(Published on January 17, 2014 in Time Out Delhi)
A new book offers a rare glimpse of life inside the guarded gates of New Delhi’s high-status embassies
Over the years, Delhi has been written about, photographed through and through, and yet, there always remains a facet waiting to be discovered. Delhi’s Diplomatic Domains takes the reader through the guarded gates of Delhi’s embassies in Chanakyapuri and into the private grounds of foreign diplomats living in India. Authored by micro-biologist and art aficionado Gladys Abankwa-Meier-Klodt, enriched with stunning photographs by Lalit Verma, and published by Full Circle, this coffee table book is a glimpse inside 46 of New Delhi’s purpose-built and heritage property foreign missions.
The birth of the new Indian nation on August 15, 1947 created a capital that had no significant recent history of foreign representation. India positioned itself as a leader in South Asia, and sought to establish diplomatic relations with capitals on all continents. The purpose was to invite friendly nations to cement ties by establishing missions in New Delhi. But accommodation was scarce for all, including the foreign missions seeking domicile in the Indian capital. The diplomatic enclave in Chanakyapuri was conceived as part of the solution. It was established in the early 1950s on undeveloped land just south of Rashtrapati Bhawan. “In virtually no other capital city, however, does a diplomatic enclave approach the exclusivity of purpose and scale of that found in New Delhi,” claimed Gladys. The first embassies were designed by German architect Karl Malte Von Heinz, a naturalised Indian of Austro-Hungarian ethnicity. In addition to the Apostolic Nunciature, the Royal Thai embassy and the high commission for Pakistan, he also built Pataudi Palace and parts of what is now Jamia Millia Islamia university. His immediately recognisable style, characterised by serpentine curves, heavily ornamented balustrades, columns and cartouches, can be seen in many parts of south Delhi.
Generous allocations were made to neighbouring countries at first, based on personal, historical and political relationships. The Chinese embassy, for example, which is spread over 30 acres of Indian land, was the result of days when the catch phrase “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” became popular. It is the largest of all 146 embassies today, but unfortunately, doesn’t feature in this book.
Similarly, the Indonesians were special friends of prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, so they built their embassy close to the PM’s house. And the embassy of Bhutan, said Gladys, boasts of the country’s characteristic vernacular architecture – Dzongs built as fortresses, the distinctive Tibetan tradition of Buddhist artichecture. The book, replete with remarkable histories and illustrative photographs, is an unequivocal link between Delhi’s past and present.
On her arrival in Delhi with her German diplomat husband in the summer of 2011, Gladys, was struck by the diversity and exclusivity of the residences and chanceries, which unlike many of their counterparts elsewhere in the world, were not only built for the purpose they served, but also in an area set aside for them. After searching in vain for a single volume that documented this extraordinary premise, she felt the subject was unique and deserved further study. “It seemed natural to me that a book would exist on the subject, given the uniqueness of the constellation,” she said, “but search as I did, nothing of the kind was to be found. That was when my purpose of being in Delhi became clear.”
Her book, she believes, will find its audience in historians and history buffs, architects, interior designers and urban planners.
It was the residence of the Polish ambassador in India, the house at 1 Hardinge Avenue (now Tilak Marg), that catalysed the idea of Delhi’s Diplomatic Domains. Inside the house, which was commissioned in the 1930s by the erstwhile Raja of Kanika (Odisha), Raja Bahadur Sir Rajendra Narayan Bhanj Deo Bahadur, the curvature of a magnificent staircase rises from the central circular vestibule, creating an overhead gallery above which a domed ceiling is mounted. Windows placed in the dome cast natural lighting on the hall below, which is the access point for the main representational rooms. The domed ceiling is reproduced on the book’s cover.
Gladys has covered a total of 46 diplomatic missions in her book, either as residences, chanceries or both. The project took her approximately 18 months to complete. The photography took two gruelling weeks, during which time up to five embassies were captured in a day, the most memorable experience being the six hours spent in the Pakistani embassy. “The diplomat and his family were most welcoming,” she said. “They laid out the dining table for us and we spent hours chatting with them. They were indeed the most hospitable ones.”
The book not only captures enchanting designs and eclectic architectural styles of the foreign mission’s buildings, but also introduces one to the cultures of these countries. And for the
first time ever, the high security gates of Delhi’s marvellous embassies have tendered an unrestricted entry to the aam aadmi, an opportunity available only to a select few.
Delhi’s Diplomatic Domains, Full Circle, R3,499.