The Architecture of Shivdatt Sharma by Vikramaditya Prakash is the first in a series planned to unravel the ‘story of Modernism’ in India. It traces the practice of architect Shivdatt Sharma whom the author introduces as ‘the most distinguished private architectural practice to have emerged from the greater Chandigarh area.’ The author also recently contributed to another compendium on Chandigarh viz. Le Corbusier: Chandigarh and the Modern City, edited by Hasan Uddin Khan and has a personal connection with the city’s early years through his father Aditya Prakash who was involved with the team of architects that worked with Corbusier on numerous buildings of the city. This book however focuses first on Shivdatt Sharma’s contribution to Chandigarh and moves on later to his independent practice. It begins with a generous foreword by Balkrishna Doshi followed by an overarching introduction of Sharma’s work by the author, an interview with Sharma conducted by a student from the University of Tokyo, a reflective essay by the architect himself. The book culminates with a showcasing of 22 selected projects that vary in scale and expression. Towards the end of the book, readers will find a chronology of some additional works and Shivdatt Sharma’s biography to tie up the coverage.
In his introductory essay, author Vikramaditya Prakash appropriately puts Sharma’s work in perspective by drawing astute extracts from India’s changing socio-economic and political landscape of the seventies—a time when Sharma was also reinventing his own practice. The writing lists interesting concepts about the ‘Indianness’ in Sharma’s Modernist vocabulary but tends to labour a point and the reading is further dampened by typos in the introductory note which will hopefully be rectified in subsequent editions. Setting the prelude for exploring Shivdatt Sharma’s works, the author is spot on to remark that just as modernism was perceived to be the face of Nehruvian ideas, it had to later also bear the burden of ‘failed India’ under strained economic and political developments which had shifted to favour regionalist factions and revivalist deliberations in aesthetics. It was under such conditions that Sharma’s career took shape.
Shivdatt Sharma’s practice itself underwent three interesting phases. He began his career humbly under the overbearing presence of Le Corbusier and (the more sympathetic) Pierre Jeanneret as part of the team that created Chandigarh. Soon after, Sharma chose to work at ISRO as Chief Architect for the Department of Space, Government of India and finally returned to Chandigarh at the ripe age of 49 to set up independent practice. With the author’s help one quickly grasps Sharma’s longing for voicing personal ideas whether by seeing an opportunity to be his own boss at ISRO or by resigning from government service altogether to indulge in more liberating private practice. Throughout his career, Sharma’s works blend design principles that he learnt from ‘the masters’—Le Corbusier and Jeanerret—with what the author calls ‘Chandigarh Style’ and in places with the more effusive appendage of ‘Indian Modernism’ to the former.
Shivdatt Sharma’s works featured in the book are remarkable and will certainly be a revelation for many. While a handful of Sharma’s projects such as the Vikram Sarabhai Hall (1973-80) at ISRO in Ahmedabad and the Sector 19 Gurudwara (1963-65) in Chandigarh outshine others, his earlier works are clearly more elegant and show resolve in structure and expression than his recent ones under private practice. Conspicuous by their absence are photographs and drawings of the enigmatically described Gautam Sehgal House which is unfortunately not featured even in the portfolio of works. Sharma himself offers two thumbnail images of the Sehgal House which he designed with Jeanneret and was proclaimed by Nehru to be ‘anokha’, leaving the reader scouring for images to appreciate. Another confusing element is the reference to the ‘Museum of Science’ in Sector 10, Chandigarh as the ‘Museum of Life’ by the author in the introduction.
Most of the photographs in the book come from the architect’s office and are notable but in places seem dated especially in case of recent projects. One such example is of the DLF Shopping Mall, New Delhi which according to the chronology of works was completed in 1990 and may indeed be an ‘urban centre’ for the people using it today but a reader would benefit from any present-day photos to orient themselves to the author’s account of the project’s success. Overall, the book is well produced for the graphics, paper quality and hardcover binding. Even though a handful of drawings lack annotations and accurate architectural rendering, they illustrate enough for the reader to appreciate all featured buildings. The primary funding for this publication comes through the A3 Foundation for Research and Promotion of Sustainable Architecture, which is founded by Shivdatt Sharma’s office and also conducts various outreach programmes for architecture students and professionals. The book is, nonetheless, the first compilation of a remarkable architect’s work—perhaps long overdue.
Aftab Jalia is an architecture graduate of the Aga Khan Progrm at MIT.