(Last Updated on : 27-01-2012)
British domestic architecture as it is understood in present times comprised the very English cottage or bungalow houses, hidden amidst the verdant greens and fields. British advent to India was gradually transformed from traders to rulers, which also made the lords' families to arrive to the East by sea, crossing every Western barrier and adapting to the unusual climate and population of India. Hence, it dawned upon the supreme powers to make themselves adaptable to Oriental soil, ushering in the process the prolonged movement of British domestic architecture, still aped to perfection. However, one building above all others stood for the intimate side of imperial life: the bungalow, which was to remain for ever a symbol of the British in India. As long as the British in India are remembered at all, they will be remembered against the background of the bungalow.
Condemned to spend the best years of his life in the heat of Bengal, the great eighteenth-century Orientalist Sir William Jones had devised a dramatic domestic expedient. Within easy reach of his offices in Calcutta, at the village of Safirabad on the Dacca road, he incarcerated himself in a bunker immune to climate. Its roof was several feet thick and its rooms were ventilated only by narrow heavily shuttered windows. So he survived the awful summers, resolving that so far as possible 'he would never see the sun, and the sun would never see him'. This very curious story led to the first ever establishment of a bungalow under British domestic architecture in British India thus ushering in the era of British Indian architecture.
The first requirement of a British house in India was shelter against excessive heat, torrential rain, or more rarely, fearful cold: all conditions which the British, brought up in a clime of equable drizzle. There survive several instances in British domestic architecture when often they turned old tombs into houses. Sir Thomas Metcalfe, British Resident in Delhi in the 1840s, bought a Muslim tomb almost next door to the Qutub Minar, the ancient tower of victory. He used the coffin-space below its dome as a dining-room and around it built an octagonal series of rooms, with entrance halls on two sides, which gave the whole a momentous symmetry. Another popular device under British domestic architecture was the tykhana, a windowless, underground room copied from Indian models. Tykhanas were used in the hottest weather of all and appeared to be pretty uncomfortable. Repeated attempts were made to ventilate them with air shafts, but generally they seemed to have been horribly stuffy. Nevertheless, tykhanas were often furnished as grandly as the rooms upstairs. British official houses in Lucknow had whole suites dedicated to them, expensively decorated.
The Britishers tried all sorts of mechanical methods to keep their homes cool and these methods further elevated the elegance of the British Indian architecture. The punkha was universal in the early colonial years and the punkha-wallah (a native fan-puller), the man who kept the heavy flapping fans in motion, was the first familiar of every Anglo-Indian household. In very early days of British domestic architecture, the fan-puller often sat directly behind the chair of his employer, moving a fan by hand. Sometimes punkhas were small and numerous; sometimes they were few and immensely long, like waving strips of carpet and complex arrangements of pulleys were needed to keep them on the swing. During the later period of British domestic architecture, more elaborate systems were ushered in. Water was kept constantly dripping, for example, through aromatic screens erected all around the verandahs of houses, like colossal cocoons.
The Anglo-Indian bungalow, then, was evolved to make the best of things. In fact, British domestic architecture began and ended in the bungalow styled wonders both in summer and winter. It was called a bungalow probably because it was adopted from Bengali patterns and it was variously spelt bungalla, bangla, bungelow, banggolo, bangala and bungalo. In the early years a bungalow generally meant a humble cutcha house, built of mud-brick or rushes. The first Anglo-Indian bungalows were however pretty appalling. It was likely to be an oblong structure on one floor, its roof rising unsteadily to a pyramidal centre, its stepped verandah pillared with square mud columns and shaded by low eaves. Its roof was doubtless thatched once, but later were made from irregular rough tiles. The bungalow was a very primitive house, hardly more than a big hut and really looked a bit like a cow-house. With lesser regional differences in British domestic architecture, the bungalow was built in its thousands all over British India. The construction generally contained a single square living-room and a bedroom opening off it, with the kitchen quarters in separate shacks.
Most such British domestic architectural bungalows were built as bachelor quarters. After the advent of the steamship when more British women and children came to India, the form of the bungalow became rather more complex. Sundry changes were then especially build upon the theme. The bungalow remained nevertheless a simple structure to represent a great empire. The bungalow under British domestic architecture gradually turned more stylish, too. The portico was the first sign of higher things: it could serve as a entryway, or it could be a mere extension of the verandah. Castellation along the top sometimes lend it its grandeur. Besides this, the simple shape of the building could be further disguised with parapets, ornamental urns, turrets, wooden spikes, barge-boarding. Though bungalows generally remained single-storeyed, clerestories made their rooms still higher and cooler; attics were sometimes added and there were terraces above their verandahs. Elaborate fenestrations gradually came along. Regency fanlights blossomed above heavy wooden doors, together with mullion windows framed stained glass representations of British classics.
