The Commanding Heights

When I was growing up, I never gave any thought to how much importance people gave to the kind of houses they lived in or aspired to. It was a significant part of the GIMD (Great Indian Middle Class Dream). I remember a kitty party I once attended hosted by the MD of my father’s hospital. And I still remember how he sat on the steps leading up to his house, while a school of otherwise arrogant, boastful surgeons gathered meekly around him. I forget what he said at the time, but looking back, I realize I got my first taste of the modern Indian durbar.

In India, it seems difficult to be very far from the durbar. And it’s not hard to imagine why. When the White Man came to Auranjeb’s court, and there-after decided to take the country and all its riches for themselves, the first thing they did was to erect the most glorious Gothic architecture they could conjure up, as soon possible. Whatever they built had to outdo or match anything that they had seen is size and grandeur. They knew that nothing they built could match the monuments, palaces and forts they had seen in Mughal India, but that didn’t deter them from trying. Was this zeal for grand architecture strategic? My guess is: it was intuitive. With negligible numbers but with insatiable ambition and heart, they needed to convince themselves as much as us, of their legitimacy to Imperial Charters.

For in Architecture, Man finds a psychological weapon like no other. When a man stands next to another, there is but only so much difference in dimensions & effect that one can have. But, when it comes to what you can build: that is when you are faced with a potent, physical, tangible sign of the difference amongst men, that is when the power relations shift significantly without even a word being spoken.

It all came together for me in a flash today: the link between the durbar and architechture. Images of Pharaohs and Rome. Of the Statue of Liberty & the Third Reich. Of Victoria Terminus & India Gate. Of the long flights of stairs that all major courts and libraries seem to feel is de-rigueur. Of why Bin Laden chose the Twin Towers.

And the closest to home in my current context: how vastly different the cultures of organizations are. These cultures fall so neatly into step with the architecture and aesthetics of the offices they occupy. Some organisations, as my V.P. said so aptly, are such, that after a conference you can almost hear the swish of purple togas. While others are almost commune like, with pains taken to keep everything identical, right from the pens used to the heights of the back-rests of the chairs.

Somehow, when you drink out of the same cups as the owner of the organization, when he sincerely urges you to call him Kunal, it is suddenly very disconcerting and disturbing to be attending a meeting where everyone gets up when the senior-most person enters the room. The power relations are so naked, so strong; aided in full measure by the playing fountains, the vast, unending facades of steel and glass, the check-points and the security.

When one enters a room where the door is thrice your size, the strength of the door has a direct transference on to the person who resides behind it. There is some primeval link between the power of the walls which surround us and the manner in which we conduct ourselves.

One response to “The Commanding Heights”

  1. just so you know, my door is very small.. :)… but .. correct me if you can… i just wanted to know, when the drooped down structure of Gandhi came out of the thatched roofed hut of his ashram, could you get any link of the the person and the structure that gave him refuge?

    but of course, that was then, and this is now.

    your posts are getting interesting by the day 🙂

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