Thursday, June 9, 2011

Kapurthala - A Critical Analysis

As with most cities that have been continually occupied by opposing forces, there are several layers to the architecture of Kapurthala. When studied closely, five broad architectural chapters emerge.

pre muslim invasion - basically before 12th century
Kapurthala’s fertile floodplain has been occupied by farmers for centuries. However, there are few, if any traces of the first chapter of the architecture of Kapurthala. The chaos that was the Punjab in the strife ridden medieval period all but obliterated the built fabric of the region. Another possible reason why nothing survives of this period is that there was no ruler with the resources at his disposal to build on a large scale and with materials that had any degree of permanence. What is certain, however is that the courtyard typology of residential structures must have evolved during this period as a direct response to the harsh climate and the insular open space it provided at the centre of the house. We can only hypothesize that the large Hindu temples of the region are rebuilt structures of smaller shrines that may have their origin prior to the 12th century.

muslim rule from 12th to 17th century
The second phase of Kapurthala’s architecture also suffers from a paucity of evidence. While there would have been abundant building work carried out under Mughal rule as they were notoriously prolific builders, only a few traces remain. This can be attributed to the complex phenomenon of conflict. The single most visible aspect of culture prior to the 20th century was its built environment. The character of a city was determined by its culture that manifested itself in the way the society built its buildings. The conflict that occurred after the Independence and Partition of India had fuelled considerable rage amongst the mass of humanity that was forced to move their life to newly drawn lines on the map. The subsequent destruction of built structures in both countries was symptomatic of the expression of rage. This phenomenon can also be seen in the destruction of the 126 jain temples by the invading muslim hordes in Delhi. The ravaged temples provided the building material for the construction of the mosque and vistory tower at Qutb in Mehrauli. Numerous examples abound of this aspect of conflict, but the religious fervour that prompted the destruction of Mughal heritage in Kapurthala was selective and targeted only the structures that betrayed their Islamic nature.
However, enough structures from this period have survived to allow us to understand the building traditions, materials and planning that dominated the landscape of the region. Largely following the trend of Mughal architecture across northern India, the buildings displayed a rich palette of surface ornament while following a rather basic plan format. Most residential structures have a basic courtyard typology, consisting of a series of rooms arranged around a central open space, with variants as per site conditions. These variants are mostly to do with the alignment of the open space along the length or across the width of the property. Significantly, religious structures do not respond to this typology and consist of simpler plan forms, devoid of internal open space, and are set in larger compounds with consolidated open space as a forecourt.
The use of the dome as the roof construction system also developed during this period. Most religious structures of this period are topped with domical roofs, with variants on the shape being common. The most common domical roof type is the ribbed onion dome, almost always topped with a decorative finial. The use of the cornice, pilaster and ornamental parapet are also components that developed considerably during this period. From a material usage point of view, the most remarkable aspect is certainly the unit of construction, the small brick or “nikki eenth”. This brick, roughly half the size of the English brick, is used almost universally in buildings of this period. Astounding details of cornices, pilasters and mouldings are created solely by the use of shaping and projecting this brick from the main wall. Lime mortar was used as the bonding agent. There is evidence to show that the early domical structures were constructed simply by cantilevering these bricks and then chamfering them from the inside. A classic example of how the local craftsmen used the traditional techniques of building to achieve the appearance their new building patrons demanded. However, with time, the dome and arch building process seems to have been understood in greater detail and the brick was used in the correct “wedge” shape to achieve the desired compression structures.

Sikh rule
The Sikh rule in the region coincided with the beginning of the Mughal decline. A shift is then seen in the architecture, where the new rulers struggle to fashion their own architectural identity from the religious shackles of the Islam dominated typologies. The most dramatic departure from the earlier architecture is surely the use of the projecting bay window. This window, topped with a shallow “Bengal” roof and supported on a tapered surface, rather than brackets, can be seen in almost all structures that survive from this period. Most of the other components, the bulbous onion dome, the cusped arch and the projecting sunshade at the cornice, were simply continued from the earlier building tradition. Another reason why the new religion did not spawn a definitive new architecture is because most of the new shrines were made by pillaging Mughal monuments and using the materials and building systems. In this period, not only in Kapurthala, but across India, one sees a rejection of Mughal rule and the rise of the smaller princely states. The striking similarities of the some of the architectural components used by dominions from Punjab to Gujarat and Lucknow can be seen as a historical record of the shift of culture, where each state seeks to create a new identity from the basic components handed down to them from their erstwhile rulers.
Yet, while this would have been an excellent opportunity to create new regional styles, it can be seen that most states slowly developed and encouraged greater and more intricate ornament. As Christopher Tadgell says “ Into the service of this wide range of building type was pressed the inflated, convoluted, hybrid style represented by the late religious and secular essays of the Mughals, which was drawn from the cross-fertilization of the indigenous and imported traditions. Native and Muslim builders alike, working primarily in plaster and wood, shared the imperial court’s general inclination towards Gujurati floridity and specific appreciation of the decorative value of the Benglai and Deccani forms. Cusped arches, the bangaldar and ribbed domes with padma-kosha were predominant, but the post, bracket and beam, chadya, chattri, balcony and screen all played their part - and all were assembled with increasingly flagrant opulence as the 18th century progressed.” Another trend that has led to some difficulty in mapping the exact progression is the fervour with which the Sikhs renovate and refurbish their religious shrines. Gurudwaras are in constant flux, ever-changing and expanding under the increasing patronage of a wealthier Diaspora. Gurudwaras scarcely remain architectural heritage as the building itself has little intrinsic value and is often, simply the collected whim of the rulers. The religion places great emphasis on the object of veneration, usually a relic of one of the holy gurus, and little attention is paid to the sanctity of the architectural shell. For this reason, no original surface material in Gurudwaras has survived, constantly renewed with more opulent materials, white marble being the most common. The use of bright surface colours to overlay construction materials and the absolute cleanliness, a hallmark of Sikh shrines, further makes the task of the historians difficult.

