AR. SD SHARMA THREE GENERATIONS IN CONVERSATION
Livingetc India|November 2020
The unsung hero of Chandigarh, Shivdatt Sharma’s life story is like the screenplay of a movie. From the Partition of India to a front-line participant in birthing the City Beautiful, the modernist architect ‘hero’ has seen and done it all.
Maria Louis
Back in 1959, as a young refugee, he acquired his National Diploma in Architecture and enrolled himself in the team working on the Capitol project. Sharma got the opportunity to assist Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in creating the new city’s landmarks, and was awarded the task of completing Le Corbusier’s museum after the untimely death of the legendary Swiss-French architect.

The six decades of his career has spanned varied experiences. During the formative period, from 1963-73, he was exposed to Indian Modernism in the very crucible where it was being developed. From 1973-79, Sharma worked as chief architect for ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation). After opting for voluntary early retirement to work in Abuja, the new capital of Nigeria, the coup that occurred there caused him to return to Chandigarh to set up his own practice in 1980. Since then, he has mentored many young architects – including his son Sangeet and grandson Shivansh, apart from his daughter-in-law Purnima.

SD Sharma’s conversation with Sangeet and Sangeet’s tête-à-tête with Shivansh throw light on the impact of this hero’s life and work on Indian architecture in general and Chandigarh in particular.

SANGEET INTERVIEWS HIS FATHER, SD SHARMA

Let’s go back to your experience of the Partition. How has it shaped your life and ours?

Partition was a painful time, and I experienced it when I was only 18 years old. The tearing apart of the country, leaving our homes in Pakistan and coming to a new place was a trauma that my family and I and people of that era suffered. It brought a lot of grief, but it also inculcated a sense of belonging and brotherhood amongst the family and our countrymen.

I was the eldest and had to shoulder the responsibilities of my parents and upbringing of my six siblings. Having been through these trying times, I developed resilience and power to absorb. It brought us to a new place, city and situation, and fighting against odds was a norm. This continued till late life. As for you and the family, we encountered tough times and dealing with situations seeped in us all.

What were your inspirations and influences as you grew up?

Living in a small city which is now in Pakistan, the rustic environment around me shaped much of my aesthetics. The Rangoli patterns, mud walls, courtyards and ambulatories, tiny openings in the walls – small yet so geometrical – all had an impact on me. The women moving in line to fetch water with a mud pot on the head also has geometry.

How and why did you choose to become an architect?

There was no choice. An opportunity came as an advertisement, and I applied. Most of my higher education was acquired after being in the job. I went to Milan to study, and built myself for this profession in my way, on my terms. My contemporary colleagues of first-generation Indian architects and I were the trend setters. We all worked and learnt simultaneously. There were hardly any schools of architecture, except for a diploma in Delhi where most of us were initiated. Working and assimilating was the norm. I think we were fortunate because we had the masters working in India at that time.

Your first encounter with Le Corbusier was...?

It was a wonderful opportunity – but at the same time, very scary. I was sceptical if I would be able to deal with the great man. This was in 1963 for the Museum and Art Gallery, in the cultural belt of the city. It was eye-opening to watch the master draw line after line, using coloured pencils for clarity – infusing his philosophy into his sketches. It was only gradually that Corbusier allowed a hard-working and sensitive person to come close to him.

Did your interactions with him gave you a new direction?

Corbusier had neither the patience nor the temperament to teach. Only the people who were sensitive to his philosophy and his approach to poetic spaces, could learn by studying his works. It was highly inspiring and mind boggling to work with him. The most revealing fact was to see the master working with great exactitude. Every rough sketch he did was full of dimensions and detailed descriptions supported by mathematical calculations. Thus, the foremost thing I learnt from him, was to be exact. I also learnt to philosophise personal life, its aim and objectives; life on this planet, our relation with the cosmos, nature…

What was it like to work with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret?

I found Corbusier humorous too, and easy to work with – if he understood the responsive potential of the other. At times, while working, he would doze off for a few seconds (maybe due to the hot weather). Once, he raised his head and asked me if I wanted to kill him – as there was no sign of a cold drink since morning. When I came back after getting some, he picked up something lying on the drawing sheet and asked me what it was. Before I could reply, he said, “It’s my hair, and I won’t give it to you because you will sell it for a million dollars,” and put it in his pocket. One can imagine how self-conscious he was of his greatness!

Chandigarh has been called a Laboratory of Modern Architecture. Do you agree?

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