|The 'Open Hand' of Le Corbusier in Chandigarh|
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Though it won’t be the only issue on the agenda of his talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, French President Francois Hollande comes to India first and foremost to take the next (and final?) step in the Rafale deal.
Terrorism will be another topic that will be hotly discussed, as both India and France have been victims of terror attacks.
As France started to recover from the November 13 attacks and was commemorating last year’s killings of several Charlie Hebdo journalists, attackers from the other side of the Indian border slipped into the Pathankot airbase and created havoc for nearly three days.
On January 4, France condemned “the attack perpetrated against the Indian military base in Pathankot”, adding: “France stands alongside India in the fight against terrorism.”
For the French president, this visit to India is also significant at a time his popularity is again tumbling (12 points in one month, according to Le Figaro), despite a surge following November 13.
While terrorism and the Rafale deal will be the plat de resistance (‘the main dish’), the hors-d’oeuvre (‘appetiser’) will be Hollande’s visit to Chandigarh, one of townships selected by the Indian government to be a ‘smart city’.
But contrary to other Indian cities, Chandigarh was born ‘smart’. In the Indian public’s mind, the city remains synonymous with Le Courbusier, the Franco-Swiss architect who had the vision of a city with a difference.
Several letters of Le Corbusier recently published by the Nehru Memorial Fund give us an idea of the architect’s long march towards the fulfilment of his mission and the difficulty to match his dream with India’s reality. It was the beginning of a long, though at times painful, odyssey.
The architect, as well as the Indian government, soon learnt that smartness does not come in one day - and without intense labour pains. Will it be different 60 years later?
During Chandigarh’s painful delivery, Le Corbusier was often discouraged, as strident critics kept appearing and obstructions accumulated.
In October 1957, C.P.N. Singh, the dynamic Governor of Punjab, wrote to Nehru that he found Le Corbusier “uncharitable… and particularly to the people who have been doing their very best to carry out his plans… He forgets that every inch of Chandigarh has been allowed to be conceived and constructed as he planned and designed.”
Singh added that Partap Singh Kairon, the Punjab Chief Minister, “was very zealous about the project and had been treating its (Corbusier’s) every demand in a generous way in spite of financial stringency.”
It was indeed not easy to match Le Corbusier’s plans with the state’s finances; as a result, things moved too slowly for the architect. A year later, Nehru told the Governor of Le Corbusier’s deep frustration; he had written to the prime minister that this was caused “not only by the failure of human beings, but by cattle and goats and other animals having a free run at Chandigah.”
Take the proposal of ‘The Open Hand’, a symbolic sculpture designed by Le Corbusier to convey the message of ‘receiving and redistributing wealth’. In June 1958, Nehru had to tell the artist: “At present we are in such a difficult financial position that we have stopped any kind of work that is not considered inescapable. I can very well understand your enthusiasm and your disappointment at any delay in realising your conception.”
The ‘Open Hand’ was finally installed in 1985, even though Indira Gandhi had sanctioned funds for the art piece in December 1972. The moral of the story: everything takes time in India, even smart projects.
Hollande’s first stop will be in Chandigarh, where he will be received by the prime minister. India would like to make Chandigarh ‘smart’ according to today’s norms, and France is ready to help.
Paris has already informed Delhi of its willingness to participate in the ‘smartisation’ of three cities - Puducherry, Nagpur and Chandigarh. France is ready to offer a line of credit of 2 billion euros through its Agence française de Développement (French Development Agency) and to bring in French creativity and expertise.
Nehru once told a gathering of town planners: “There is no doubt that Le Corbusier is a man (with) a powerful and creative mind, he may become extravagant occasionally, he may produce extravagances occasionally, but it is better to have that than have a person with no mind at all.”
If not extravagant heads, creative heads will be required to make Modi’s pet project a success. France will hopefully be by India’s side. A telling symbol of the closeness between India and France is the fact that for the first time since Independence, foreign troops will participate in the Republic Day parade and the soldiers will be French, belonging to the crack 35th Infantry Regiment, based in Belfort in Eastern France.
A train à grande vitesse (bullet train) between the city of Le Corbusier and New Delhi, as well as some mega solar energy collaboration, are also on the cards. That would be very smart.