By the time British domestic architecture came to construction of New Delhi, in the 1920s, the bungalow had reached the climax of its development. Edwin Lutyens, who was responsible for the residential layout of the new capital, was not an admirer of British domestic arrangements in India. Nevertheless, at present, if one drives around the streets of New Delhi, the bungalows of the more senior officials, mostly designed in the end by Government architects, look most agreeable houses. Their gardens are lush and mature; creeper drifts into the wide verandahs. Bungalows during those times in British domestic architecture were of all sizes, being graded according to the importance of their occupants and in several styles too. However, they nearly all gave an impression of spacious and airy charm. The line of descent under colonial architectural was direct and highly impressive: it is a curious truth that the British, having chosen the form of their housing in India in the seventeenth century, never devised a better one during the 300 subsequent years of their residence.
Next in line under British domestic architecture was the verandah, the most important part of the bungalow, fulfilling all sorts of socio-economic functions. In two particular ways the verandah was essential to the purpose and significance of the house. First, it was the one place the imperialists had just for messing around on. Everything was easygoing about the verandah. Its furniture was meant for lounging; its floor was covered. Its pictures and trophies were beloved rather than precious. Secondly, the verandah was the place where the British woman, in particular, could feel some tentative personal contact with the 'alien world' of India outside. In short, the verandah was a sort of bridge built cleverly to fulfill absolute desires in British domestic architecture. The construction linked the rigid and conventional life of the imperialist with the lost liberties of home.
The nearest thing most Anglo-Indians got to a place in the countryside was a rented house in one of the hill stations. To these high retreats the central and provincial Governments habitually withdrew during the intense the summer heat. It was actually in the hill stations that British domestic architecture in India achieved the most distinctive of their vernacular styles. Places like Shimla, Darjeeling, Nainital or Ootacamund (popular as Ooty in Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu) remained the most evocative concentrations of Anglo-Indian domestic architecture. The hill-stations first came into being in the middle of the nineteenth century and influences behind their architectural manners were distinctly varied. First there arrived the Gothic pleasure-villa, derived from the exuberances of Strawberry Hill (a historical affluent area of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, near Twickenham) Gothic. Then there arrived the festive terraces of the Georgian spas and resorts. And finally there was the influence of the Grand Tour (a comprehensive cultural tour of Europe taken by wealthy young Englishmen in the 18th century as part of their education), which had accustomed Englishmen to the chalet styles of the Swiss and German Alps. This triad mixture received additional impetus from a contemporary taste for ornamental woodwork, elaborated with porches, chimney-pots and verandahs engrained in Anglo-Indian design. These several marvellous architectural wonders were fundamentals of the hill-station colonial style.
Most of the hill-stations were remote and the first imperial houses had first-rate touches of defiance. The first house in Shimla was built by Captain Charles Kennedy in 1822. The first house at Ootacamund was built entirely of stone, until then unknown as building materials in those parts. British domestic architecture displayed its resplendency through a few early houses, which were built in the classical mode. However, by the later decades of the nineteenth century, when the hill-stations had become tamer and more accessible, from the Himalayas in the north to the Nilgiris in the south, villas sprouted everywhere in what might best be termed as Himalayan Swiss-Gothic. More characteristic of this British domestic architectural genre, though, were the middle-sized villas, surrounded by modest lawns and shrubberies. There were thousands of such houses and like the bungalow of the plains, the hill station villas adapted readily to circumstances. The best selection of all hill villas was at Ootacamund (popular as Ooty) in the Nilgiri Hills of the south. Most of the Ooty houses were erected of mud-brick, timber being short in the district. However, they were agreeably dressed up in scalloping and chimney-pots and were set in cultivated gardens. The houses were mostly roofed in rustic tiles of a mild red colour, with their drawing-rooms opening on to wide verandahs. A customary British domestic architectural masterpiece housed little bedroom balconies, with their neat paths and trim wooden gates.
Most Britishers also had another home, separate from the bungalow or the hill-station villas, which was christened the Club. This resilient British domestic architecture came in all kinds, like social clubs, sporting clubs, yacht clubs, elegant institutions of the Presidency towns or ramshackle affairs of corrugated iron and beer-ringed bars. Calcutta, for instance, in 1913, had the Bengal Club for Government civilians (which carried associate membership of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Clubs), the United Service Club for military officers, the Turf Club, the India Club, the Calcutta Club, the Tollygunge Club, the New Club and the Saturday Club. The last example was a sort of beginners' club, open to men and to women, which specialised in 'games and amusements'. Bombay and Madras were just as well-supplied; British domestic architecture made its presence felt through fine clubs in the larger inland stations like Lahore or Allahabad and they went on building new ones well into the twentieth century: Willingdon Sports Club in Bombay was founded in the 1920s.
