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Sabu Cyril
Ambitious plans.

An Indian state wants to build a modern city that looks like an ancient kingdom from a Telugu blockbuster

By Smita Dalvi

In the early 1950s, when Kengal Hanumanthaiah was chief minister of Mysore, a Russian delegation visited Bangalore. On being taken around the city, some of the Russian members repeatedly asked him: “Have you no architecture of your own? The ones you have are all European buildings.”

This admonishment motivated Hanumanthaiah to envision an indigenous model for his capitol, later the Vidhan Soudha—a monumental pastiche of neo-Dravidian and Indo-Saracenic stylings. This building is, even today, the most popular tourist site in Bengaluru.

While that might have been the first time that the leader of an independent Indian state sought to resurrect forms from the past to symbolise links with the present, it certainly wasn’t the last.

According to news reports, Andhra Pradesh’s chief minister Chandrababu Naidu wants Rajamouli, the Telugu filmmaker behind the blockbuster Bahubali: The Beginning, to contribute his design skills to the architecture of the main government and administrative complex of Amaravati—the proposed capital of Naidu’s newly truncated state.

The reports have created a ripple of indignation among architects and urban planners, who were already sore with the Andhra government for inviting foreign experts to plan the new city and design its capitol complex, neglecting Indian talent.

Foundation Ceremony of Amaravati.

It appears that the chief minister is unhappy with the designs that were drawn up and has expressed his admiration for the way Rajamouli envisioned the kingdom of Mahishmati in his period fantasy film. Naidu wants the filmmaker to bring the same grandeur to Amaravati. In the past, Rajamouli has spoken of the influence the mythological series of Amar Chitra Katha comics had on him.

The loss of the erstwhile capital, Hyderabad, to the newly-carved out state of Telangana has been traumatic for the people of Andhra Pradesh, generating the need for a new, befitting capital. The desire for creating something glorious was strong, but no one knew what concrete form this would take.

The grand city of Bahubali’s Mahishmati.

A cursory glance at the many appointments of planners and architects that submitted their plans and designs for Amaravati does little to articulate any central vision for a new city.

Look at the most widely circulated image, apparently released by the Singapore-based planning consortium that made the master plan. An elevated metro line slices through an assortment of glass towers that bear no relationship with one another. More specifically, look at the designs of the main government buildings in the capitol complex, for which the government held a limited competition between Tokyo-based Fumihiko Maki and associates, UK-based Roger Stirk Harbour and associates, and Ahmedabad’s Vastu Shilpa Foundation, led by Balkrishna Doshi.

We do not know many details about these entries but relying on the few images posted on the official website one can say that they fail to inspire. They have not been able to come out of the thrall of Le Corbusier’s capitol complex of Chandigarh, the first major new city project of independent India, necessitated by circumstances not very different from that of Amaravati.

Foundation ceremony of Amaravathi

In the early 1950s, when Jawaharlal Nehru invited French master Le Corbusier for the Chandigarh project, there was a clear vision behind it, one that would serve as a proverbial “whack on the head” by introducing new ideas of modernity into a country steeped in traditional ways of thinking. The new urban vision was to act as a symbol of a modern nation state, positioned as an equal in the comity of nations.

What is the guiding vision behind Amaravati, what should it set out to achieve? This is hardly reflected in any of the concept images. What has been our record of urban planning in the last 50-odd years after Chandigarh? While the community of professionals may whine about the entry of foreigners on their turf, our own record is hardly anything to write home about. First, our planners have not been able to shed the Corbusierian influence of zoned, sectoral, grid-iron planning. There is a near-dearth of urban design imagination that brings about vitality or vibrancy to city life.

Sabu Cyril
The sets of ‘Bahubali’.

A case in point is Naya Raipur, the new capital city of yet another newly carved out Indian state, Chhattisgarh. According to their official website, the Naya Raipur Development Authority sets out to plan an ultra-modern, green and smart city, which aims at promoting a modern lifestyle with a foundation of traditional values. This is the state of our urban vision today—a collection of catch-phrases and mumbo-jumlas. Once again, a glance at the envisioned images of Naya Raipur reveals a sterile urban landscape of regimented concrete blocks, as if the city is taking part in a military parade.