Jagatjit Singh and the colonial influence
Of all the rulers of the princely state of Kapurthala, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh was surely the most prolific builders and definitely the most eclectic. An educated and widely travelled man, he can be credited with the creation of the modern city of Kapurthala through a series of measures, which included great emphasis on public health, sanitation and education. Kapurthala city, in its heyday, was known for its stately buildings, tree-lined avenues and religious tolerance. Jagatjit Singh built a large number of buildings in his tenure of 55 years as the King. The grandest of his projects were private buildings - The royal palace, the durbar hall, the Jalau Khana, the Gol Kothi. Other large projects include the state gurudwara, the Moorish mosque, the Jagatjit Club, several education facilities and buildings in Sultanpur Lodi.
Architecturally, the buildings as a whole, defy categorisation. Each building is remarkably eclectic, drawing on sources from French palaces, regional climate and local building traditions and materials. The royal palace, now a school, is constructed to imitate in grandeur, the palace at Versailles. The Moorish mosque is Moorish down to its last details. The Jagatjit Club, although much smaller, is almost certainly inspired from the Parthenon. The Durbar Hall, now the district courts and till recently, the post office, echoes the designs of Lanchester and Lutyens for the royal palaces in Jodhpur and New Delhi respectively. Even smaller building projects undertaken by Jagatjit Singh encompass a leaning towards Colonial influences, whom he seeked to appease. The arched verandah, hitherto unknown of in this region, was introduced as the façade of all public buildings. Even the arches were constructed as perfect semi-circles, resting on squat grooved brick pillars, complete with pronounced keystones and elaborate springing points. Stained glass, tiled dados, intricate mouldings appear everywhere the architecture of his patronage.
The loss of indigenous building practices and traditions seemed to have mattered little to the ruler. A grand new city, at par with its European peers, was being made, and historic references and sensibility were not required. The subtle climatic gestures, so common to the humblest building, were forgotten on the path to glorious architectural achievement. Thus, private residential architecture is the only clue to the building traditions of the old - however since private patrons had limited means, only a handful remain, and that too in severe disrepair.
The major building projects undertaken by Jagatjit Singh changed the face of Kapurthala. As with all cities, private patrons seek to emulate the grandest of gestures in their own building activities. In Kapurthala, that meant incorporating the pan-European taste of the State architecture into the most modest of buildings. As a result, most pre-partition residences display a wealth of influences. Slender Corinthinan columns grace the façade of the humblest of homes; elaborate cornices demarcate internal floor levels and in some cases, even rest above an elaborate frieze, complete with triglyphs and metopes. Pediments can be found over the smallest of openings and urns top parapets. Semi-circular arches with pronounced keystones replaced the more ornamental cusped and mutli-foliated arches as continuous verandahs lining external facades and internal courtyards. Little can be said of the colour used on these facades, but the few instances where the original paint work has survived, the riot of different colours on different components adds up to an effect so garish, it has its parallels in the loud colours of the shopping malls that dot our urban centres today. Popular taste, it seems, has never been subtle.

modern times
Modern day Kapurthala seems like any other small city in rapidly urbanizing India. The immense pressure on the land in the city centre has spawned the very problems that the rulers had tried to eliminate. The infrastructure has not been able to cope with the population growth and the rapidly expanding city is not following the traditionally dense urban pattern. Instead, “gated colonies” with plotted houses are rapidly mushrooming on the edges of the city. Urban pressure is eroding the architectural relics, which continue to address sustainable housing needs for the masses. Most of the royal buildings have been diverted to public utility functions, where they continue to deteriorate under the lackadaisical attitude of the sarkari babus. The new architecture of Kapurthala has nothing to do with the region’s historicity, instead it imitates the bland concrete box approach of least innovation that we see in larger cities of India. No traditional typologies or materials are used, rather the concrete frame has become the ubiquitous system of construction. Historically important structures are renovated, altered and demolished without any trace of guilt. Architecture is reduced to the pattern of the railing and the water tank that tops many residences - various interpretations include birds, footballs and jets.

This article was part of a larger study conducted by Preeti Harit for INTACH, whom I assisted in documentation and analysis for the historical buildings of the Kapurthala District in Punjab

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