The Willingdon was a rarity in that it admitted both Britons and Indians from the start. The 'natives' sometimes responded by building clubs of their own on the British model: in Bombay the British Gymkhana Club was followed by Hindu, Parsee and Muslim Gymkhanas, side-by-side along the waterfront. The Club, with a capital C, remained pre-eminently an Anglo-Indian symbol. They represented islands of British-ness in the great Indian sea, to which the imperialists might withdraw whenever they felt a personal, social or ritual need. This genre under British domestic architecture was seldom distinguished as prestigious buildings; however the architectural symbolism of the grander clubs was at least frank. Visually their tone was generally dictated by their setting, which was above all prohibitive, with daunting gateways, stern name-plates and sentry-boxes for deterrent watchmen. This veritable club setting helped to give many of the imperialists a fake sense of aristocracy. In its most ostentatious kinds the club could be extremely splendid. The Old Madras Club for instance, was described at the end of the nineteenth century as 'one of the most magnificent clubs in the world' and was built to a princely scale. It was a heavy assemblage of several classical blocks, all columned and pedimented, with a monumental staircase leading up to its formal entrance in the middle. The Bengal Club in Calcutta was hardly less impressive. Founded in 1827, in 1845 it took over two of the big houses on Chowringhee, one of them the former home of Lord Macaulay. Several lesser houses round about were also acquired over the years, until in the end the club formed almost a little village of its own. Bengal Club's gleaming white buildings were separated by yards and gardens, guarded by spectacular doormen and criss-crossed perpetually by hurrying domestics. Then again, there was the astonishing Yacht Club in Bombay, built in 1880. This was one of the very first buildings any fresh Briton witnessed upon his arrival in India. The Yacht Club was a building that defied architectural analysis. It looked partly like a railway station, partly like a Chinese castle, partly like an Alpine hostelry, party like something in Port Said and a bit like a prison.
For lighter relief, the Anglo-Indians resorted to the gymkhana clubs, which were ubiquitous and were devoted to outdoor sports. So important was the gymkhana club to British domestic architecture and to the imperial way of life that its very name was to pass into the English language, to be used in different contexts ever after. Its prototype in the eighteenth-century could be witnessed in the Assembly Rooms in Madras. This charming building, conveniently close to the racecourse, was made for pleasure. Built on two floors, arcaded on the ground floor and balustraded around its flat roof, Assembly Rooms had two three-sided protruding fronts with a steep staircase in between. The gymkhana clubs generally perpetuated a festive tradition. A good example was the Bombay Gymkhana Club, which was built in a rural mock Tudor, all black and white, surrounded by acres of green. Its buildings seemed to consist mostly of verandahs, with views over various kinds of playing-fields.
The ultimate domestic architecture under British Empire were the palaces of the proconsuls, the Viceroy himself, the Governors of the several provinces, the Residents in the theoretically independent Native States. They formed a category of their own, more social or anthropological perhaps than architectural. This was because while they were political statements in their size and grandeur, they were family homes as well, domestic in manner, with a character very different from the palaces of most conquering elites. British domestic architecture redefined palaces and they were numerous, for often the principal residences were supplemented by lesser houses in the hill-stations, or seaside villas, or hot-weather retreats up the road. The original grand palace of British domestic architecture in India was the Company Governor-General's residence in Calcutta, completed in 1803. It stood in a dominating position in the burgeoning city, overlooking the great open space called the maidan and it was a deliberate declaration of power and triumph. Until this palace came into being, Governors-General had lived in undistinguished rented quarters. Government House consisted essentially of a large, central block on three floors, connected spider-like by long curving corridors with four symmetrical wings, each virtually a separate house.
British domestic architecture was mostly manifest in the majestic city of Hyderabad, seat of the Nizam's power in central India. The British built the most monumental of their Residences in the territories of the native princes. But though this was pointedly the home of an overlord, it too had its homely connotations. The Residences were begun in 1803 and its begetter was J. A. Kirkpatrick, a soldier of eccentric habits who was known to the Indians as Hushmat Jung, 'Glorious in Battle'. The Residency's chief block, two storeys above a basement, was flanked by latticed galleries leading to twin wings: one the kitchens, the other staff quarters. It was entered through a great Corinthian portico, forty feet high, guarded by two lions, approached by a flight of twenty-one steps and capped by an entablature with the royal crest. This led into a galleried hall, rising the full height of the house, with a floor of inlaid wood. The Residency was successfully defended during the historical sieges of Sepoy Mutiny. Yet tremendous though it was, the Hyderabad Residency was always more a house than an institution.
British domestic architecture did display its own grandeur and pomp, with various Indian cities and princely states being gradually transferred into a colonial setting. Whatever their reason was to build such monuments and houses, architectural wonders never stopped happening in spite of swaraj disturbances.