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A City Cannibilizes Itself:




It's a whodunit that could confound even a Sam Spade or a Maigret.

Investigations have led nowhere and the plot is thickening by the day as Chandigarh's best known architects go for each other's throats, accusing each other of smuggling out precious Le Corbusier artefacts to western auction houses. And as the air gets murkier, the Chandigarh administration,  entrusted with preserving and protecting Le Corbusier's legacy, flails in the dark.

It is three years since the story broke about how symbols and artefacts created by Le Corbusier, the celebrated French architect who designed Chandigarh - the Capital of Punjab -  and his associate, Pierre Jeanneret, were picked up by canny French collectors and sold to auction houses like Christie's and Bonhams. Several fact-finding and heritage committees later, Corbusier artefacts continue to vanish from the city with surprising ease.

In February, and again in August this year, Corbusier artefacts were put up at two auctions by the Paris-based Artcurial and Bonhams respectively. Then, somebody stirred the hornet's nest in Chandigarh.

The one who set things off was the comfortably retired, 87-year-old M.N. Sharma, who has the distinction both of being Chandigarh's first chief architect and one of the few surviving architects who had worked with Corbusier in the '60s.

Sharma suddenly shot off a letter to the administrator of the union territory with the grave allegation that Kiran Joshi, a former professor of the Chandigarh College of Architecture, was the source of some original drawings of Le Corbusier's works sold at the Artcurial auction in February. (Joshi has been engaged by the Chandigarh administration to prepare a dossier accompanying an application for UNESCO World Heritage Status for Chandigarh, and therefore had access to original Corbusier drawings lying in the record rooms of Chandigarh's architecture department.)

Sharma's letter states that Joshi's ‘action' was brought to his notice by one Papillaut Remi, a representative of the Le Corbusier Foundation in Paris, on the latter's visit to India in February

This dramatic allegation resulted in two inquiry committees being formed. One, headed by a subdivisional magistrate, has given its report, which is still under wraps; the other is yet to do so. But the story gets curiouser. It turns out that in the very same Artcurial sale, there were two items attributed to Sharma himself. One is a photograph of Jane Drew, a Corbusier associate who worked on the Chandigarh project with him, the other a photograph of a paper collage made by Sharma of symbols of Chandigarh. Sharma dismisses this as irrelevant, pointing out that the originals of both these items lie with him. .

However, a very stung Joshi has seized on their inclusion in the auction. She has also pointed out that the auction's catalogue attributes a set of drawings of various buildings in Chandigarh to "the private collections of former collaborators and associates of Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret" and has demanded that the administration find out who supplied them. In her detailed reply to one of the inquiry committees,

Joshi has questioned how photographs could be taken of original works lying in Sharma's house without his knowledge.

She has also imputed that Sharma, during his tenure as chief architect, helped himself to drawings by Corbusier, and two Corbusier paintings of tapestries in the high court in Chandigarh that feature in the Artcurial catalogue. She has also stressed their value, saying that "against an estimated price of 5,000 to 7,000 euros each, one of the pieces fetched 14,026 euros (about Rs 10 lakh) even before the auction."

Moreover, she has questioned Sharma's claim that several original signed drawings/ sketches in his possession were gifted to him by Corbusier, when he was a junior architect on his team. "He should be asked to submit proof that these were indeed personal gifts to him by Corbusier and do not constitute stolen government property," she has written.

Sitting in his sprawling bungalow designed by him in Corbusier's trademark minimalist style, Sharma flatly denies that he has sold any Corbusier artefacts in his possession. He goes on to argue, however, that it is no crime if he did, since they are his private property. "But to take old drawings that are the property of the administration and pass them on to auction houses, like Joshi has done, is unpardonable," he says.

Meanwhile, two former principals of the Chandigarh College of Architecture, a favourite haunt of French collectors who have been picking up furniture designed by Corbusier or Jeanneret at routine auctions of ‘condemned' furniture by the college, are also trading allegations. At an auction held in 1999 when professor I.J.S. Bakshi (who, incidentally, is Joshi's husband) was principal, Eric Touchaleaueme, a French collector, bought up most of the items on offer.

Some auction committee members, among them the then vice principal of the college, Rajnish Wattas, have since alleged that Bakshi was particularly interested in selling the items to Touchaleaueme. While denying these allegations, Bakshi has levelled his own - that in 2008, Wattas, who was then principal, auctioned 55 hostel beds designed by Corbusier for a mere Rs 10,000, ostensibly to oblige a mysterious third party.

As all this plays out, the Chandigarh administration, sitting pretty on its inquiry reports, offers little clarity. In a half-hearted attempt to stall the February sale at Artcurial, it had sent an indignant fax message to the auction house, asking for the sale to be halted, and for a full disclosure of the sources of the artefacts. The auction house did not oblige, pointing out that the letter had not been signed by anyone, and was not on official letterhead. A three-year-old exercise to make an inventory of all heritage items lying in government departments and elsewhere in Chandigarh has been just as inadequate.

Says Wattas, who at one time headed the committee in charge of this: "Our committee was toothless, and we lacked a legal framework to define what heritage items are." Curiously, he adds: "No one, for instance, knew what the Frenchies would like."

At his suggestion, a larger, more powerful committee was set up, but it never met. He, like Sharma and Joshi, feel the administration should clear the air by making its inquiry report into the latest round of allegations public and take action against the guilty. Easier said than done. Finance secretary Sanjay Kumar says that he is yet to read it since it is a voluminous document.

Till then, speculation mounts and Chandigarh's chatterati are in full voice.

As for Corbusier's legacy, it's clearly for sale.


[Courtesy: Outlook]

October 10, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Raj (Canada), October 10, 2010, 1:11 PM.

India is number one in institutionalized corruption. Means every level and field of the society wants it's cut. I went to P.A.U. to see my old professors and was told that even the post of janitor is auctioned by authorities and piece of the cut is distributed from bottom to the top.

2: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), October 10, 2010, 4:52 PM.

Raj, now that's privatization that would make even the most conservative and rabid Republican proud.

3: Gurteg Singh (New York, USA), October 10, 2010, 6:54 PM.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a story in the Chandigarh Tribune regarding the sale of M.D. seats in the prestigious PGI, Chandigarh. For almost Rs. 10 million, you can buy admission for a Post-Graduate course in medicine. This course is supposed to produce top-notch doctors specializing in various fields.

4: Taran (London, United Kingdom), October 11, 2010, 8:24 AM.

I do not see anything new in this. In India we do not have any regard whatsoever for our history. Indians will go to any length to sell their pride and honour. It is a well proven fact. I have seen more of the artefacts, prizes, trophies - you name it - outside India than anywhere in India.

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