materials, technology and practices.

‘In the post-colonial time, the bungalow became absorbed into the collective psyche of the Indian society’

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The development of the suburbs

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, India’s inner cities started to become dense and crowded, and suburbs gradually began to grow as first the elites (with automobiles) and later the middle classes moved out. These suburbs were laid out according to prevailing urban design ideas of the time, the plotting leaning towards clear geometry, with a bungalow as the house type. Its dispersed settlement pattern was considered to be healthier and was socially preferred. Set in a compound, the bungalow was also climatically suitable as it allowed a free circulation of the prevailing winds. Consequently, compared to the dense and meandering, organic neighbourhoods, the gridiron system of the newly developed suburbs looked sparse and orderly. Roads, wide lanes and the frontage gave a new, sought-after image of a ‘modern’ home in the bungalow. The Indians saw the British bungalow lifestyle as something to emulate, including the use of colonial furniture.

By the 1930s the bungalow was a model that was augmented and personalised by the middle classes. One major change was the removal of the verandah from three sides, with the front verandah becoming a typical receiving space at the entrance. Cooperative housing societies between the 1930s and 60s adopted it as a suburban model in plotted lots.

This popular type got differently transformed in different regions of India. Specific responses to climatic and cultural variations can be seen most strikingly in the designs for the humid tropics and for the hot arid climates. For example, a courtyard was often introduced as a traditional Indian architectural component. Stylistic and typological design modifications were found in the great colonial cities of Kolkata, Chennai, New Delhi, Bengaluru, and Mumbai. While the Neoclassical endured well into the century in New Delhi, in Bengaluru it was Carpenter Gothic that held sway. Kolkata had the Rajabadis and Chennai, the garden houses. Contemporaneously indigenous copy-books were often used by the mistries and contractors who designed the bungalows. The profession of architecture emerged step by step during the century. In many parts of India, especially Mumbai, Art Deco (and Streamline Moderne to a lesser extent) captured the imagination of Indian and British architects.

‘As India’s inner cities became dense and crowded, suburbs gradually began to grow as  the elites and  middle classes moved out’

The social world of the middle class also metamorphosed dramatically over the course of the 20th century through modifications in the social structures. The rising age of marriage, families being increasingly nuclear, smaller households, less stringent gender roles, fewer servants, etc were some of the major changes. This was reflected in the evolving bungalow form, as it became smaller and more compact, accommodating the kitchen within the main layout.

Internal forces, such as the nationalistic fervour arising from the long- drawn freedom struggle against British colonial rule, as well as the making of New Delhi, affected its design. In the post-independence period, stylistic influences from Continental Europe and America, brought a major transformation as the principles of the Modern Movement dominated the public and private buildings of this era. New materials, such as Portland cement and reinforced cement concrete (RCC) later on in the 1940s and 50s, were important milestones, as was the notion of interior design. Postmodernist and Regionalist ideas held sway in the late 20th century. During this period, the bungalow layout form was abandoned for the Modernist house and the influences of the International Style and Brutalism, especially after Le Corbusier’s design of Chandigarh. It allowed autonomy and independence from the social constraints and gave a sense of modernity to the inhabitants while reflecting their social aspirations.

Dak bungalow of narkanda village of shimla district in indian state of himachal pradesh in 1868

Dak bungalow of narkanda village of shimla district in indian state of himachal pradesh in 1868

‘As a cultural concept, the bungalow retains a significant place in India’s collective memory’

With urban land prices sky-rocketing and the new housing typologies of apartments and high-rises becoming more affordable, exen the Modernist house went out of economic range of most of the urban population. The wealthy opted for an alternate or a weekend home on a large piece of land outside the city, building a small dwelling there as a ‘farm house’ in natural surroundings. Thus, the traditional bungalow was once again resurrected in a new form.

The Modernist house

During the 20th century the bungalow thus went through stylistic, social and technological transformations. In the 21st century, it is fast disappearing as a result of rapid population growth and accelerated urbanisation. The single family detached home sitting in its own compound is becoming a home only for the wealthy. Nevertheless, historically speaking, as a generic building type, it influenced domestic architecture across the breadth and width of the country. It proved to be a robust, resilient house form. An imperial socio-political house concept metamorphosed in the colonial and post-colonial period into a widely popular and aesthetically rich cultural icon. It became part of the mind-set of the populace, and developed many socio-cultural meanings along with spatial, stylistic and technological variations, terminating in the farm house. However, as a cultural concept it retains a significant place in the collective memory of the people of India.