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Book Review : A Guide to Indian Architectural Jewels

October 23, 1986|PRATAPADITYA PAL | Pal is senior curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. and

The Indian Style by Raymond Head (University of Chicago: $29.95)

The bungalow has remained so familiar a feature of Southern California architecture that the region is often referred to as the "bungalow land." Few occupants of California bungalows are probably aware that not only does the term derive from Bangla, the Bengali expression for the traditional mud-and-thatch buildings of undivided Bengal on the Indian subcontinent, but the form as well. The British first encountered these simple structures in the hot and humid plains of Bengal in the 18th Century, not only did they adopt the form for local use but also transplanted it to England from where it finally found its way to Southern California.

Such and other tasty morsels of information about the Westward migration of Indian architectural ideas and motifs fill the pages of "The Indian Style" by Raymond Head. Like many other books about India, this too was probably published to cash in on the Festival of India, but it is a welcome addition indeed. Head writes with a light touch, which should make this book entertaining for the non-specialists as well as those interested in the history of architecture. While the book is adequately illustrated in duotone, one wishes the publishers had been a little more generous and included some color reproductions.

Flaunting Their Riches

Appropriately, the author begins the fascinating story of the West's flirtation with the Indian style in late 18th-Century England where the nouveau riche "nabobs" of the East India Company were indulging in an orgy of mansions and estates to flaunt their newly acquired riches and to live out their last days evoking their rapaciously luxurious lives in India. As early as 1788, the Guildhall in London received a face lift when the architect George Dance "Hindu-ized" the gothic facades, in the same year his colleague Samuel Pepys Cockerell designed Daylesford House in Gloucestershire for Warren Hastings.

In contrast to the simple elegance of Daylesford, Sezincote, also in Gloucestershire and designed by Cockerell in 1805, is a splendid example of the richness and extravagance that India can conjure up despite the country's abject poverty. Such buildings as well as that jewel of the Indian style, the Brighton Pavilion, are well known, but Head also discusses many other examples that are less familiar but no less exciting.

The lonely ruins of the Gate of Negapatam at Novar, Scotland, built by Sir Hector Munro in the 1790s, the imposing Chateau Vaissier, near Lille, France, or the Museum of Decorative Arts in Budapest are revelations to this reviewer. Particularly enjoyable is Head's discussion of the abiding influence of the Indian style in Continental Europe and the United States as a result of the Brighton Pavilion designed by John Nash for the Prince of Wales and finished in 1821. By 1850, several American architects such as Leopold Eidlitz, William H. Ranlett and Henry Austin, to name a few, were busy borrowing ideas from the Brighton Pavilion or introducing Indian details with or without restraint for many East Coast patrons including circus owner P. T. Barnum.

As a matter of fact, the most enlightening aspect of the book is Head's account of the influence of the Indian style in the United States. Not only should this considerably enhance the appeal of the book for American readers, but it may help to renew the public's interest in exotic buildings that still stand on the East and West coasts.

A Denver Theater

All too often, such buildings are mercilessly demolished in the name of progress and modernization, usually a thin disguise of the developer's greed. One such casualty was the Broadway Theater in Denver, which opened to the public in 1895. Only from photographs can we now glimpse Frank E. Edbrooke's dramatic and highly original use of Mogul elements, as stated by Head. Indeed, Head's discussion of the almost bizarre use of Indian architectural and decorative forms to create movie halls across the United States in the '20s is yet another welcome aspect of the book.

Alas, many of these no longer exist but, those that survive, such as William Speth's Aladdin Theater, also in Denver, or the fabulous Loew's 175th Street, New York, designed by Thomas Lamb, will hopefully continue to "transport one in the twinkling of an eye into an ethereal land of make-believe, where the fantastic tales of Arabian Nights will come to life."

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