After a 'terrible beating', India's President House in line for sympathetic makeover

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 6:20am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 6:20am


The last visit by Edwin Lutyens to India in 1938 was not to design anything new but to restore something old - a magnificent palace on top of a rocky outcrop in New Delhi.

A few years after the extravagant, 340-room residence for the British viceroy was first occupied, its architect had to be summoned from London to undo the damage done to its interiors by an eccentric occupant with a passion for redecorating and a weakness for the colour mauve.

Lutyens had designed the house and its 130-hectare estate with an obsessive eye for detail - from its unique, Buddhist-influenced dome and its Mughal-inspired jaalis (latticed screens) to its English "crowned lion" door knobs and its distinctive furniture. Travel writer Robert Byron observed: "Few artists can have written so complete an epitaph of themselves on one spot."

After the British left in 1947, the palace, "neither pompous nor overbearing" despite its vast size, became the residence of the Indian head of state. But the despoilments continued.

"It was renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan (President House), yet it took a terrible beating," said conservation architect A.G. Krishna Menon. "The true significance of the place was not understood. There was no realisation of the fact the building and grounds now belonged to the nation."

But now Lutyens' classical masterpiece has found a powerful benefactor in Pranab Mukherjee, India's 13th president. Mukherjee has asked the well-regarded Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage to prepare a comprehensive conservation and maintenance plan.

"The primary goal of the conservation project is to revert back to the original vision," said Omita Paul, secretary to the president.

India's predicament with the palace began at the time of independence. Lord Mountbatten's successor as governor general, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, first refused to move in, then turned his back on the viceroy's rooms and moved into a wing used by the vicereine's lady-in-waiting. His successors followed his example, and the viceroy's suite became a guest house.

All Indian heads of state have been middle class. A few were Gandhians or socialists used to a simple life. Their discomfort and guilt at living in a palace created for empire builders was expressed in different ways, including turning the golf course into a field for the "Grow More Food" national campaign.

"Nevertheless, despite the mishaps and compromises, Lutyens' design intent was by and large preserved," said Menon. With one tragic exception - a lot of the unique furniture created by the architect disappeared.

A few of his tables, along with his architectural drawings and sketches, will go on display at a museum opening on the estate on Friday. A much larger museum telling the story of the presidency is planned for 2017.