Chandigarh
Bharat Kashyap
The rebellion of straight lines
An introduction to Chandigarh
5 min read
Tuesday, April 2, 2019

I have been posting quiz questions, packaged as ‘stories’, to an Instagram audience for the past fortnight. It is not an exercise in the grand signalling of knowledge; it is, rather, an attempt to compel myself to find, every day, at least one thing worth framing a question about.

On most days, that has happened to satisfactory outcome. On the rest, the imagined burden of public expectation — I’m informed by the app that 120-odd people look at the question each day — makes me look for trivia collected sometime in the past.

Such an issue presented itself on the 13th day of this series. The influence of this number on the process of searching through pages of memory became apparent in the outcome: Chandigarh, and the absence of a ‘Sector 13’ in the city. A sufficiently interesting fact found; an appropriate facade — to hide it behind — to be built. The internet, as usual, offers support.

A news report in The Tribune (what else?) about a restaurant called ‘Sector 13’ having opened in the commercial complex of Sector 17 is found; the headline beams: “Chandigarh finally gets Sector 13.” Everything appears to have come together in a perfect co-incidence; a wide grin becomes unavoidable.

The making of a plan to take a solo day-trip to Chandigarh had preceded the making of this question entirely. The idea of a self-taken, real-time picture of ‘Sector 13’ as the answer — instead of a stock image off the internet — was attractive. The plan was solidified; so was the question. Despite having been engineered, the serendipity was exciting.

The events of today — the day of the trip — have been very revealing. The introduction to a city — its optics, its theatre, and its emotion — define the relationship we build with the city: in that, cities are like people. To me, this city has been introduced, in earnest, only today.

I have visited Chandigarh in the past: as a primary school student, to visit my father’s college campus for a reunion function; as a tourist a few years later, and then twice in this stint as a college student: once to watch a film that was deemed too important by the friend group to be watched at a nondescript cinema hall in Patiala; the other time for a familial engagement, a trip that was contorted to include a visit to my father’s old hostel room.

The planning, the architecture: none of it was new to me. I have seen it before and appreciated it in a typically measured manner. The object of this visit was not to decorate my perception of the city at all. The plan was to spend a day sampling each museum and memorial within the urban expanse: the choice of city dictated by geographical convenience.

Four separate institutions of note were visited; the last one just barely. The purpose of writing this out is not to describe the excellent exhibits at each, although the efforts of the Chandigarh Architecture Museum as well as ‘Le Corbusier Centre,’ are sufficiently spectacular such as to merit special commendation. It is to etch in material memory the great joy that has been derived during the travels between these places: applauding the respect a pedestrian could command on the street, and the approachability of the system of public transport.

I am used to neither, as are perhaps most of us living and growing up in cities not privileged enough to be planned and built by legendary teams led by European architects. It is not even my contention that great architecture automatically elevates a city in stature — critics of Corbusier would perhaps even say his work is not ‘great’ at all — but a much greater understanding of the process, the philosophy and the sheer effort behind it all has managed to cultivate deep respect for the progenitors of the Capital Project.

Especially for Pierre Jeanneret: he was the one who perhaps truly ‘built’ the city, and then adopted it as his own. He lived in it for more than a decade, designed the less glamorous — but perhaps equally spectacular — parts: the houses, the schools, the fire stations, the bus stops, the theatres, even the manhole covers. He asked for his ashes to be scattered in the lake he helped develop. A manifestation of irrational, excessive attachment — worthy of great respect.

A long straight walk along Sector 8 led to his house, now preserved as a memorial. It is a stone’s throw from the lakeside; an almost unnoticeable sign post — and a newly installed ‘Chandigarh Smart City’ board — gives any indication that this building has special significance. I had barely entered when it was five; time for governments across the country to call it a day. Before I left, I was asked by the lone security guard to express my thoughts in the visitors book. I ruffled through its pages: one visitor a day on most days; most of them not even Indian. Perhaps institutions like these could do with a mention — or a visit — by another chowkidar.

The manhole cover that Jeanneret designed is placed as an exhibit at the Architecture Museum, along with an exhortation to onlookers: “See how many you can locate.” I tried, unsuccessfully, during the few hours I spent traversing the streets, to find one.

Fittingly, there is one right outside his house. Fittingly, the inability to go through his memorial — and photograph each exhibit, even the manhole cover outside his house — will compel me to return.

‘Sector 13’ was still left to be photographed. It was located inside Sector 17 — a fantastic outdoor pedestrian-only market — also the location of the city’s local bus stand, from where the return journey would commence.

A great deal of asking-around later, bad news. ‘Sector 13’ had rebranded themselves to ‘Mauser Beer Bar Set’ — MBBS, in short — and the sign board I was looking for was nowhere to be found. No more Sector 13, just the way Corbusier had intended things to have been.

A hypothesis of strange connection was thought of, as we left: Chandigarh of the present is what I imagine New Delhi of the 1980s would have been like. Perhaps the beacon of urban planning in this country — with its sectors sheltered within its road-grid of straight lines—will manage to stay the way it is, in forty years hence. There were a few signs that suggested it might not, but I want to remain optimistic.

I am not typically a votary of rebellion; but to stay optimistic about its future is the greatest act of rebellion in our country: guilty, then, as charged.
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