Wednesday, December 9, 2015



A matter of impressions

What is the most impressive building in India? My choice would be the Viceregal Lodge in Delhi, now known as Rashtrapati Bhawan. Starting six furlongs away at India Gate, one approaches it along the broad Kingsway, known now as Rajpath. One sees less of the Lodge than of the North and the South Block, which guard its approach. As one approaches, the two blocks loom higher, for they are sitting on the edge of Raisina Hill. When one finally reaches them, one starts climbing up the driveway, and the Lodge suddenly rises in view. But the driveway is interrupted by tall gates and gardens, for this is not the main entrance to the Lodge. Beyond the garden are broad steps leading up to a colonnade. The high portico gives a beautiful view of the gardens and the Secretariat.
 The steps are, however, not for climbing, especially by the weighty worthies who visit the President. They inspect a guard of honour in a square on the northern side of the lodge, and then are taken in through a none-too-impressive entrance by lift to the imposing Durbar Hall. From its tall windows one gets a glimpse of the back garden where the President gives parties to two thousand people at a time. And beyond the hall is a small study – just about 25x25 feet – where he receives occasional visitors.
Then there are 180 bedrooms. I have no idea what they look like. But I would suggest to those who want the experience to go and stay instead in the Umaid Bhavan Palace in Jodhpur. Designed by Henry Lanchester who was involved in the building of the Viceregal Lodge, it has all the features of the latter. It even has the traces of the original air-conditioning system, which cooled rooms with air blown across a cellar packed with ice. My favourite is the underground circular swimming pool, surrounded by frescoes of zodiac signs.
That is the British – and the Indian – concept of grandeur. The comparable Japanese complex, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, is virtually impossible to see. One can enter the grounds on 23 December and 1 January and watch the Emperor and Empress wave at crowds; but otherwise, I doubt if even heads of state see much of the palace. In any case, the Edo castle has been the Emperor’s palace only since 1867, when he took it over from the Tokugawa Shogun, the Dewan whose dynasty effectively ruled Japan from 1603 until power was restored to Emperor Meiji after a rebellion against Shogun Bakufu in 1867.
But there is another palace that the Japanese would place above all other residential buildings – the Katsura Detached Palace in Kyoto. It belonged to a branch of the royal family, and passed to the Emperor only in 1883 when the branch died out.
The palace goes back to Prince Toshihito (1579-1629), a younger brother of Emperor Goyozei. He was a man of modest means. But he was an aesthete; in particular, he was a fan of The Tale of Genji, a 1000-page novel written a thousand years ago by Murasaki Shikibu, a courtesan. It is a story of Prince Genji, a generously amorous prince, of aesthetic aristocrats who surrounded him, and their dalliances and escapades. It is replete with poems sent each other by lovers after a romantic night together. The book roams all over Japan; Katsura too is mentioned in it. Toshihito decided to build a palace that would as beautiful as Murasaki’s fabled description. First he built some teahouses. A teahouse was a pavilion – a roofed verandah in which ancient Japanese sat drinking tea and enjoying the surrounding scenery. Around his teahouse, Toshihito dug a lake.
The Japanese prefer a house with a view to one which is a view. Toshihito’s descendants did not want to spoil the view of the edifice they inherited. So they extended it beyond a corner. Thus the Katsura palace consists of three diagonally connected buildings.
The complex is bordered by thick bamboo foliage. On entering the front gate slatted with thick bamboo poles, one comes to the inside gate, which is actually a thatched hut without walls, standing on unstripped logs.
As one goes forward, the lake comes into view on the left – shielded by a shaped, round mound. On the mound is a spreading, dancing pine of the kind you see only in Japan; beyond the pine is an island with a teahouse. Then one passes through another thatched gate to a pathway made up of artistically shaped stones.
The path leads to the Old Shoin, which was used to receive visitors. It is divided into rooms by sliding screens with yellow floral patterns on white. Above them are translucent paper screens or slatted lattices. The floor is covered with tatami mats. The entire effect is subdued.
From the Old Shoin we enter the Middle Shoin, the private residence. That is where we see the first decorations: the walls have watercolours of foliage, or of mountainous landscapes looking into vast distances.
From the Middle Shoin we enter the New Palace, where the Prince had his office, so to speak. It consists of a slightly raised platform lighted by a translucent paper screen on one side. Behind the Prince were shelves and small cupboards to house his papers. They could not have held much.
This is the palace, which any rich Indian would consider exceedingly modest. Yet this is the house that the Japanese consider the most desirable. Display is the last thing the Japanese think about; indeed, they would consider it vulgar. The Prince’s visitors hardly ventured beyond the front reception room; the rest of the palace was for the enjoyment of the Prince and his family alone. And what the Prince sought, in every room, was a sense of serenity and equanimity. That feeling was best promoted by the landscape so carefully crafted to the south of the palace – the lake with its three islands connected by arched bridges, and the teahouse sited to give the best view of the autumn moon and the reflections of clouds.
This does not mean that Japanese princes did not have the emotions of an average Indian. The amorous exploits related in The Tales of Genji show that the Japanese were capable of having as good a time as those pretty Indians that Bollywood films show prancing in the Alps. But for them, life was not a box to be filled up by cheerful acting. It was a landscape to be artistically shaped by experiences. A residence was designed to create experiences that went into shaping that landscape.

As the outer world gets more disturbing, one sees this frame of mind emerging in India. Houses, which at one time used to be left open for children to run in and out of, are being fenced and walled. Life which was once lived in neighbourhoods is being lived more and more indoors. But this is escape from an unwelcoming outer reality; it is not the first step towards constructing a beautiful inner reality. For an Indian wanting to learn how to live, I would suggest old Japan as the most promising destination.