Author Swapna Liddle’s new book charts the history of Connaught Place, New Delhi’s first shopping district designed and built in accordance with the principles of ‘architectural harmony’.
While the Central Vista and the government buildings were definitely impressive, it was the commercial centre that gave life to the city. Soon after the intention to build a new capital in Delhi had been announced, calls for a distinct shopping centre to be established in Delhi had come, mainly from representatives of the European commercial community of Calcutta. It was suggested that the “Government should in the new city apportionate a part for a shopping centre or district on one of the main roads or ‘Mall’. So that anyone shopping can get all their requirements in one centre”. Firms had also begun to request that sites be allotted to them at reasonable rates, promising that they would put up “suitable buildings worthy of the New Imperial Delhi”. The suggestions and requests received a positive response from the
The Town Planning Committee, in its report of 1913, had earmarked for this purpose an area towards the north of the city, the apex of a triangle which had Government House and Princes’ Park as its two other corners. The layout of this commercial precinct was envisaged as a circle, with the central portion being occupied by a dominant railway terminus. Administrative and municipal offices, the post office, shops and hotels would be grouped in front of this railway station. This idea, however, was abandoned in early 1914, on the grounds of expense, and the station was built further north. The plaza, therefore, became a predominantly commercial centre. The buildings were constructed with private investment, and blocks were sold individually. At the same time, it was decided that in order to ensure that there was architectural harmony and dignity, the complex would be designed in the form of a unified whole, by the government architects—in effect, the architect member of the Imperial Delhi Committee. A preliminary design for the large circle of blocks was conceived by Nicholls, and detailed plans were completed by his successor, Russell.
The design was clearly inspired by majestic crescents, such as Park Crescent in London and The Circus in the town of Bath, though many would criticise the plan for not being as imposing. The buildings were laid in the pattern of an incomplete circle, or as some called it, a horseshoe, consisting of two concentric rings of double-storeyed blocks. In 1927 additional public transport, a trolley bus service, consisting of buses drawing power from overhead electric lines, was introduced in 1934 and ran for a couple of decades, linking Civil Lines via Old Delhi to Connaught Place.
Progress on building the complex was dependent on investors coming forward, and this began to pick up pace only in the 1920s. Blocks were built at an uneven rate, consistent only with when and where places were sold. Half of the premises set aside for commercial spaces in the inner circle had been disposed of by 1926, and work had begun on one of the blocks. By the following year, all the premises in the inner ring had been taken up, and construction work on two large blocks was progressing fast. Tenants moved into shops in two of the large blocks in 1927-28, and in 1929-30, three more blocks were constructed.
The ten blocks of the outer ring, Connaught Circus, included the buildings of large offices and institutions, such as the Statesman newspaper, and the Burmah Shell Oil Company. Also in this location was Scindia House, originally bought by the Maharaja of Gwalior, who intended it to be office space for Scindia Potteries. Soon after, however, he had second thoughts about the soundness of the investment and sold it to Sobha Singh, one of the contractors of New Delhi, who had made many other investments in property around the capital. The name, “Scindia House”, which had already been entered into various documents, continued.
Another of Sobha Singh’s investments in Connaught Place was a building for a theatre on a 3.44 acre site. Plans were approved in 1930, and it was noted that the lessee proposed to “equip the site with a spacious and elaborate building at an estimated cost of six lakhs of rupees, which will provide besides the theatre, a cinema and a Rink Hall with gardens, shops, etc.” The theatre building was completed in 1932 and came to be famous as Regal, a theatre that staged plays as well as screened films, and was managed by Sobha Singh himself. It aimed to attract an upmarket clientele with its six exclusive boxes and its bar. The building also housed high-end shops and restaurants.
Other movie theatres were built soon after. Plaza in 1933, Odeon in 1940 and Rivoli in 1941. While these halls mostly screened English language films, one theatre was specifically opened for Indian films. This was the Raisina Theatre, on Irwin Road (Baba Kharak Singh Marg), set up in 1938 by the Seth brothers. Interestingly, there was at least one, probably temporary, cinema that predated these theatres. In the Delhi Directory of 1929-30, we find listed the Prince of Wales Cinema in Talkatora Garden. The garden was a historic place, located north of the Viceregal Estate.
The commercial spread reached beyond the main blocks of Connaught Place, into nearby areas too. Gole Market, constructed in the early 1920s by the government, was the first market to be built in New Delhi. In 1928-29, a private firm built a row of shops nearby, at the junction of Baird Road (Bangla Sahib Road) and Lady Hardinge Road (Shaheed Bhagat Singh Marg). Parliament Street, which lay off Connaught Place, was on the other hand characterised more by institutions and offices. Interestingly, it was known as “Parliament Street” even in the 1920s, though the building after which it was named, was still called Council House. This important road was to see the construction of several institutional buildings. The Imperial Bank of India opened a branch here on
1 January 1926, and Reuters moved into its new building on this road in 1928. Two large blocks of flats, facing each other, were also built on this street. Broadcasting House, housing the studios of All India Radio, was built later, in 1943.
Narain Singh, another of the contractors for the New Delhi construction, had invested in a plot of land just under eight acres, on Queen’s Way. Here, he and his son Ranjit Singh, built New Delhi’s first large hotel, the Imperial, which opened in 1936. Designed in an Art Deco style by the architects C.G. and F.B. Blomfield, it was a departure from both the Lutyenesque style evident in the Central Vista, and the Neo-Classical of Connaught Place. The interiors were lavishly furnished, with the best materials from around the world. The Vicerene, Lady Willingdon, had reportedly taken a personal interest, picking materials at the leading shops in London.
A guidebook of the early 1940s described Connaught Place as “indeed the most fashionable shopping centre of and the most crowded spot in New Delhi, the stronghold of leading business houses, the seat of prominent social institutions, and what is more, undoubtedly the most progressive part of the most progressive town in the country”.
Extracted with permission from ‘Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi’, by Swapna Liddle, published by Speaking Tiger