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Chandigarh Housing

Housing in Chandigarh

 Nostalgia – (coined in 1668 by Johannes Hefer), from Greek algos, “pain, grief, distress + nostos, homecoming

Part I

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Photo 1. The Red Brick House, Sector 9. 

  Let me welcome you to gaze/or intrusively look into a house in Sector 9, one of the first original sectors of Chandigarh’s master plan. Its design consists of stark horizontal lines, flat, single story roof, the entrance protected from the sun by a white cover.  The red paint or brick is marked by black water dribble marks at the end. Two small windows are visible and a narrow entrance door seems hidden in the shadows.  The gate sags at the hinges.  The low red brick wall exposes the house to the gaze of passers by like me on the road.  Typically, a few distinct shrubs frame the driveway, while we can also catch a shadow of a small palm tree.   Unpretentious, simple lines, a bare bones aesthetic concept of a house with windows and a door, this is the spirit of the early decades of Chandigarh.   The house could be dated to the 1970s, possibly a bit earlier, not likely after the early1980s, which marked a watershed in the emergence of ‘new money’ in the city.

Sector 9 has been the home of our extended family since the mid 1960s when my grandparents built a similar 1-story, utilitarian house, as we anecdotally hear, depending more on the contractors, who had the house built than on an architect with a distinct aesthetic vision.  The house, on which a second unit was added in the 1970s, included a room created out of a front porch and an extra room added on the ground floor.  Some of these additions were made by my parents for their family in the mid 1970s.  The house is still drafty and cold in winter, with pinched, narrow windows that make it somewhat stifling in summer.  At some point it will be demolished and sold, as part of the family will.  In its place will arise a new, grandiose structure, since Sector 9 is one of the most affluent areas.

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Photo 2. Family Home, Sector 9 Front garden

What is stunning however in our somewhat faded family house, and typical of all of the Chandigarh aesthetic, especially in the old, original sectors, is the garden in any season, with profusions of potted flowers, a small vegetable garden, with bougainvillea on the ledges, though the fruit trees, lychees, lemons, mangoes seem to have had their day.  See photo 2 of front lawn of the house.  Other houses in sector 9 of the same vintage (roughly) depict a similar aesthetic, straight lines, some second story rooms, an open terrace upstairs (called kotha) where through the 1970s families may have slept out doors in an era when air conditioning was not commonplace. See photo 3.

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Photo 3. Another house -probably 1970s (sector-9)

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Photo 4. Same vintage, with the 2nd floor probably an add-on

Aesthetic effects, or refreshing vistas were found in the greenery, shrubs, trees, and flowers that graced the whole sector 9. A common practice that persists even today is to plant flowers or greenery outside the boundary wall of your house. See photos 5 and 6.  Petunias, sweet peas straggling along the wall and a bougainvillea drooping from the other side.  Another feature that continues as a part of the original plan is a green space between inner streets. Here is a lovely long space with a bench close to our family home (photo 5). Sometimes kids play cricket here or people sit on benches. In the pre-television era (or shall I say pre-cable era till the mid 1980s) one saw more kids out doors; all of India draws kids to TV and other electronic screens now.

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Photo 5. A lovely green space, mini park inside a square –all in sector 9. Facing another house 1970s
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Photo 6 A classic Chandigarh garden aesthetic,especially in the older sectors, some floral landscaping outside the house wall (all homes have clearly demarcated walls) here petunias, sweet peas, with bougainvillea flowing over the hedge

Why am I praising these somewhat non-descript functional houses that dot Sector 9?  Starkly simple, utilitarian, undecorated homes dominated this sector until the mid 1980s at least.   Is it because these old houses and the childhood world I recall, evokes in me a nostalgia, even somewhat forced, not for some idyll, but for the stark simplicity of Chandigarh life in the original sectors.   Nostalgia implies a combined feeling of homecoming and loss and perhaps that is what Sector 9 stirs in me, especially as given the trend, the older vintage (1970s and before) of homes will be gone completely in a few years.  As prices are determined by the location of the land, older homes are inevitably demolished as new owners take them over.  However, ironically many of the new elaborately decorated and stylized houses commodify a nostalgia for cultural images of the past, often opulent, randomly evoked from coats of arms or haveli style balconies.  A vivid example of one such house in Chandigarh Sector 9 is the “House of Lions” or as all the Punjabi denizens call it, “Sheran Wala Ghar.”

II

The House of Lions

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Photo 7. The House of Lions: New Housing in Chandigarh

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Photo 8. The House of Lions: New Housing in Chandigarh

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Photo 9. The House of Lions, boundary wall.

