What We Seek to Uncover

A brief description of our Travel Fellowship titled: Indian Utopianism in the Modern Age: Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh and Roger Anger’s Auroville.

Our travel fellowship will take us to multiple places in India, notably, Chennai, Auroville, Delhi, Chandigarh, and Amritsar. Our specific experiential inquiry will be focused on the ideals of utopia in Chandigarh and Auroville. To understand why we chose these two specific cities, one has to return to the history and etymology of utopia. 

Arguably, the term was coined by Thomas More in 1516 in his seminal book of the same name. Derived from Greek, the word is portentously ambiguous — its literal reading denoting “good place”, but its phonetic prefix “eû” denoting a no-place, or an impossibility. Throughout history then, our quest for utopia has been commonly linked with our innate desire as humans aspiring toward progress. Indeed, in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891), Oscar Wilde writes that “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country in which humanity is always landing … progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

Borne out of the independence of a post-war India and the partition of Punjab, at the behest of then-Indian Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Le Corbusier — mostly known as an architect than an urban planner — sought to create a version of utopia based on his ideals of modernism on the plains of Punjab. Le Corbusier sought to build a utopian city centred around the vehicle — his ideal embodiment of human technological and intellectual progress. Of course, his ideals of modernist architecture also informed the style of state buildings and housing — themselves towering monuments of béton brut. For Corbusier, and arguably, the Indian government, the ideals of modernism in urban planning and architecture were quite literally, a way to build something positive out of the destruction of the war from the past decade. Thus, we want to ask if the city’s inhabitants have bought — and indeed, lived — into Le Corbusier’s idea of Utopia, 70 years after its conception.

In reaction to the crass worship of modernity in Corbusier’s Chandigarh, another city (a town actually) called Auroville was established by a figure called Mirra Alfassa — known to the townsfolk as “The Mother”. Planned by architect Roger Anger (himself a product of the architectural modernism movement), Auroville is ostensibly a socialist utopia, “a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities […] to realise human unity”. Indeed, it’s a town without any central currency, operating an almost completely agrarian society which its inhabitants upkeep. Its ideals fly in the face of Chandigarh’s with its focus on individual autonomy, self-knowledge, and spiritual life — religious or otherwise — all while rejecting emotional and psychological dependence on technology. Whether the people living there have aspired to this ideal of a romanticised, almost socialist community in the past four decades, remains to be seen.

As indicated by the title of our Travel Fellowship, our project is not only about utopia. While the idea and questions of utopia will figure heavily into our inquiry (and is possibly even the frame of our inquiry), there are many other aspects of our project that should not be overlooked. For example, how religion of these cities are practiced and differ from one another are also worth looking into. Of particular interest is Amritsar, which also lies on the plains of Punjab, but has been indicated to us as a completely different city — at least in religious ideals — when compared to Chandigarh. The personal lives of the architects that planned these cities are also of immense interest to the architectural enthusiasts (for some, more than just enthusiasm) within us. Le Corbusier for example, is perhaps one of the most illustrious figures in architectural modernism, but is also marred by his ideas on race. Finally, India is a country that constantly seeks progress, as evidenced by its “Smart Cities Mission” and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). These, we figure, will also feature in our project as potential comparisons and ways forward in the conclusions that we might arrive at during our Travel Fellowship.

As I type this, I realise I risk portraying our Travel Fellowship as an academic endeavour. However, I must insist that we’ve never had such ambitions. Rather, what drove the undertaking of this Travel Fellowship was an immense interest in India, architecture, and urban planning as a whole. While I do not discount the possibility of this travel experience being explored further as an academic pursuit, our intention, at least for now, will be to explore what these cities in our own way by experiencing it through photography, word, and sound.