“Architecturally, Bombay is one of the most appalling cities of either hemisphere,” wrote Aldous Huxley in his travelogue Jesting Pilate. “It had the misfortune to develop during what was, perhaps, the darkest period of architectural history. Most of its public buildings were designed and executed between 1860 and 1900.” Nowadays, of course, it would take a titanic effort of anti-Victorian sentiment to make a similar assertion, when faced with the Modernism-on-the-cheap atrocities that blight the British landscape from Coventry to Slough. Gothic Revival may not be to everyone’s taste, but the 19th-century edifices that even now tower over Bombay are more romantic than repulsive.

Empires are not built on sensitivity, and the British in India could never have been accused of being overly sensitive to their subjects. The architects of the Raj did not attempt to create buildings that would blend in with their surroundings, but rather erected Palladian piles in Calcutta, a mock Windsor Castle for the Maharajah of Mysore, and a bizarre market hall in Bombay that seems midway between Venetian Gothic and a Bavarian Rathaus. And yet colonial architecture in India cannot be lightly dismissed as alien styles plonked unfeelingly onto an indifferent Subcontinent. In fact, as Andreas Volwahsen moots in this compelling book, the architects (at least) were extremely sensitive about how their constructions should reflect British rule.

In Calcutta, the style chosen was Classicism, with its implicit overtones of the empires of Greece and Rome. (An evocative Regency aquatint shows Indians milling about like Roman citizens in a columned cityscape dominated by the triumphal arch of Government House.) In Madras, the imperial style that was adopted was dubbed Indo-Saracenic, although in truth it drew primarily on the architectural vocabulary of the Mughal emperors – Afghans rather than Saracens – who historically did not come anywhere near Madras. And in Bombay, it was the aforementioned Gothic Revival, emblematic of Crown and Church, that prevailed. Far more than London, where room for development was necessarily limited, Bombay became the imperial city par excellence, where architects had the space to create gigantic public buildings in the exuberant, polyglot style that Huxley and his interwar ilk came to despise.

For many years, it was fashionable to dismiss the colonial architecture of India for a sort of lazy eclecticism, piling on onion domes, Venetian brickwork, Elizabethan transoms, Baroque statuary and Mughal ramparts without any concern for historical precedent. But this was hardly unique to India; all Victorian architecture was eclectic, blending disparate stylistic elements from across Europe and across the centuries in a manner that seems to anticipate the “anything goes” mantra of Postmodernism. India was merely – to coin a phrase – the jewel in its crown.

First published in World of Interiors issue 271. Reproduced with permission.

Splendours of Imperial India

by Andreas Volwahsen  (Prestel)

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