A 21st century capital

It seems that the vision for his new capital city has finally dawned upon Chandrababu Naidu. “At my home and workplace, I want a representation of our history, folklore and mythology,” he said at a meeting of the Capital Region Development Agency. To help fulfill that vision, where else could he seek inspiration but in the grand, over-the-top, super-spectacular sets of Mahishmati?

Two questions arise: Firstly, how relevant is it to seek inspiration for a 21st century modern capital city in the mythical imaginations of the past? And secondly, how useful is it to channel cinematic imagination into real-world urban design?

The reason why the area around the small village of Amaravati (between Guntur and Vijaywada) was chosen as the site for the new capital—instead of having an already-established urban centre, like Vijaywada developed—was to claim the glorious historical legacy of Andhra Pradesh. The claim of Amaravati, and nearby Dharanikota, rests on its historical importance as the eastern capital of the Satvahana or Andhra dynasty. This dynasty ruled over vast swathes of the Deccan, from its west to east coasts, for roughly 400 years from the 2nd century BCE, thriving on extensive trade with the Roman Empire. Moreover, there is a name association with Indra’s celestial suvarna-nagari, Amaravati, built by Vishwakarma, the architect of the gods himself.

Sabu Cyril
The sets of ‘Bahubali’.

The ancient capital is also known for the magnificent Amaravati stupa, the most elaborate to have been erected in India. In its sculptural brilliance, it presented a vivid testimony of the prosperous urbanity of its time. The structure of the stupa was dismantled in the 19th century but quite a few of the sculptural panels were salvaged. Most of them are housed in a specially created section in the British Museum, occupying the same place of pride as the Elgin Marbles. While the limestone reliefs depict incidents from Buddha’s life, they also describe the period’s thriving social and cultural life, set in fascinating architectural settings such as palace gables, vaults and balconies, city gates, and mansions.

Many of these architectural features find their way in the subsequent development of Dravida architecture, as seen in temple spires, gopurams, and colonnades of surrounding cloisters. Can these visions from the past provide an inspiration for a new city of the 21st century in a meaningful way? If we accept that as a valid premise, then can a filmmaker provide that inspiration?

India has, from the early days of cinema, seen a trend of artists and painters taking up the mantle of art direction, a task now increasingly shared by architects. The cross-over between architecture and film-making, or specifically set design, is not surprising. For instance, legendary Russian filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein had trained as an architect. In his essay Montage and Architecture, he draws analogies between crafting a film scene and negotiating an architectural space. It was inevitable that the cinematic medium and set design would draw quite a few architects, as they can dream unhindered by the constraints of real life, especially today with the use of digital techniques and CGI.

Inviting Chandramouli to envision the New Amravati seeks to reverse this flow of ideas. This is not far-fetched, given the newly-stated goal by the chief minister that the city must represent “history, folklore and mythology.” Indian filmmakers have always risen admirably in that department when it came to recreating the past in their films, rarely constrained by authenticity.

Despite this, such recreations have often had a lasting impact on the collective memory of a nation of film-goers. Scores of visitors to Fatehpur Sikri and Agra Fort go there to seek the validation of their memories of Mughal-e-Azam. When they demand to see the tunnel that prince Salim used in his bid to rescue Anarkali, the obliging local guides do not fail them and point to an imaginary trap-door in the flooring. In recent times, the imaginative recreations of older cities in films such as Jodhaa Akbar (2008) and Mohenjo Daro (2016) have found a far greater potential to remain in the public imagination than the supposed realities of their historic selves.

Politics and cinema are inextricably linked in Andhra Pradesh. Naidu’s political mentor, his father-in-law NT Rama Rao—the founder of the ruling Telugu Desam Party—was a mega-star of Telugu films, enacting many mythological roles throughout his long career. NTR pioneered the practice of recruiting the services of filmmakers to erect elaborate stages for his election campaigns. Recreating mythological scenes or historical settings had similar filmic appeal to his large fan base.

Political symbolism finds a good bedfellow in filmic imagery and the techniques of creating it. In a country where history and mythology are inseparable in public imagination and political grandstanding, resorting to the visions of a fictional Mahishmati to revive the historic memories of Amaravati in the political project of invoking the past eminence of the Andhra Desh should not come as a surprise.

In the final reckoning, should the conventional abstractions of professional architects and town planners continue to hold sway on the envisioning of new cities and smart towns, or can there be a place for popular imagination, however fantastic, but based on the common culture of its inhabitants? Megalomania cuts both ways in the imagining of the future megalopolis.

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