This house is difficult to miss (see photos)!  It has an ornate black gate with a golden coat of arms emblem on each gate, the color palette is black on the gate and boundary wall, and a nice cornflower yellow colours the walls of the house.   On the gateposts two concrete statues of Lions strike a bold note. The name of the owner is followed by the word, “Niwas,” which means habitation and evokes a class-inflected dignity. It is not simply a house, “ghar.”  The house itself behind the self-aggrandizing gate certainly has a kind of elegance, one rounded balcony reminiscent of similar facades old “havelis” and nice symmetry of rounded arches, one in mottled black marble, and matching angular roofs, a range of varied lines, angles,  textures, and materials that make up this house.  If you walk around, small concrete peacocks are perched on the side walls.  Overall though, the house is not garish or overwrought like many other “Punjabi Baroque” styles in the newly moneyed sections of Chandigarh.  However, one can’t help think of the usage of self-minted family “arms” on the gate as a kind of commodified nostalgia for some aristocratic antecedents.

On asking around among other old families of the neighborhood (all the old families of sector 9 know each other) no one seems to know the owners of the Lion House, though from the last name they could assume some Punjabi landowning family, and otherwise possibly NRI money made in Canada or UK.  (Wealthy Punjabi immigrants from these two countries have come back home all over Punjab and invested in fancy homes).  That sense of anonymity or mystery seems to be typical of most of the homeowners of the houses built in the past two decades; some of them seem to be absentee denizens of Sector 9.  See other Punjabi baroque houses photos 10-11 similar circular balconies (“jharoka style of the old havelis) shut high gates, palm trees, and decorative trim, evoking some kind of emblem or arms.

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Photo 10. Recent Balcony evokes “Jharoka” from India Haveli style 

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Photo 11. Recent housing — another Balcony, Gold trim, “Punjabi Baroque”

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Photo 12. Housing in Chandigarh from 1990s

One house (photo 12) of more recent years is quite striking, red brick, straight lines, reminiscent of the Corbusier aesthetic, with a modernist brick motif (in the style of the Chandigarh logo of the hand).  What is also noticeable in this photo are the number of expensive looking cars parked in the drive-way.  It is also a signal of new money, but with some restrained individualistic taste.

Cars proliferate in Sector 9 in all the houses, it seems, but what seems to distinguish the old and new are the high gates, walls, and sense of closed-in space, surrounded by high trees, and often security guards (excluded in the photos).  So what may seem like signs of affluence and progress that are breathing new vitality into Sector 9 –and into the whole of Chandigarh with its growth into the Tri-City, new hotels, restaurants, a big shopping Malls, colleges, etc. also mark the end of a culture prior to consumerist-driven lifestyles of today. The world of the 1970s through the 1980s was caught up in India’s controlled, earlier pseudo-socialist economy, where a dependence on State funding was central to our lives.  So in that era Chandigarh was a city of civil servants, educators, a few businesses, restricted access to consumer goods, even for the wealthy, and few “choices” in consumption of any kind.  Bicycles proliferated as even the upper class kids biked everywhere.   Few restaurant options were available, but there was a decent public library in Sector 9, with a wonderful Children’s section.  The Rose Garden was the big attraction for city dwellers, and blooming gardens in the leisure valley and the University Campus were topics of conversation. The three movie theatres offered crude comforts, very weak air-conditioning if any, sometimes damaged film stock, inexpert screenings, and a selection of latest and re-run Bombay films (as they were called then). On weekends, we went to see the Hollywood offerings, often few years old.

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Photo 13. Masterplan of Chandigarh is cast into the manhole covers

Somehow despite familiar critiques of the Corbusier plan’s divisions into class-based sectors and on the bureaucratic atmosphere of the Chandigarh, what I remember are the associations between a stark, pragmatic architectural style, both of the Corbusier master plan and of the red house with a sagging gate in Sector 9.   (See photo of the Corbusier Master plan cast onto the manhole covers in photo 13.) We never felt the “presence” of money until houses like the one with Lions appeared!  Our consciousness as citizens and subjects of India was somewhat nationalistic but cynical about a government that did not seem to be moving India progressively ahead. However, what I value most of my years in Chandigarh is remembering a city of clean lines, gardens, trees, outdoor life on bicycles and walks, or motorbike rides, and little aspiration that endless wealth and consumer goods would make lives happier…

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Photo 14. A Lovely Lady of Sector 9 with her garden as a backdrop in one of the older houses — “the trees are now quite a jungle” she observes

Professor Jyotsna G. Singh, Department of English
Michigan State University

jsingh@msu.edu

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