The COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging India. The nation has counted 23 million reported cases, many of them concentrated in the capital city of New Delhi; yesterday, the death toll crossed 250,000. Amid the staggering loss and a critical shortage of oxygen and key resources, the government is moving forward with an estimated $2 billion development project that will forever alter, and some say threaten, Delhi’s cultural and historical landscape.
The program, called the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid to revamp a two-mile stretch of New Delhi’s Rajpath boulevard and erect a series of government structures, including a brand-new Parliament and residences for the prime minister and the vice-president. The plan is billed as a symbolic turning of the page on India’s colonial past — the boulevard, formerly known as Kingsway, was conceived by the British Imperial Government. However, the mammoth architectural undertaking will necessitate the demolition and relocation of iconic Indian institutions: the National Museum of India, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and the National Archives Annexe.
Nearly 100 artists, academics, and museum professionals have now signed a statement calling for “an immediate halt” of the Central Vista project, citing concerns ranging from the potential threat to cultural heritage and a lack of transparency around a rushed planning process to the ethics of prioritizing such a costly endeavor in the face of an escalating public health crisis.
“The designation of this scheme as an ‘essential service’ invites fresh scrutiny of the plan,” reads the letter, co-authored by scholars Supriya Gandhi of Yale University, Vivek Gupta of the University of Cambridge, and Ananya Vajpeyi of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.
“It is especially troubling that this extravagant project is moving ahead in the midst of a devastating pandemic, endangering workers, and squandering scarce resources that could be used to save lives,” the authors continue.
Construction on the sprawling new Parliament edifice began in January. Last month, the government opened bids for the first three buildings of a new secretariat hub, to be built on the present site of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). The institution will be razed and re-sited a mile down to a new campus at Jamnagar House by 2024; the National Museum’s collection, which spans more than 5,000 years of Indian history, will move to the office complex of the North or South Blocks. But there was “a clear logic in the urban planning of Delhi to keeping these cultural, archival and historical centres in close proximity to each other,” the recent statement argues.
“The National Museum, in particular, has historical value and requires renovation and augmentation, not demolition,” they add. “The rushed destruction of these structures will cause irrevocable harm to world-renowned institutions that have been painstakingly built over decades.”
Delhi-based photographer Ram Rahman, a signatory of the letter, says he was “absolutely shocked” about the planned destruction of the National Museum in particular. “There’s no reason for doing this other than a reason of ego,” he told Hyperallergic.
Rahman also fears the potential loss of invaluable objects and materials, which he believes is already underway in Modi’s regime.
“The suspicion of altering history by removing archival documents is something many scholars think is already happening,” he said. “And one can only imagine what is going to happen when entire bodies of material, which in any case are not kept very well, are moving and shifting.” A large photo mural by Rahman that reflects on the loss of Delhi’s modernist architecture at the hands of Modi is currently on view at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center in New York as part of the exhibition Good and Bad Government.
Bimal Patel of HCP, the architectural firm chosen for the redevelopment, describes the project as a much-needed overhaul of facilities unfit to meet growing needs. “We need to improve the technology, we need space for dining, we need to create toilets, we need to create storage space, and office and administration space — it’s very clear that it can’t be done in the space available,” he said in an interview. (HCP has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
But many push back against the architect’s vision, decrying it as a vanity project in service of government propaganda. “Rather than an architect’s ethics, [Patel] has followed what is soulfully presented as the Dream of The Leader for a ‘New India,’” artist Vivan Sundaram told Hyperallergic. He continued:
This is advertised as a desire to shed the colonial past but, more determinedly, it is to obliterate traces of a progressive, post-independence India. This is a pact between the vainglorious Leader and his Architect: to subvert seven decades of planning with rhetoric, fake promises and an aesthetic that is at once authoritarian and kitsch.
Signatory Narayani Gupta, an author and urban historian based in Delhi, recognizes the argument for greater government efficiency and modernization. Still, she says, the mega-development will result in a “completely different landscape” — one that could threaten the site’s public and ludic functions.
“Now you’ll have this landscape of three official houses, two secretariats which will be turned into museums, and then a series of extremely dull buildings going right up to the War Memorial Arch,” Gupta said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “There is a kind of ring of security that will take away from the sense of it being a public space — the green lawns, the trees, the informal spaces that were created, and which the people created.”
Hyperallergic contacted the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC, for this story. The embassy has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Read the open letter, reproduced in full, below.
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Statement seeking to halt and reconsider the Government of India’s Central Vista Redevelopment Plan, May 2021
We the undersigned call for an immediate halt to the Central Vista Redevelopment Project undertaken by the Government of India, which commenced in December 2020. The designation of this scheme as an ‘essential service’ invites fresh scrutiny of the plan. It is especially troubling that this extravagant project is moving ahead in the midst of a devastating pandemic, endangering workers, and squandering scarce resources that could be used to save lives.
We would like to draw particular attention to the upcoming demolition and relocation of the National Museum of India, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and the National Archives Annexe. In fact, preparations to raze the IGNCA complex are already underway. There was a clear logic in the urban planning of Delhi to keeping these cultural, archival and historical centres in close proximity to each other. The National Museum, in particular, has historical value and requires renovation and augmentation, not demolition. The rushed destruction of these structures will cause irrevocable harm to world-renowned institutions that have been painstakingly built over decades.
