Kolkata-based photographer Rajiv Soni fondly recalls attending the opening of Delhi’s Hall of Nations in 1972, when the buildings were showcased as the symbol of modern India’s engineering prowess. Ironically, the architectural marvel has been demolished to make way for a state-of-the-art exhibition-cum-convention centre, which the government contends, is needed to express the country’s “new aspirations”. “The demolition was a terrible decision. I am still in a state of shock. I was there at the international trade fair — Asia ’72, and later Tata group participated in so many expos. The demolition has jolted my memories, and I now recall greeting legendary JRD Tata at our stall. “And, then of course, the hall and the grounds have been featured in many Bollywood movies. The future generation has been deprived of an architectural piece of history. It should have been preserved,” rues Soni, who retired from Tata Steel.
The demolition of Hall of Nations and Hall of Industries — a cluster of 45-year-old structures built by modernist Raj Rewal, has left many heritage lovers heartbroken and triggered a strong sense of nostalgia. “This is just shocking. It is not just a loss of architectural legacy but in a way the evolution of the history of the city as well. “Next is what? Demolish the India International Centre (IIC) or other modern-era icons? Is the span of its existence the only criteria for heritage? What about its architectural significance and the emotional bond people have had with it?” noted urban planner A G K Menon asked.
Menon is the former convener of the Delhi Chapter of INTACH, which has been fighting to have a group of modern-era buildings declared as protected. Rewal and Menon along with structural engineer Mahendra Raj and the president of Indian Institute of Architects, Divya Kush, in a joint statement, have reacted strongly to the Centre’s move. “We consider the demolition of the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan an act of outrage. The case was being considered in the Delhi High Court and the hearings were scheduled on April 27 and May 1,” they said.
Rewal says the demolition was “very unfair”, particularly with the two hearings scheduled to take place soon. The halls were built at Pragati Maidan here to celebrate 25 years of the country’s Independence. The Hall of Nations was inaugurated in 1972 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Menon says, Rewal and other architects of his era, brought in a new vocabulary to the school of architecture, and the future generation should have seen it. “The Hall of Nations is a very significant building in the evolution of modern architecture in India. It demonstrated the ability of the profession in 1970 to build a large space frame structure with available resources, which in this case was reinforced cement concrete and skilled hand-labour. “It was an iconic building representing an important step in the development of Indian architecture. It should have been conserved on that account,” he said.
But, it wasn’t just architectural significance that merited its preservation, the exhibition venue has been featured in many films, including Yash Chopra’s multi-starrer ‘Trishul’, says Soni. In the climax, a fight sequence with all the thrill elements, was shot in one of the halls. The sequence involved characters played by Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Prem Chopra and Sanjeev Kumar. “The halls are now immortalised thanks to this film. It will forever, serve as the mistake committed by our generation, our apathetic society, which is equally guilty, as much as the government, who need to widen their vision of heritage. In the west, heritage is showcased and becomes a source of revenue, here we destroy it in the name of development,” Soni said.
Possibly, India’s first pillarless structure, the move to demolish it was met with impassioned pleas from art houses and galleries globally, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and Pompidou Centre in Paris, besides appeal from the Indian Institute of Architects and different associations of engineers. Well-known photographer Madan Mahatta had celebrated the story of the landmark in a black-and-white photo exhibition a few years ago. Mahatta died aged 82 in 2014. “He was one of the finest architectural photographer. If he was alive today, the news would surely have broken his heart,” Soni said.