The Central Vista demolition threatens the collections of these heritage repositories. We are concerned that such a shift would impact the state of conservation of several objects. Even under normal circumstances, it would be a complex and risky operation to shift the diverse and irreplaceable treasures of the National Museum, the archival records held in the National Archives, and the manuscript holdings of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. The current pandemic only exacerbates these risks.
The unilateral and hasty implementation of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project runs contrary to established practices worldwide. Across the globe, such plans to expand, relocate, repurpose or redesign key cultural institutions are preceded by widespread consultations and consensus building before finalizing the design, let alone moving collections indefinitely.
The details of the Central Vista demolition are opaque. It is unclear, for example, how the National Museum art objects will be stored and eventually displayed in the office complex of the North and South Blocks, as is planned. As the National Museum’s collection still lacks a complete inventory of its holdings, this relocation is hazardous. The extent to which these collections will continue to be publicly accessible is also unknown.
These demolitions are only one part of a mammoth undertaking that involves constructing a lavish new Parliament and turning open space into office blocks. The project as a whole will forever alter the historic urban plan of Lutyens’ Delhi, a piece of world heritage that has become an integral part of the cultural and political life of independent India.
The current escalating health crisis calls for a pause and a reset. For the short term, this project should be immediately suspended, and all priorities and resources directed to combating the pandemic. In the long term, however, this hiatus should be followed by extensive public consultations so that the future of India’s institutions, heritage architecture, and historical collections can be determined through a democratic process.
We urge the Government of India to reconsider its misguided scheme.
Naman Ahuja, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Ernst van Alphen, Leiden University
Sean Anderson, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Arjun Appadurai, New York University
Catherine Asher, University of Minnesota (emerita)
Frederick M. Asher, University of Minnesota (emeritus)
Sussan Babaie, Courtauld Institute of Art, London
Mieke G. Bal, Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA)
Tim Barringer, Yale University
Homi Bhabha, Harvard University
Bronwen Bledsoe, Cornell University
Sugata Bose, Harvard University
John H. Bowles, Writer and curator
Michael Brand, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Rebecca M. Brown, Johns Hopkins University
Arpana Caur, Artist, Delhi
Prem Chandavarkar, Architect and independent researcher, Bengaluru
Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of ChicagoPartha Chatterjee, Columbia University
Divya Cherian, Princeton University
Iftikhar Dadi, Cornell University
Asok Das, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur (retired)
Catherine David, MNAM-Centre Pompidou, Paris
Rohit De, Yale University
Vidya Dehejia, Columbia University
Chris Dercon, Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, Paris
Vishakha N. Desai, Columbia University
Faisal Devji, University of Oxford
Bernard Fibicher, Fine Arts Museum Lausanne
Supriya Gandhi, Yale University
Annapurna Garimella, art historian, Hyderabad
Alain George, University of Oxford
Ramachandra Guha, Historian and biographer
Narayani Gupta, Jamia Millia Islamia (retired)
Vivek Gupta, University of Cambridge
Navina Najat Haidar, Art historian and curator
Githa Hariharan, Writer
John Stratton Hawley, Barnard College, Columbia University
Andreas Huyssen, Columbia University (emeritus)
Kajri Jain, University of Toronto
Bharati Jagannathan, University of Delhi
Sir Anish Kapoor, Artist
Geeta Kapur, Art critic and curator
Sudipta Kaviraj, Columbia University
Madhu Khanna, Historian of religion and art
Rajeev Kinra, Northwestern University
Pradip Krishen, Filmmaker and environmentalist
Aparna Kumar, University College London
Glenn D. Lowry, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Sir James Mallinson, SOAS, University of London
Saloni Mathur, University of California, Los Angeles
Rahul Mehrotra, Harvard University Graduate School of Design
A.G. Krishna Menon, Architect, urban planner and conservation consultant
Parul Dave Mukherji, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Neeti Nair, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Ashis Nandy, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (emeritus)
Gülru Necipoğlu, Harvard University
Francesca Orsini, SOAS, University of London (emerita)
Alka Patel, University of California, Irvine
Orhan Pamuk, Writer; Columbia University (Nobel Laureate)
Margrit Pernau, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin
Sheldon Pollock, Columbia University
Gyan Prakash, Princeton University
Suhanya Raffel, M+ Museum, Hong Kong
Ram Rahman, Photographer, SAHMAT (The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust)
Sugata Ray, University of California, Berkeley
Scott Redford, SOAS, University of London
D. Fairchild Ruggles, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Chaitanya Sambrani, Australian National University
G. M. Sheikh, Artist, Vadodara
Nilima Sheikh, Artist, Vadodara
Samira Sheikh, Vanderbilt University
Dayanita Singh, Artist
Kavita Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University
Jawhar Sircar, Secretary – Culture, Government of India (retired); former CEO of Prasar Bharati
Martino Stierli, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Susan Stronge, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Vivan Sundaram, Artist, Delhi
Romila Thapar, Jawaharlal Nehru University (emerita)
Ananya Vajpeyi, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
Ashok Vajpeyi, Poet, critic and essayist
Sarah Waheed, Historian
James Wescoat, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (emeritus)